Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The Nobel Poets

Erato, Muse of Lyrical Poetry - Charles Meynier
Erato, Muse of Lyrical Poetry
(1789-1800) by Charles Meynier,
Cleveland Museum of Art
via Wikimedia Commons
At one point or another – usually at the beginning of their career – many writers try their pen at poetry only to find that their true talent lies elsewhere. There are others, however, whose verses are so powerful and original that they make their fame. Of course, the works of a poet are seldom as widely read and as commonly translated into other languages as those of prose writers, notably of such specialised in best-selling mainstream novels. Consequently, reviewers including book bloggers like me tend to neglect poetry. I must admit that I do although my participation in the perpetual Read the Nobels challenge as well as in the annual Read the Nobels 2016 hosted by Aloi aka the Guiltless Reader would be an excellent reason to change this.

In the past 115 years the Swedish Academy has honoured a really considerable number of poets with the Nobel Prize in Literature. In fact, already the very first award of 1901 went to a poet, namely to René F. A. Sully Prudhomme. Be honest. Have you ever read a poem by this French poet? I haven’t or maybe I have and just can’t remember. He was given the Nobel Prize “in special recognition of his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect”, but his fame didn’t last and outside France (maybe even inside the country) he is quite forgotten today. The names of others who followed in his footsteps are much better rooted in the collective memory of literature lovers.

Who hasn't at least heard of Rudyard Kipling (1907), Rabindranath Tagore (1913), William Butler Yeats (1923), Hermann Hesse (1946), T. S. Eliot (1948), Boris Pasternak (1958), Pablo Neruda (1971), Octavio Paz (1990), Derek Walcott (1992), or Seamus Heaney (1995)? Several of their poems are world-famous, sometimes even entire collections. Some of these poets are also renowned for their excellent prose, be it fiction or non-fiction. Others, on the other hand, like Anatole France (1921), Grazia Deledda (1926), Halldór K. Laxness (1955), Samuel Beckett (1969), William Golding (1983), José Saramago (1998), Günter Grass (1999), Doris Lessing (2007), or Herta Müller (2009) published poetry too, but their prose work is so important that it almost completely outshines everything else.

The great majority of poets on the list of Nobel recipients, however, uses to be overlooked like wallflowers at a glamorous reception. Or do the names of Bjørnsterne Bjørnson (1903), Frédéric Mistral (1904), Giosuè Carducci (1906), Paul von Heyse (1910), Maurice Maeterlinck (1911), Verner von Heidenstam (1916), Karl Adolph Gjellerup (1917), Carl Spitteler (1919), Erik Axel Karlfeldt (1931), Ivan Bunin (1933), Johannes Vilhelm Jensen (1944), Gabriela Mistral (1945), Pär Lagerkvist (1951), Juan Ramón Jiménez (1956), Salvatore Quasimodo (1959), Saint-John Perse (1960), Giorgos Seferis (1963), Nelly Sachs (1966), Miguel Ángel Asturias (1967), Harry Martinson (1974), Eugenio Montale (1975), Vicente Aleixandre (1977), Odysseas Elytis (1979), Czesław Miłosz (1980), Jaroslav Seifert (1984), Wole Soyinka (1986), Joseph Brodsky (1987), Wisława Szymborska (1996), and Tomas Tranströmer (2011) ring a bell with you? Just a few? For the greater part this is because their work is hardly known outside their countries of origin either because their verses have seldom been translated or because they aren’t to the taste of modern readers. Either way it’s a pity.

Why not use the summer holidays for a literary change of scenery? Why not plunge into the floods of poems from the pen of Nobel laureates? And maybe the new experience even inspires you to write a review for Read the Nobels or Read the Nobels 2016. It’s never to late to sign up!


  1. In the past I have tended to skip poetry in my reading. In my older years I am coming to appreciate it more. I am currently reading a poem a day in Penguin Classics edition of W B Yeats collected poems. I am enjoying it. Next I am going to read some female poets of the 20th century. I don't see many female poets winning the Nobel Prize.

    1. Well, Judy, I'm making the same experience! When I was younger, I couldn't stand poetry at all and I must admit that I still find it quite a challenge to read verses. However, there came a moment when I wished to make up for my ignorance... and I began to republish public domain poems here on my blog (always on Monday). Since then I've come across some amazing poems.

      It's true that there aren't many female poets who received the Nobel Prize, but then out of 112 laureates altogether there are only 14 women to date!


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