Five epic poems from around the world

April is Poetry Month! So I will be sharing lots of poetry suggestions to help you find more poetry that you enjoy.

Like most forms of art, poetry is subjective and very personal. It can take time to find what you like. I want to remind you that you don’t have to like the poetry that people say you should, but I would encourage you to keep exploring poetry until you find what you enjoy.


For this week, I wanted to focus on epic poems. Epic poems are very long narrative poems, so basically a story told in verse. They often follow the typical hero or journey arc, but can be on any theme.

I think one of the most well-known epic poems in the western world would be The Odyssey or The Iliad by Homer. But there are so many more than that, and from many different parts of the world.

My last post talked about some of the most influential epic poems and for this post I want to focus on some lesser known, but fascinating, epic poems. I’ve included examples from around the world to show how diverse the options are, and also because it seems like most areas of the world have a history of epic poems.

Personally, I wonder if epic poems were common in the past because they were an easier way to share and remember the stories orally due to the rhythm, structure, and rhyming. I imagine it could be similar to how we memorize song lyrics.

I know for most of human history storytelling was primarily oral and any kind of written content was limited to “elites”, those either with lots of money, power or part of a religious order.

It’s amazing to think of how much more accessible the written word is today. Anyone can put their thoughts down on paper (or a digital document) and share it with anyone else. I think that’s beautiful.

I know nowadays epic poems are rarely the form of choice, but epic poems can be found in the literature of most cultures throughout history. And today I want to share with you a few that you might not know or realize were a poem.

Photo by areej fateyma on Unsplash

Five epic poems from around the world

Here’s a list of five epic poems from around the world.

  1. Beowulf by Anonymous / Unknown (975-1025 CE)
  2. Shahnameh by Ferdowsi (977-1010 CE)
  3. The Five Great Epics by Tamil Jains and Tamil Buddhists (no specific individuals) (5th-10th century CE)
  4. Ramakien (13th century)
  5. The Song of Kiều by Du Nguyên (1820)

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve listed them in the general order of when they were “published”.

Beowulf (975-1025 CE)

by Anonymous / Unknown

  • Year Published:975-1025 AD
  • Language: Old English
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, fantasy, poetry, adventurous, medium-paced
  • One of the most often translated and important works of Old English

Composed toward the end of the first millennium, Beowulf is the elegiac narrative of the adventures of Beowulf, a Scandinavian hero who saves the Danes from the seemingly invincible monster Grendel and, later, from Grendel’s mother. He then returns to his own country and dies in old age in a vivid fight against a dragon. The poem is about encountering the monstrous, defeating it, and then having to live on in the exhausted aftermath.

Links:

Shahnameh (977-1010 CE)

(Persian: شاهنامه, ‘The Book of Kings’, also transliterated Shahnama)
by Ferdowsi

  • Year Published: 977-1010 CE
  • Language: Persian
  • Storygraph Categories:
    nonfiction, classics, history, poetry, challenging, informative, reflective, slow-paced
  • One of the longest epic poems in the world, and the longest written by a single individual
  • Considered a literary masterpiece and important to Persian literature

Among the great works of world literature, perhaps one of the least familiar to English readers is the “Shahnameh: ThePersian Book of Kings,” the national epic of Persia. This prodigious narrative, composed by the poet Ferdowsi between the years 980 and 1010, tells the story of pre- Islamic Iran, beginning in the mythic time of Creation and continuing forward to the Arab invasion in the seventh century. As a window on the world, “Shahnameh” belongs in the company of such literary masterpieces as Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” the plays of Shakespeare, the epics of Homer- classics whose reach and range bring whole cultures into view. In its pages are unforgettable moments of national triumph and failure, human courage and cruelty, blissful love and bitter grief.

Links:

The Five Great Epics (5th-10th century CE)

(Tamil: ஐம்பெரும்காப்பியங்கள் Aimperumkāppiyaṅkaḷ)
by Tamil Jains and Tamil Buddhists (no specific individuals)

  • written over the 5th-10th century CE
  • Language: Tamil
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, literary, poetry, adventurous, slow-paced
  • Are a source of historical information on the Tamil people, including their society, religion, culture and academic life

Names of all five epics:
1. Cilappatikāram 
2. Manimekalai
3. Cīvaka Cintāmaṇi
4. Valayapathi 
5. Kundalakesi

Cilappatikāram Summary

One of the world’s masterpieces, The Cilappatikaram (5th century ce) by Ilanko Atikal is India’s finest epic in a language other than Sanskrit. It spells out in unforgettable verse the problems that humanity has been wrestling with for a long time: love, war, evil, fate and death.

The Tale of an Anklet is the love story of Kovalan and Kannaki. Originating in Tamil mythology, the compelling tale of Kannaki—her love, her feats and triumphs, and her ultimate transformation to goddess—follows the conventions of Tamil poetry and is told in three phases: the erotic, the heroic and the mythic. This epic ranks with the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as one of the great classics of Indian literature and is presented for the first time in a landmark English verse translation by the eminent poet R. Parthasarathy, making it accessible to a wider audience.

Links:

Ramakien (13th century)

(Thai: รามเกียรติ์, ’Glory of Rama’; sometimes also spelled Ramakian)

  • Year Published: 13th century
  • Language: Thai
  • One of Thailand’s epic poems and
  • It is considered Thailand’s version of the Ramayana as it shares most of same the tales, but has been adjusted to the culture of Ayutthaya

Ramakien tells the story of the battle between Tosakanth (king of the demons) and a human, King Rama. Tosakanth kidnaps Queen Sida, wife of King Rama, with the hope that she will fall in love with him. The battle over Queen Sida has Tosakanth and his relatives and friends on one side, against King Rama, his loyal brother Phra Lak and an army of monkey warriors, including Hanuman the demi-god white monkey.

Links:

The Song of Kiều (1820)

The original title in Vietnamese is Đoạn Trường Tân Thanh (斷腸新聲, “A New Cry From a Broken Heart”), but it is more commonly known as Truyện Kiều (傳翹, “Tale of Kiều”)
by Du Nguyên

  • Year Published: 1820
  • Language: Vietnamese (written in Chữ Nôm – Chinese characters)
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, poetry, emotional, reflective, sad, medium-paced
  • Most famous Vietnamese poem and a Vietnamese literature classic

A stunning new translation of the legendary Vietnamese epic poem, now for the first time in Penguin Classics

Considered the greatest literary achievement in Vietnamese, The Song of Kieu tells the story of the beautiful Vuong Thuy Kieu, who agrees to a financially profitable marriage in order to save her family from ruinous debts, but is tricked into working in a brothel. Her tragic life involves jealous wives, slavery, war, poverty, and time as a nun. Adapted from a seventeenth-century Chinese novel, Jin Yun Qiao, written by an unknown writer under the pseudonym Qingxin Cairen, author Nguyen Du upended the plot’s traditional love story by conveying the social and political upheavals at the end of the 18th century in Vietnam.

Links:

Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of epic poems.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of what to read. I’d love to know which poems you love or that you would recommend. Let me know in a comment below!

Have you read any of these epic poems, or a part of one? What did you think of it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

But we loved

This is a quote from a poem by Edgar Allan Poe.

Quote by Edgar Allan Poe, ”

Have you read any of Poe’s poetry? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

If you’re interested, you can read a few of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems here.

The Raven and Other Favorite Poems – Summary

The quote is from one of the poems in this book of poems. Here is the book summary:

“With me poetry has been not a purpose, but a passion.”-Edgar Allan Poe.

Containing such famous works as “The Raven”, “Lenore”, “Annabel Lee”, and “To Helen”, this complete collection of poetry by Edgar Allan Poe encapsulates the career of one of the best-known and most read American writers. Laden with tones of loneliness, melancholy and despair, the poetry contained in this volume exerted great influence on the American Romantic and the French Symbolist Movements of the nineteenth century. Today, Poe’s poetry is appreciated for its literary genius, not only because of his command of language, rhythms and dramatic imagery, but also because of its emotional insight into a beautiful and tormented mind. His propensity towards the mysterious and the macabre, as well as an ardent preoccupation with death, has led centuries of scholars and readers to enjoy these poems of love, death, and loneliness.

Copyright © 1845 by Edgar Allan Poe.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

Five influential epic poems

April is Poetry Month! So I will be sharing lots of poetry suggestions to help you find more poetry that you enjoy.

Like most forms of art, poetry is subjective and very personal. It can take time to find what you like. I want to remind you that you don’t have to like the poetry that people say you should, but I would encourage you to keep exploring poetry until you find what you enjoy.


For this week, I wanted to focus on epic poems. Epic poems are very long narrative poems, so basically a story told in verse. They often follow the typical hero or journey arc, but can be on any theme.

I think one of the most well-known epic poems in the western world would be The Odyssey or The Iliad by Homer. But there are so many more than that, and from every corner of the world.

This week I want to focus on some of the most influential epic poems from around the world.

Many historical epic poems tend to reflect religious symbolism from their region or may even be considered a religious text. I find it fascinating to see how interwoven creative expression (like poetry) is with religion throughout history. It makes sense, as religion was a huge part of people’s lives, but I do find our modern society forgets how much art was both a part of religion while also challenging religious views.

The five epic poems shared below are historic and have influenced religions, cultures, people, and literature around the world.

I believe it’s important to understand the context of our world, and part of that is how literature shaped our societies and understanding of the world. You’ll never know everything, but I think it’s important to continue learning about the world, especially areas that are new to you.

So without further ado, here are some very influential epic poems.

Photo by Vaibhav Raina on Unsplash

Five influential epic poems

Here’s a list of five epic poems from around the word.

  1. Gilgamesh by Anonymous / Unknown (18th century BCE)
  2. Ramayana by Vālmīki (~8th century BCE)
  3. The Odyssey by Homer (8th or 7th century BC)
  4. Mahabharata by Vyāsa (3rd century BCE–4th century CE)
  5. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1321)

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve put them in order of when they were “published”. Many of the dates are vague as it’s hard to know exactly when these were written.

Gilgamesh (18th century BCE)

by Anonymous / Unknown

  • Year Published: 18th century BC
  • Language: Akkadian (from Mesopotamia)
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, poetry, adventurous, fast-paced
  • Considered the oldest heroic epic in the world, and a foundational text for heroic sagas and religious texts.

Miraculously preserved on clay tablets dating back as much as four thousand years, the poem of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, is the world’s oldest epic, predating Homer by many centuries. The story tells of Gilgamesh’s adventures with the wild man Enkidu, and of his arduous journey to the ends of the earth in quest of the Babylonian Noah and the secret of immortality. Alongside its themes of family, friendship and the duties of kings, the Epic of Gilgamesh is, above all, about mankind’s eternal struggle with the fear of death.

The Babylonian version has been known for over a century, but linguists are still deciphering new fragments in Akkadian and Sumerian.

Links:

Ramayana (~8th century BCE)

by Vālmīki

  • Year Published: 8th century BCE–3rd century CE
  • Language: Sanskrit
  • Religion: Hinduism
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, poetry, religion, adventurous, challenging, slow-paced
  • One of the largest ancient epics (nearly 24,000 verses)
  • Influenced both Sanskrit poetry and Hindu and Buddhist cultures

The Ramayana is, quite simply, the greatest of Indian epics – and one of the world’s supreme masterpieces of storytelling ‘Almost every individual living in India,’ writes R. K. Narayan in the Introduction to this new interpretation, ‘is aware of the story of The Ramayana. Everyone of whatever age, outlook, education or station in life knows the essential part of the epic and adores the main figures in it – Rama and Sita. Every child is told the story at bedtime . . . The Ramayana pervades our cultural life.’ Although the Sanskrit original was composed by Valmiki, probably around the fourth century BC, poets have produced countless variant versions in different languages. Here, drawing his inspiration from the work of an eleventh-century Tamil poet called Kamban, Narayan has used the talents of a master novelist to recreate the excitement and joy he has found in the original. It can be enjoyed and appreciated, he suggests, for its psychological insight, its spiritual depth and its practical wisdom – or just as a thrilling tale of abduction, battle and courtship played out in a universe thronged with heroes, deities and demons.

Links:

The Odyssey (8th or 7th century BC)

by Homer

  • Year Published: 8th or 7th century BC
  • Language: Homeric Greek
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, poetry, adventurous, slow-paced
  • Considered one of the most significant works of the Western canon, with re-imaginings continuing to be produced till today.

The epic tale of Odysseus and his ten-year journey home after the Trojan War forms one of the earliest and greatest works of Western literature. Confronted by natural and supernatural threats – ship-wrecks, battles, monsters and the implacable enmity of the sea-god Poseidon – Odysseus must test his bravery and native cunning to reach his homeland and overcome the obstacles that, even there, await him.ody

Links:

Mahabharata (3rd century BCE–4th century CE)

by Vyāsa

  • Year Published: 3rd century BCE–4th century CE
  • Language: Sanskrit
  • Religion: Hinduism
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, fantasy, historical, emotional, informative, reflective, medium-paced
  • The longest epic poem known at over 200,000 individual verse lines ( approximately 10x the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined)
  • One of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India revered in Hinduism (the other is Ramayana)

Dispute over land and kingdom may lie at the heart of this story of war between cousins the Pandavas and the Kouravas but the Mahabharata is about conflicts of dharma. These conflicts are immense and various, singular and commonplace. Throughout the epic, characters face them with no clear indications of what is right and what is wrong; there are no absolute answers. Thus every possible human emotion features in the Mahabharata, the reason the epic continues to hold sway over our imagination. In this superb and widely acclaimed translation of the complete Mahabharata, Bibek Debroy takes on a great journey with incredible ease.

Links:

The Divine Comedy (1321)

by Dante Alighieri

  • Year Published: 1321
  • Language: Italian
  • Religion: Christian / Catholic
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, poetry, challenging, dark, reflective, slow-paced
  • Represents the soul’s journey towards God using Catholic theology and philosophy
  • Considered a key work in Italian literature and one of the greatest works of Western literature.

Belonging in the immortal company of the great works of literature, Dante Alighieri’s poetic masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, is a moving human drama, an unforgettable visionary journey through the infinite torment of Hell, up the arduous slopes of Purgatory, and on to the glorious realm of Paradise; the sphere of universal harmony and eternal salvation.

Now, for the first time, John Ciardi’s brilliant and authoritative translations of Dante’s three soaring canticles The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso have been gathered together in a single volume. Crystallizing the power and beauty inherent in the great poet’s immortal conception of the aspiring soul, The Divine Comedy is a dazzling work of sublime truth and mystical intensity.

Links:

Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of epic poems.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of what to read. I’d love to know which epic poems you love or that you would recommend. Let me know in a comment below!

Have you read any of these poems (or even part of them)? What did you think of it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

I saw thee once

Two poems by Edgar Allan Poe

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

As it’s Poetry Month, here are a few poems by Edgar Allan Poe.

Annabel Lee

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of ANNABEL LEE;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea:
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my ANNABEL LEE;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful ANNABEL LEE;
So that her high-born kinsman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me—
Yes! —that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my ANNABEL LEE.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful ANNABEL LEE,

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful ANNABEL LEE;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful ANNABEL LEE;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

To Helen*

*(Sarah Helen Whitman, a poet loved by Poe.]

I saw thee once—once only—years ago:
I must not say how many—but not many.
It was a July midnight; and from out
A full-orbed moon, that, like thine own soul, soaring,
Sought a precipitate pathway up through heaven,
There fell a silvery-silken veil of light,
With quietude and sultriness and slumber,
Upon the upturn’d faces of a thousand
Roses that grew in an enchanted garden,
Where no wind dared to stir, unless on tiptoe—
Fell on the upturn’d faces of these roses
That gave out, in return for the love-light,
Their odorous souls in an ecstatic death—
Fell on the upturn’d faces of these roses
That smiled and died in this parterre, enchanted
By thee, and by the poetry of thy presence.

Clad all in white, upon a violet bank
I saw thee half reclining; while the moon
Fell on the upturn’d faces of the roses,
And on thine own, upturn’d—alas, in sorrow!
Was it not Fate, that, on this July midnight—
Was it not Fate, (whose name is also Sorrow),
That bade me pause before that garden-gate,
To breathe the incense of those slumbering roses?
No footstep stirred: the hated world all slept,
Save only thee and me. (Oh, heaven!—oh, God!
How my heart beats in coupling those two words!)
Save only thee and me. I paused—I looked—
And in an instant all things disappeared.
(Ah, bear in mind this garden was enchanted!)
The pearly lustre of the moon went out:
The mossy banks and the meandering paths,
The happy flowers and the repining trees,
Were seen no more: the very roses’ odors
Died in the arms of the adoring airs.
All—all expired save thee—save less than thou:
Save only the divine light in thine eyes—
Save but the soul in thine uplifted eyes.
I saw but them—they were the world to me.
I saw but them—saw only them for hours—
Saw only them until the moon went down.
What wild heart-histories seemed to lie enwritten
Upon those crystalline, celestial spheres!
How dark a wo! yet how sublime a hope!
How silently serene a sea of pride!
How daring an ambition! yet how deep—
How fathomless a capacity for love!

But now, at length, dear Dian sank from sight,
Into a western couch of thunder-cloud;
And thou, a ghost, amid the entombing trees
Didst glide away. Only thine eyes remained.
They would not go—they never yet have gone.
Lighting my lonely pathway home that night,
They have not left me (as my hopes have) since.
They follow me—they lead me through the years
They are my ministers—yet I their slave.
Their office is to illumine and enkindle—
My duty, to be saved by their bright light,
And purified in their electric fire,
And sanctified in their elysian fire.

They fill my soul with Beauty (which is Hope),
And are far up in Heaven—the stars I kneel to
In the sad, silent watches of my night;
While even in the meridian glare of day
I see them still—two sweetly scintillant
Venuses, unextinguished by the sun!

Have you read these poems or others by Edgar Allan Poe?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

The Raven and Other Favorite Poems – Summary

I found these poems in this book of poems. Here is the book summary:

“With me poetry has been not a purpose, but a passion.”-Edgar Allan Poe.

Containing such famous works as “The Raven”, “Lenore”, “Annabel Lee”, and “To Helen”, this complete collection of poetry by Edgar Allan Poe encapsulates the career of one of the best-known and most read American writers. Laden with tones of loneliness, melancholy and despair, the poetry contained in this volume exerted great influence on the American Romantic and the French Symbolist Movements of the nineteenth century. Today, Poe’s poetry is appreciated for its literary genius, not only because of his command of language, rhythms and dramatic imagery, but also because of its emotional insight into a beautiful and tormented mind. His propensity towards the mysterious and the macabre, as well as an ardent preoccupation with death, has led centuries of scholars and readers to enjoy these poems of love, death, and loneliness.

Copyright © 1845 by Edgar Allan Poe.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

See the fierce power

This is a quote from the epic poem Song of Kiều by Du Nguyên, translated from the Vietnamese by Timothy Allen.

Quote by Du Nguyên, “See the fierce power of a poem. Learn how words can leap across the years.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt from the book here.

Song of Kiều – Summary

A stunning new translation of the legendary Vietnamese epic poem, now for the first time in Penguin Classics

Considered the greatest literary achievement in Vietnamese, The Song of Kieu tells the story of the beautiful Vuong Thuy Kieu, who agrees to a financially profitable marriage in order to save her family from ruinous debts, but is tricked into working in a brothel. Her tragic life involves jealous wives, slavery, war, poverty, and time as a nun. Adapted from a seventeenth-century Chinese novel, Jin Yun Qiao, written by an unknown writer under the pseudonym Qingxin Cairen, author Nguyen Du upended the plot’s traditional love story by conveying the social and political upheavals at the end of the 18th century in Vietnam.

Copyright © 1820 by Du Nguyên.

Translated from the Vietnamese by: Timothy Allen (2019)

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

Five philosophical poets to make you think

April is Poetry Month! So I will be sharing lots of poetry suggestions to help you find more poetry that you enjoy.

Like most forms of art, poetry is subjective and very personal. It can take time to find what you like. I want to remind you that you don’t have to like the poetry that people say you should, but I would encourage you to keep exploring poetry until you find what you enjoy.


For this week, I wanted to explore the intersection of philosophy and poetry. In my mind, these two often go hand-in-hand, as both explore our experience of the world and our place within society.

Many great thinkers have dabbled in art, and many artists have been great thinkers. Not to mention most religions often have both philosophical thinking and poetic musings/lessons within their religious texts.

Personally, I think some of our biggest concepts are most eloquently expressed in an artistic way. I believe it leaves more room for emotion, expression, and interpretation.

I’ve put together this list of philosophical poets. They are individuals who are known to have discussed large philosophical ideas and spiritual concepts through their poetry.

Most of these poets are from the middle ages (500-1500), as I think it’s important to discuss discuss the diversity of philosophy. A majority of discussions around medieval philosophy focus on the Greek and Roman influences, but there were so many important philosophers around the world with different perspectives and valuable insights.

So this list of philosophical poets is just an introduction to some big thinkers who chose to express their ideas through poetry.

Photo by Sam Moghadam Khamseh on Unsplash

Five philosophical poets

Here’s a list of five philosophical poets to help you think. Each of these authors are known for being thought-provoking and insightful.

  1. Omar Khayyam (1048-1131)
  2. Rumi (1207-1273)
  3. Hafez (1325-1390)
  4. Kabir (1398-1518)
  5. Kahlil GIbran (1883-1931)

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve listed each in order of when they lived.

Omar Khayyam (1048-1131)

  • 1048-1131
  • Genre(s): poetry, philosophy and math
  • Languages: Persian/Farsi and Arabic
  • Key books: Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
  • Key themes: pleasures of life, rationalist philosopher, pessimist

Omar Khayyam was born Ghiyath al-Din Abu’l-Fath Umar ibn Ibrahim Al-Nisaburi al-Khayyámi. Khayyam was a poet, philosopher and mathmatician in 11th-century Persia. Most of his ideas within math and astonomy were not proven until long after his death.

Most of the poetry attributed to Khayyam is in the form of quatrains, which are four lines that form either a stanza or full poem. It’s difficult to confirm the authenticity of the poems attributed to Khayyam, especially as other Persian scholars were known to write in quatrains.

Khayyam rose to fame as a poet in the modern world in 1859 when Edward FitzGerald published his translation of Khayyam’s poetry. However FitzGerald’s translation of the poetry took significant liberties and is not considered an accurate translation.

Links:

Rumi (1207-1273)

  • 1207-1273
  • Genre(s): poet, scholar, theologian, faqih, and mystic
  • Languages: mostly Persian, but also Turkish, Arabic and Greek
  • Masnavi is considered one of the greatest poems in the Persian language
  • Key themes: knowledge of oneness of God through love and external religions observances especially through music, dance and poetry

Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī (Persian: جلال‌الدین محمّد رومی), or often just Rumi, was from 13th century Persia (Greater Iran). He was a poet, an Islamic scholar, a Maturidi theoloian, Hanafi faqih (jurist), and Sufi mystic.

Rumi has been influential across the world, especially in the Middle East, Europe, Central Asia, and South Asia, both in spiritual practices and literature.

His works are still read widely in the Persian-speaking world, and the translations of his work are popular all over the world. He’s often described as the “most popular poet” and even the “best selling poet” in the USA.

Rumi’s poetry focuses on the love that infuses the world. He was especially interested in seeking knowledge of tawhid (oneness of God) through love and believed passionately in using music, poetry, and dance as an outward expression of reaching for God. Rumi believed that music could help an individual focus their whole being on the divine, and these ideas are what led to the practice of whirling Dervishes becoming a ritualize form of worship and meditation.

Links:

Hafez – sometimes spelled Hafiz (1325-1390)

  • 1325-1390
  • Genre(s): Lyric poetry, mystic poetry
  • Language: Persian
  • Key books:  The Divān of Hafez (a collection of his remaining poems)
  • Key themes: the beloved, faith, exposing hypocrisy, expressing the ecstasy of divine inspiration

Hafez (sometimes spelled Hafiz) was born Khājeh Shams-od-Dīn Moḥammad Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī (Persian: خواجه شمس‌‌الدین محمد حافظ شیرازی).

He was a Persian lyric poet who has influenced post-14th century Persian writing more than any other Persian author. Many Iranians consider Hafez the pinnacle of Persian literature and his works are still part of everyday life.

Hafez was a Sufi Muslim and wrote in the literary genre of lyric poetry or ghazals. Ghazals are a specific form of Arabic poetry that deals with romantic and spiritual love, and are considered ideal for expressing the ecstasy of divine inspiration.

Hafez is the most popular poet in Iran and most households own a copy of The Divān of Hafez (many use it for fortune telling). His work was first translated into English in 1771 and after that he also influenced many western authors like Thoreau, Goethe, W.B. Yeats, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Links:

Kabir (1398-1518 CE)

  • Estimated to have lived around 1398-1518 CE
  • Genre(s): Mystic poet and saint
  • Language: Sadhukkadi (a mix of Hindi, Bhojpuri, and Punjabi) & Bhojpuri
  • Key themes: critical of organized religions, loving devotion of God

Kabir is a well-known mystic poet from India and is considered an important figure for multiple religions, including Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam and Sufism.

He was critical of religions, especially organized religion. He often questioned the meaningless and unethical practices of all religions. His criticisms focused heavily on the major religions of his country, Hindu and Muslim, while maintaining his own independence from both of those religions.

Throughout his life, he was threatened by both Hindus and Muslims, but when he died both religions claimed him as theirs.

Kabir’s poems were composed with simple words and most were written in Sadhukkadi (a mix of Hindi, Bhojpuri and Punjabi). There are 82 works attributed to Kabir, but the authenticity of these works is still being discussed. It’s possible that changes have happened over time and also that some works attributed to Kabir were actually written by others.

Links:

Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931)

  • 1883-1931
  • Languages: Arabic and English
  • Genre(s): poetry, parables, fables, essays, short stories, novels
  • Key books: The Prophet (philosophical essays)
  • Key themes: religion, free will, the soul, happiness, justice, body/death

Gibran Khalil Gibran (Arabic: جُبْرَان خَلِيل جُبْرَان) is commonly referred to in English as Kahlil Gibran. He was a Lebanese-American poet, writer, philosopher and visual artist.

Gibran is considered one of the most important influences in the Romantic movement within Arabic poetry and literature during the first half of the twentieth century and is still widely celebrated as a literary hero in Lebanon.

Gibran’s writing spanned different forms and themes. His work has been seen to be innovative and breaking away from the forms of the past literary styles. The Arabic vocabulary used in his works were considered more colloquial or ordinary language, rather than the traditional or classic Arabic used in literature.

He is best known for his book The Prophet, a collection of philosophical essays, which has become one of the best-selling books of all time. The Prophet became popular in the 1960’s and was widely influential on musicians and artists of that era (including The Beatles, Elvis Presley, David Bowie, and Johnny Cash).

Links:

Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of philosophical poets.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of authors and books to read. I’d love to know which philosophical poets you love or that you would recommend. Let me know in a comment below!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

A woman’s world

Excerpt from Song of Kiều by Du Nguyên

Photo by Tri Vo on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the epic poem Song of Kiều by Du Nguyên, translated from the Vietnamese by Timothy Allen.

Kiều now brims with a strange melancholy
till tiny pearls run down her cheeks.

‘A woman’s world is weaved from woe,’ she says,
’and the only thing we dream of is despair.
God rips off our wings. God makes us die.
Đạm Tiên, once a wished-for wife,
is now a bony basket of wormy earth.
Those boys are gone that used to hold her,
and the promises they made are fallen to silence.
Since no one is left to mourn for her,
I will burn these few sticks of incense
to mark how we have chanced upon her grave.
Perhaps she can see us, from her Yellow Springs.’

Then Kiềum murmurs a heartfelt prayer
and stoops to lay some grass upon the spot.
Twilight falls across the rotting weeds
and an evening breeze rustles the barley reeds.
She draws a pin from her hair and carves
a perfect four-line poem on a nearby tree.
She steps back. She clears her mind,
then melts into tears, like a squall of sudden rain.
She pictures herself alone on a dark night,
where shapeless horrors crowd the road ahead.
She is a petal on flowing water, a water fern
catching and drifting along a swollen stream.

Vân laughs and says: ‘My sister, how silly you are
to waste hot tears on a long-dead stranger.’

Kiều answers: ‘But since this earth began,
Cruel fate has cursed all women.
I look on Đạm Tiên’s mossy tomb,
and see my own, in days to come.’

Quan says: ‘So this is the real story.
You talk of Đạm Tiên, but weep for yourself.
Look, it’s getting dark. There is a chill in the air,
and we still have a long walk home.

‘When stars die, their fire is gone,’
says Kiều, ‘but a dwindling light shines on.
My soul has found its mate in this gloomy place.
Let’s wait a while. I want to meet her ghost.’

Before they can answer, a tornado swirls up.
It shakes the tree and tears off its leaves,
trailing a strange perfume in its wake.
They look along the path that the wind took
to find it left damp footprints on the moos.

Vân and Quan stare at each other, dumbfounded.

Kiều says: ‘See the fierce power of a poem.
Learn how words can leap across the years.
She is my sister, though I am alive and she is dead.’

Again she takes the pin from her hair
and adds a verse of thanks to Đạm Tiên.
This one is a word picture in the old style,
free from the shackles of rhyme and metre.

Have you read this epic poem?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Song of Kiều – Summary

A stunning new translation of the legendary Vietnamese epic poem, now for the first time in Penguin Classics

Considered the greatest literary achievement in Vietnamese, The Song of Kieu tells the story of the beautiful Vuong Thuy Kieu, who agrees to a financially profitable marriage in order to save her family from ruinous debts, but is tricked into working in a brothel. Her tragic life involves jealous wives, slavery, war, poverty, and time as a nun. Adapted from a seventeenth-century Chinese novel, Jin Yun Qiao, written by an unknown writer under the pseudonym Qingxin Cairen, author Nguyen Du upended the plot’s traditional love story by conveying the social and political upheavals at the end of the 18th century in Vietnam.

Copyright © 1820 by Du Nguyên.

Translated by: Timothy Allen (2019)

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

Were the creator concerned….

This is a quote from the book Songs of Kabir by Kabir, translated from the Hindi by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra.

Quote by Kabir, “Were the Creator Concerned about caste, We’d arrive in the world With a caste mark on the forehead.”

Are you familiar with Kabir’s poetry? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt from the book here.

Songs of Kabir – Summary

Here is the book summary:

Transcending divisions of creed, challenging social distinctions of all sorts, and celebrating individual unity with the divine, the poetry of Kabir is one of passion and paradox, of mind-bending riddles and exultant riffs. These new translations by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, one of India’s finest contemporary poets, bring out the richness, wit, and power of a literary and spiritual master.

Copyright © 1500-1599 by Kabir.

Translated by: Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

says Kabir

Excerpt from Songs of Kabir by Kabir

This is an excerpt from the book Songs of Kabir by Kabir, translated from the Hindi by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra.

Were the Creator
Concerned about caste,
We’d arrive in the world
With a caste mark on the forehead.

If you say you’re a Brahmin
Born of a mother who’s a Brahmin,
Was there a special canal
Through which you were born?

And if you say you’re a Turk
And your mother’s a Turk,
Why weren’t you circumcised
Before birth?

Nobody’s lower-caste;
The lower castes are everywhere
They’re the ones
Who don’t have Rama on their lips.

Kabir says.

I’m waiting for the ferry,
But where are we going,
And is there a paradise anyway?

Besides,
What will I,
Who see you everywhere,

Do there?
I’m okay where I am, says Kabir.
Spare me the trip.

Are you familiar with Kabir’s poetry?
How do you feel about this translation?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Songs of Kabir – Summary

Here is the book summary:

Transcending divisions of creed, challenging social distinctions of all sorts, and celebrating individual unity with the divine, the poetry of Kabir is one of passion and paradox, of mind-bending riddles and exultant riffs. These new translations by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, one of India’s finest contemporary poets, bring out the richness, wit, and power of a literary and spiritual master.

Copyright © 1500-1599 by Kabir.

Translated by: Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

Five modern classic American women poets

Do you want to read more poetry but not sure where to start?

For April, poetry month, I’ll be sharing various poetry recommendations to help you read more poetry.


For this week, I wanted to share five American women poets that are considered classics from the last 100 years or so.

This is the last week of poetry month and me sharing poet recommendations. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series! Please let me know your thoughts in a comment below.

All five of the women poets mentioned below were born in the 1900’s, and unfortunately none of them are still with us today. Each of them are significant both for their literary contributions and their impact on society.

Five women poets

Here’s a list of five women poets who lived in the last 100 years or so:

  1. Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)
  2. Sylvia Plath (1923-1963)
  3. Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
  4. Audre Lorde (1934-1992)
  5. Mary Oliver (1935-2019)

I’ve listed them in order of when they were born. Keep reading to find out more about each one.

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)

  • 1917-2000
  • Won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950
    • First African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize
  • Won the Robert Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement in 1989

Gwendolyn Brooks was an American poet, author, and teacher. She is considered one of the most widely read and influential poets from American poetry in the 1900s.

Brooks started writing poetry young, and by 16 she had already written and published around 75 poems!

She born in the south, but was a lifelong resident of Chicago. Living in Chicago was a huge part of her life and greatly influenced her work.

Her work often centers around the lives of ordinary people, with characters commonly a reflection of her life in the inner city of Chicago. She also conveyed a political consciousness through her work, with reflections of the civil rights activism from the 1960’s onwards.

Over her life, she received many public recognitions of her work. In 1950, she received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her book Annie Allen, which made her the first African American to ever receive a Pulitzer. She was also inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and became the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, being the first Black woman to achieve either of those.

Links:

Sylvia Plath (1923-1963)

  • 1932 – 1963
  • Credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry
  • Died by suicide when only 30 years old

Sylvia Plath is considered one of the most admired and dynamic 20th century poets. She’s best known for her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar (1963), and her two published collections of poetry, The Colossus and Other Poems (1960) and Ariel (1965).

When Plath was only 30 years old (1963), she died by suicide. She suffered from depression for most of her life and had tried several times to commit suicide. At the time of her death, she already had a significant following in the literary community and has since inspired countless readers and other poets.

In 1956, she married fellow poet Ted Hughes. Their relationship was tumultuous and Plath said he was abusive in her letters. They separated due to Hughes’ affair with another woman.

Horrifically, Plath died by suicide before their divorce was finalized and thus her entire estate and all her written work were inherited by Hughes. When Ariel was published after her death, Hughes changed the arrangement and selection of poems to be included from what Plath had already chosen. He has also admitted to destroying some of her journals and even lost (probably “lost”) another journal and an unfinished novel. He’s been repeatedly condemned for his censoring and controlling of her work.

Links:

Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

  • 1928-2014
  • Died at the age of 86
  • Genre(s): Memoirs and poetry
  • Key books: I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings

She had a far reaching career, both as an entertainer (singer, dancer, actress, composer, and Hollywood’s first Black director), storyteller (writer, editor, essayist, playwright, and poet), civil rights activist (worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X), and educator (as a lifetime professorship at Wake Forest University).

Over her life she wrote 36 books, with her most famous being her series of memoirs. Her book I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, the first in the series of seven memoirs, was incredibly well received and nominated for a National Book Award.

At Bill Clinton’s inauguration she recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” and you can see her inaugural poem recited here. This made her the first poet since Robert Frost (John F. Kennedy in 1961) to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration.

She has received so many medals and public recognition for her work that I’m sure I won’t do it justice, but here’s a short, selective list:

  • Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her book Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie
  • Tony Award for her role in the play Look Away
  • 3 Grammys for her spoken word albums
  • National Medal of Arts given by President Bill Clinton in 2000
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom given by President Barack Obama in 2010
  • Served on two presidential committees (Gerald Ford in 1975 & Jimmy Carter in 19977)

Videos of her performing her poetry

Links:

Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

  • 1934-1992
  • Died at the age of 58
  • Key books:
    Sister Outsider, The Black Unicorn
  • Key Essay:
    The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House

Audre Lorde was a self described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” She includes all these aspects of her identity in how she described herself, because she focused a lot on intersectionality and how each area of her life contributed to her overall experience.

A lot of her efforts were related to social activism, working to confront and address various areas of injustice, including racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia, both through political activist work and as a thought leader. Her written work centered around feminism, lesbianism, illness and civil rights, all of it as an exploration of the black female identity.

She contributed significantly to feminist theory, critical race studies, and queer theory. Her iconic essay “The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House” was an early discussion of the intersectionality of race, class, and gender.

Lorde was very vocal about her issues with the first world/white feminist movement and actively worked to confront race-related issues.

Links:

Mary Oliver (1935-2019)

  • 1935 – 2019
  • Won the National Book Award  and the Pulitzer Prize
  • Her work is inspired by nature

Mary Oliver is a well renown American poet. She was declared America’s best-selling poet in 2007. She also won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (for her 5th collection of poetry called American Primitive).

Most of her work focuses on themes of nature and the natural world. Oliver was influenced by both Whitman and Thoreau, as is seen in her clear and poignant discussions of nature. She’s also been compared to Emily Dickinson, as Oliver’s work leans toward solitude and inner thoughts, with a combination of dark introspection with joyous release.

Mary Oliver would often go for walks for inspiration and to help her writing. She rarely gave interviews and preferred for her work to speak for itself. But in a rare interview she said, “When things are going well, you know, the walk does not get rapid or get anywhere: I finally just stop, and write. That’s a successful walk!”

In the late 1950’s, Oliver met Molly Malone Cook, a photographer, and they became life long partners.

One quote that was all over the internet a while ago was:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

It’s from her poem The Summer Day (you can read it here), and it’s much more about strolling through nature and appreciating the little things than grand adventures.

Links:


Final thoughts

All these women are incredible and I encourage you to check out their work. All of them shaped the literary world and how we view the world.

Have you read any of these poets’ work?

I hope you’re learned something new and maybe discovered a new poet to read. Now that it’s the last week of Poetry month, what new poets did you discover this month?

Who would you add to this list of classic women poets?

I would love to hear your thoughts in a comment below