Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
How many times have you heard someone say, ‘I don’t read poetry. I just don’t get it.’ Or perhaps, ‘Why can’t poets just come out and say what they want to say? Why say something in such a way?’ For many people, poetry is ‘difficult’.
But whilst it’s true that poets like John Donne, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein among many others can present their readers with an intellectual challenge, others – such as the 10 poets listed below – are altogether more accessible to readers. So that’s what this post offers: 10 of the most famous accessible poets writing in English.
For a good anthology of classic poetry – much of it very accessible to the poetry novice or occasional reader – we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here).
1. William Wordsworth.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze …
Of all the English Romantic poets, Wordsworth (1770-1850) was perhaps the most accessible and direct: as his 1800 preface to Lyrical Ballads made clear, he wanted to use the language of ordinary people rather than the more artificial and ‘heightened’ language of the earlier Augustan poets. Wordsworth’s early work written in his twenties and thirties is generally his best; see our pick of his classic poems here.
2. Charlotte Mew.
So I, as I grow stiff and cold
To this and that say Good-bye too;
And everybody sees that I am old
And one fine morning in a sunny lane
Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear
That nobody can love their way again
While over there
You will have smiled, I shall have tossed your hair.
Admired by both the modernist Ezra Pound and the late Romantic Thomas Hardy, Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) is best-remembered for one poem, her narrative poem ‘The Farmer’s Bride’. But in fact she wrote many fine lyrics, such as ‘A Quoi Bon Dire’. Mew writes in a direct, accessible style, although there is something pleasingly ambiguous about many of her lyrics, including this one.
3. Philip Larkin.
One of the most accessible twentieth-century British poets, Larkin (1922-85) once said that deprivation had been for him what daffodils were for Wordsworth: inspiration for great poetry. Although he has a reputation for being a miserable and even misanthropic poet, the best of his work is shot through with genuine human sympathy and a wry, amusing (and amused) outlook. Check out our selection of Larkin’s finest poems for some recommendations.
4. Thomas Hardy.
Not a line of her writing have I,
Not a thread of her hair,
No mark of her late time as dame in her dwelling, whereby
I may picture her there;
And in vain do I urge my unsight
To conceive my lost prize
At her close, whom I knew when her dreams were upbrimming with light
And with laughter her eyes …
The poet who most helped Larkin to develop his mature voice as a poet was Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), who is perhaps better-known as a novelist than he is for his poetry. But he was a prolific poet who reportedly dictated his last poem from his deathbed, and he spent the last three decades of his life almost exclusively concentrating on verse. We recommend this selection for some of Hardy’s classic poems.
5. Christina Rossetti.
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray …
Another Victorian poet, Rossetti (1830-94) was as prolific as Hardy, although her work is far more open to the teachings of Christianity than Hardy’s. Where Hardy offers us a sceptical and sometimes plangent attitude to Christianity, Rossetti is often celebratory. But she is also excellent when writing about a whole range of other things, as her long narrative poem ‘Goblin Market’ demonstrates. We choose ten of her best poems here.
6. John Betjeman.
One of the most popular English poets of the twentieth century, Betjeman (1906-84) summons a world of teashops and tennis matches, a distillation of twentieth-century upper-middle-class life. There’s something charming and comforting about Betjeman’s world, and it’s hardly surprising that he became known as ‘the nation’s teddy bear’. We round up some of Betjeman’s best here.
7. Edward Thomas.
The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.
Sometimes grouped with the Georgian poets – British poets who were active in the second decade of the twentieth century – Thomas (1878-1917) was, in fact, one of a kind, and arguably the greatest nature poet of the first half of the twentieth century (at least). He writes in a direct lyric voice which cuts through poetic rhetoric and deals with his themes with honesty and sincerity, unafraid to confront the less palatable side of nature (it’s worth noting that Ted Hughes called Thomas ‘the father of us all’). You can read some of his best work here.
8. Maya Angelou.
One of the most popular American poets of the last fifty years, Angelou (1928-2014) was an important voice in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and her volumes of autobiography, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, were bestsellers. Her poetry remains popular, partly because of the experiences that Angelou writes about, but also because of her direct and plain-speaking way of depicting her subjects. We suggest some of her best poems here.
9. Wilfred Owen.
Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
The most outstanding English poet of the First World War, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) is widely regarded as the greatest war poet in the English language, full stop. He’s technically a highly skilful poet, employing techniques such as pararhyme to convey the mood of those fighting in the war, and to help put across the pity that he thought was the overriding emotion of WWI. But he also writes about the experiences of soldiers both at the front and back home with a directness that makes his poems carry an instant power. You can read some of his most famous poems here.
10. Emily Dickinson.
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
The American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86) can be frustratingly (or delightfully) elliptical and enigmatic, but some of her descriptions of common phenomena, from her poem about snow to her lyric describing a cat sighting a bird, connect with us instantly and make us ‘see’ these things in a new way. You can explore more of her poems here.
If you enjoyed this pick of the most accessible English poets, you might also be interested in our pick of the best introductions to poetry.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
I think a list of accessible poets without William Stafford is incomplete.
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Nice choices! I’d add William Carlos Williams for my friends who want something accessible, “Paterson” can be tough, but those little snippets of beauty in the imagist poems — they can bring a smile to anyone’s face :)