15 Things You Might Not Know About Your Favorite Poets

English Romantic poet Lord Byron being visited by his muse.
English Romantic poet Lord Byron being visited by his muse.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When we think of poets, too often we imagine posh parlors, stoic sophistication, and austere attitudes. But the lives, hobbies, and eccentricities of some of the world's greatest poets made them much more than titans of the turn of phrase. Here are 15 fun facts about some of your favorite poets.

1. CHARLES BUKOWSKI WAS A CAT PERSON.

portrait of Charles Bukowski
GABRIEL BOUYS, AFP / Getty Images

This transgressive German-American poet was once declared a "laureate of American lowlife" by Time magazine. But Bukowski had a soft spot for felines, and owned a pet cat called Minx. In the poem "My Cats," he wrote, "when I am feeling/low/all I have to do is/watch my cats/and my/courage/returns."

2. ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING'S LAST WORDS WERE FITTINGLY SWEET.

Portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Many of the Victorian-era writer's romantic poems, like "How Do I Love Thee?", were inspired by her beloved husband, poet Robert Browning. And even her death had an air of romance—at 55, she was dying of an undetermined illness (she had spent most of her life in poor health). Browning held her in his arms and asked how she was feeling. Her final word was simply, "Beautiful."

3. PABLO NERUDA PREFERRED TO HANDWRITE HIS POEMS IN GREEN INK.

portrait of Pablo Neruda
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The Pulitzer Prize-winner from Chile favored a fountain pen that he filled with his signature color. It's popularly believed that Neruda, who blended surrealism and politics into his poetry, saw green as the color of hope.

4. IN AN EYEBROW-RAISING DEDICATION PAGE, E.E. CUMMINGS ONCE CALLED OUT THOSE WHO SPURNED HIM.

E.E. Cummings
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Even after releasing a novel, poetry collections, and plays, American writer E.E. Cummings's proposed collection 70 Poems was rejected by 14 publishers. With a loan from his mother, he finally managed to publish the book in 1935, but with two noteworthy revisions. First, he changed its title to No Thanks, a reference to the dismissal letters he'd received. And on its dedication page, Cummings printed a concrete poem—a poem written in the shape of a funereal urn, listing the names of every publisher who had rejected him.

5. SAPPHO MIGHT HAVE BEEN THE ADELE OF HER DAY.

Sappho
Picture Post, Getty Images

This archaic Greek poet is touted as one of the greatest to ever work in the medium. However, ancient texts described her writing as melê, which translates to "songs." Historians still debate how Sappho's works were performed, but this description suggests they were lyrics set to music, meaning Sappho may have been a popular songwriter, more than a poet. It's speculated Sappho's fans copied her lyrics onto papyrus and pottery, unintentionally preserving her talent and verses for thousands of years.

6. SHEL SILVERSTEIN WAS AN AWARD-WINNING SONGWRITER.

A Shel Silverstein poem
Jabiz Raisdana, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Shel Silverstein is best known for his illustrated poetry books for children like Where The Sidewalk Ends and A Light In the Attic, but the American humorist also earned Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations in 1991 for writing the song "I'm Checkin' Out," which was performed by Meryl Streep at the end of the movie Postcards From the Edge. Two decades earlier, he won the Grammy for Best Country Song for penning the playful (if violent) "A Boy Named Sue," which Johnny Cash also won a performance Grammy for.

7. LANGSTON HUGHES MAY HAVE BEEN A KEY INFLUENCE ON MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.

Langston Hughes.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

The popular poet of the Harlem Renaissance and the bold Civil Rights leader were friends who exchanged letters, including one where King told Hughes, "I can no longer count the number of times and places … in which I have read your poems."

Scholars have long explored how this friendship shaped both men. But English professor Jason Miller illuminates striking similarities, which suggest Hughes's poem "I Dream A World" may have inspired King's iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. Hughes wrote, "A world I dream where black or white,/Whatever race you be,/Will share the bounties of the earth/And every man is free." In comparison, King's 1953 speech included, "I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers."

8. FAMED CHICAGOAN GWENDOLYN BROOKS WAS AN INSPIRATION TO ANOTHER YOUNG CHICAGO CREATIVE.

sketch of Gwendolyn Brooks
Burns Library, Boston College, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In an interview early in his career, Kanye West noted that Brooks—the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize, for her portrayal of a young black girl growing up on Chicago's South Side—was one of his favorite writers. West recounted how when he was in grade school, he'd met Brooks at a dinner for local students—she was an educator and longtime advocate for children's education. "They had a dinner and Gwendolyn Brooks was there and everyone was reading their poems," he said. "She said, 'Do you have a poem?' I said [switches to a high-pitched voice], 'No, but I can write one real quick.' I went in the back, wrote a poem, and then read it for her and the 40 staff members."

9. ONE POEM HELPED EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY GAIN BOTH NATIONAL ATTENTION AND A PATRON TO FUND HER EDUCATION.

portrait of Edna St. Vincent Millay
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Growing up on the coast of Maine, Edna was an outgoing tomboy who preferred to be called "Vincent." Her parents had divorced when she was young, and her mother was raising three young girls on her own. They were quite poor, but her mother had long encouraged her writing pursuits, and when Edna was 20, Cora Millay insisted she enter a poem in a contest."Renascence" didn't win, but there was such an outcry from readers and columnists that it gave Edna instant clout. At a reading she gave not long after, one guest was so impressed that she offered to help fund Millay's college education and at age 21, Millay enrolled at Vassar College.

10. ELIZABETH BISHOP REFUSED TO BE INCLUDED IN GENDER-SPECIFIC ANTHOLOGIES.

Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop in 1934, in the Vassar College yearbook.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning Elizabeth Bishop loathed when her gender was mentioned in connection with her talent as a writer. When she was asked in the early '70s if she would allow one of her poems to be included in an anthology called The Women Poets in English, Bishop responded that "(Men and women) do not write differently," adding, "Why not Men Poets in English? Don't you see how silly it is? … I don't like things compartmentalized like that." She echoed this belief throughout her career. "Literature is literature, no matter who produces it."

11. DENIED A DOG, LORD BYRON MADE A BEAR HIS PET.

portrait of Lord Byron
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When the English nobleman was a young, cheeky student at Trinity College in Cambridge, the school had a rule against students keeping dogs. Byron—who so famously loved his Newfoundland, Boatswain, that he had a tomb inscribed with a poem for the dog after its death in 1808—obliged, but instead took advantage of the language and purchased a bear instead, which he would walk around the grounds on a chain leash.

In an 1807 letter to a friend, Byron wrote of his unusual pet, "I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame bear. When I brought him here, they asked me what to do with him, and my reply was, 'he should sit for a fellowship'."

12. AFTER HER DEATH, DOROTHY PARKER'S ASHES SPENT NEARLY 20 YEARS IN A FILING CABINET.

Dorothy Parker
Evening Standard, Getty Images

When poet and satirist Dorothy Parker died in 1967, she left instructions for her entire estate to be left to Martin Luther King, Jr. and for her body to be cremated—she didn't, however, specify where she wanted her ashes interned or scattered. After the executor of her estate failed to claim her ashes from the mortuary, her attorney collected them, put them in a filing cabinet, and left them there until 1987, when a Parker biographer mentioned wanting to visit her grave. Her remains were eventually moved to a memorial garden built by the NAACP (who now controls her estate, following King's death). The plaque above her urn aptly reads, "Excuse My Dust."

13. AFTER HIS UNEXPECTED DEATH, PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY'S WIFE KEPT A GRISLY MEMENTO.

Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley
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This English Romantic was husband to Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. So perhaps it's fitting that when he drowned tragically at 29, Mary held onto his heart, literally. The story goes that the organ did not burn when the rest of his remains were cremated. So his loving widow wrapped it in a silken shroud, and took it with her wherever she went. Nearly 70 years later, Shelley's heart was finally buried in the family vault with the couple's son.

14. EZRA POUND CONCOCTED A PECULIAR PLAN TO CONVINCE T.S. ELIOT TO QUIT HIS DAY JOB.

Ezra Pound in Italy
Ezra Pound
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Ezra Pound was so in awe of fellow American ex-pat T.S. Eliot's 1922 masterpiece "The Waste Land," that he felt the London bank teller should devote himself completely to poetry. Pound even crowdfunded to make it happen, but without consulting Eliot first to see if he'd be game. This impulsive plan sparked a scandal when Eliot wouldn't leave the bank (he stayed in the job for another couple of years, before moving to a publishing house). But Pound was right about his instinct to help foster Eliot's career—20-some years later, Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

15. WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS BELIEVED HIS WORK AS A DOCTOR MADE HIM A BETTER POET.

photo of William Carlos Williams
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While many artists bemoan their survival jobs, Williams relished his. Trained in pediatrics and general medicine, Williams found inspiration in his patients. And in his 1967 autobiography, he aimed to explain how he felt his two jobs served to benefit each other: "They are two parts of a whole. It is not two jobs at all … one rests the man when the other fatigues him."

7 Surprising Facts About Hans Christian Andersen

 Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) is recognized around the world for his beloved books, including The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, The Little Match Girl, The Princess and the Pea, and many others. However, few people know much about the man behind these famous fairy tales—a man who endured many hardships and, by some accounts, transformed his pain into art. Here are seven surprising facts about Andersen’s life and legacy that you won't find in the children's section of a bookstore.

1. Some of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales are autobiographical.

According to scholars, the tale of The Ugly Duckling reflects Andersen’s own feelings of alienation. As a boy, he was teased for his appearance and high-pitched voice, which often made him feel isolated, and he later wrote a story about a boy named Hans who gets made fun of as a child. Much like the ugly duckling, Andersen only later in life became the “swan”—a cultured, world-renowned writer with friends in high places. Andersen even admitted of The Ugly Duckling, “This story is, of course, a reflection of my own life.”

There’s also evidence that Andersen placed his characters in desperate and hopeless situations to reflect his own personal traumas, which included being raised in poverty, losing his father, and having to briefly work in a factory at age 11 to support his mother. Paul Binding, a literary critic who penned a book about Andersen, said the long-lasting appeal of his stories go beyond their authenticity, though. "True, some of Andersen’s most famous stories—The Ugly Duckling, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, even The Little Mermaid—are dramatizations or sublimations of his own dilemmas, but they would not work on us as they do if they did not transcend the personal—in language, in observation and detail, and in intricate but unobtrusive structure—to stand on their own as perfectly wrought artifacts of universal appeal," Binding wrote for The Guardian.

2. Andersen's original version of The Little Mermaid was a lot more depressing than Disney’s take.

Andersen’s Little Mermaid story from 1837 was far darker than the kid-friendly Disney movie it would later inspire. In the original (which you can read online for free here), an unnamed mermaid who falls in love with a prince is offered the chance to take a human form, even though she'll live in perpetual agony and has to have her tongue cut out. The mermaid's goal—besides love—is to gain an immortal soul, which is only possible if the prince falls in love with her and marries her. After the prince marries someone else, however, the mermaid contemplates murdering him, but instead accepts her fate and throws herself into the sea, where she dissolves into sea foam. The mermaid is greeted by spiritual beings who say they'll help her get into heaven if she does good deeds for 300 years. So there’s that, at least.

3. Poor translations may have altered Andersen's image abroad.

According to UNESCO, Andersen is the eighth most-translated writer in the world, trailing right behind Vladimir Lenin. Though his works have been reproduced in more than 125 languages, not all of them have been faithful retellings. From the beginning, there have been many examples of “shoddy translations” that “obliterated” his original stories, according to the writers Diana Crone Frank and Jeffrey Frank in their modern translation of The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen. As a result, Andersen’s reputation beyond Scandinavia was “not as a literary genius but as a quaint 19th-century writer of charming children’s stories,” the pair write.

4. Andersen wore out his welcome while staying with Charles Dickens.

Andersen met his literary hero, Charles Dickens, at an aristocratic party in 1847. They kept in touch, and a decade later Andersen came to stay with Dickens at the British author's home in Kent, England. The visit was meant to last two weeks at most, but Andersen ended up staying five weeks, to the dismay of the Dickens family. On his first morning there, Andersen proclaimed that it was a Danish custom for one of the sons of the household to shave their male guest. Instead of complying, the family set him up with a local barber. Andersen was also prone to tantrums, at one point throwing himself face down on the lawn and sobbing after reading a particularly bad review of one of his books. Once Andersen finally left, Dickens wrote and displayed a note that read, “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks—which seemed to the family AGES!” Dickens stopped responding to Andersen's letters, which effectively ended their friendship.

5. Andersen was terrified of being buried alive.

Andersen had a lot of phobias. He was afraid of dogs. He didn’t eat pork because he worried he would contract trichinae, a parasite that can be found in pigs. He kept a long rope in his luggage while traveling, in case he needed to escape a fire. He even feared he would accidentally be declared dead and buried alive, so before bed each night, he propped up a note that read, “I only appear to be dead.”

6. Andersen may have been celibate his whole life.

Although Andersen lived a long and full life, he struggled with personal relationships and never got his own fairy tale ending. At different points in his life, he fell for a number of women—and possibly a few men as well, according to some interpretations of the amorous letters he wrote to young men—but his feelings were unrequited each time. "I believe he never had a sexual relationship," biographer Bente Kjoel-bye told the Deseret News. Although Andersen is often regarded as a pure and chaste figure, he was no stranger to lustful thoughts. When he was 61 years old, he went to a brothel in Paris for the first time and paid a prostitute, but didn't do anything except watch her undress. After a second visit to a "shop which traded in human beings," he wrote in his diary, "I spoke with [a woman], paid 12 francs, and left without having sinned in action, but probably in thought."

7. Andersen is considered a “national treasure” in Denmark.

The Danish government declared Andersen a “national treasure” when he was in his late sixties, around the same time that he started showing symptoms of the liver cancer that would ultimately claim his life. The government subsequently paid him a stipend and started constructing a statue of the author in the King's Garden in Copenhagen to commemorate his 70th birthday. Andersen lived to see his birthday, but died four months later. Over a century later, you can still see tributes to the writer’s legacy in Copenhagen, including a second statue of Andersen along the street named after him (H.C. Andersens Boulevard) and a sculpture of the Little Mermaid at Langelinje Pier. Visitors are also welcome at his childhood home in Odense, Denmark, and at a museum dedicated to his work in the same city.

Beowulf Was Written By One Person, According to Computer Analysis

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

The poem has been read in classrooms around the world and has influenced countless works of literature, but the identity of the author of Beowulf remains unknown. Scholars can't agree on when exactly the anonymous poet wrote Beowulf, or on whether it was even a single person. Now, a study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour may finally put one part of that debate to rest. After analyzing the text of the Old English epic, researchers have concluded that Beowulf is the work of one author, the Boston Globe reports.

Written a millennium ago, Beowulf follows a brave hero, the title character, as he slays beasts in Scandinavia, including a monster named Grendel and Grendel's mother. The oldest surviving manuscript dates back to roughly 1000 CE, and there are many competing theories as to its origins.

For their study, researchers from Harvard and other universities used computer algorithms to find patterns in the poem. A type of literary statistic analysis called stylometry was able to break down Beowulf by a number of factors, including meter, breaks, word choice, and the prevalence of certain letter combinations.

The team found that many of the distinguishing style elements of Beowulf are consistent throughout the poem, suggesting that every line came from the same source. But who that one author might have been is still unknown.

Scholars love to speculate on the true authorship of great works—even when there are famous names attached to them. Some experts think that as many as nine writers are really responsible for William Shakespeare's body of work.

[h/t Boston Globe]

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