Poetry Around the World

Explore the richness and diversity of poetry traditions around the globe, from Africa to Japan

Level and oblique
Epic of Sundiata
Wole Soyinka
Joy Harjo

Arabic Poetry

Arabic poetry is characterized by a number of unique poetic forms such as the Ghazal, Qasida, and Muwashshah, and is frequently influenced by religion and spirituality. Notable poets like Al-Mutanabbi (915 – 965 AD) and Abu Tammam (796/807- 845 AD) contributed significantly to this rich tradition.

The Ghazal is a lyrical form that often explores themes of love and loss while adhering to strict metrical patterns. For instance, Al-Mutanabbi’s ghazals convey intense emotions through vivid imagery.

The Qasida is an ancient Arabic poetic form characterized by its length and purpose in addressing various subjects such as praise or satire. Abu Tammam’s “Al-Tawbah,” for example, demonstrates the qasida’s versatility in expressing religious devotion alongside social commentary.

The Muwashshah is a strophic Andalusian poem with roots in both Arabic and Hebrew traditions; it showcases intricate rhyme schemes while exploring themes of love or mysticism.


Japanese Poetry

Japanese poetry is known for its ability to convey profound emotions concisely. It is characterized by strict forms such as tanka, which consists of five lines with syllable patterns of 5-7-5-7-7, and haiku, a shorter form with just three lines and syllable patterns of 5-7-5.

Nature and the changing seasons are central themes in Japanese poetry, often symbolizing human emotion and impermanence with “kigo” (seasonal words).

Some prominent Japanese poets include Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), a master of haiku who elevated the form to a highly regarded literary style with works like his famous “Frog Pond” haiku; Yosa Buson (1716-1784), another prominent haiku poet and painter, who combined visual artistry with his poetry.

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), is known for his compassionate and humanistic approach to haiku; and Ono no Komachi (c. 825-900), a renowned female poet of the Heian period, excelled in composing deeply emotional tanka.


Chinese Poetry


Chinese poetry, spanning thousands of years, is characterized by its strict forms, rhythmic patterns, and profound use of imagery and symbolism. A distinctive feature is the quatrain, a structure consisting of four lines with five or seven characters per line.

Meter and tonal patterns are crucial, with tones classified as level (平) or oblique (仄). Regulated verse (律诗 lǜshī) follows intricate rules for tonal alternation and parallelism, leading to complex patterns in the text.

Prominent Chinese poets include Li Bai (701-762), known for his romanticism; Du Fu (712-770), the “Poet Sage,” who focused on social issues, personal experiences, and historical events; Bai Juyi (772-846), acclaimed for his accessible language and critical views; and Su Shi (1037-1101), a Song Dynasty poet known for his versatility and innovation.

Indian Poetry

Poetry of the Indian subcontinent has been shaped by Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Islamic traditions, as well as the vast linguistic diversity found within India.

The Bhakti movement, which emerged between the 7th and 17th centuries, produced devotional poetry that emphasized a personal connection to the divine. The works of poets such as Kabir (1440-1518), a mystic poet and saint, and Surdas (1478-1583), a devotee of Lord Krishna.

The Bengali Baul poetic tradition, which reached its peak in the 19th and 20th centuries, is a syncretic blend of Hindu and Islamic spiritual traditions, as well as influences from Sufism and Buddhism. Bauls are mystic minstrels who travel around singing devotional songs in Bengali. Some well-known Baul poets include Lalon Fakir and Hasan Raja.

Building on this traditional “Baul” movement, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), a Bengali poet, was the first non-European Nobel laureate in Literature. His collection “Gitanjali” (Song Offerings) is renowned for its spiritual depth and lyrical beauty, blending traditional Indian themes with a modern sensibility.


Eastern European Poetry

Eastern European poetry has a long and influential history. Among the most renowned works is the Polish epic of Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), *Pan Tadeusz*, depicting the Polish national spirit and the country’s rural landscape in the 19th century.

Poetry of 20th century Eastern Europe often reflects upon the challenges of living under totalitarianism. For example, the work of Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) from Poland, who experienced both Nazi and Soviet occupation during his lifetime. Miłosz is renowned for his introspective and philosophical style, showcased in “The Captive Mind” and “The Issa Valley”.

Many eastern european poetry of this era continued to be influenced by the folk tradition. The work of Serbian poet Vasko Popa (1922-1991) offers a blend of folklore and surrealism. His poems often take on the form of myths, but with a modern, absurdist twist that challenges readers to think deeply about the nature of reality


Traditional African Poetry

Performance poetry has played a significant role in African culture since ancient times. The earliest examples date back to the creation of hunting poetry. Over time, elegiac and panegyric court poetry also developed in the empires of the Nile, Niger, and Volta river valleys.

Performance poetry in African culture is an integral part of theatrical ceremonies, which served political, educational, spiritual, and entertainment purposes. They were frequently accompanied by local musical instruments such as the kora, xalam, mbira, and djembe drum.

The traditional oral poets and historians of West Africa were known as griots, who played a vital role in preserving and disseminating African history, culture, and traditions. Griots were responsible for composing the *Epic of Sundiata*, which tells the story of the founder of the Mali Empire, Sundiata Keita, created around the 13th century.

The performances often included dramatic gestures, facial expressions, and movements.


Contemporary African Poetry

The second half of the 20th century, as many African countries gained independence from colonial rule, gave rise to contemporary African poetry. It is marked by its innovative use of language, with poets blending local dialects, pidgin, and European languages.

Some key poets in contemporary African literature include:

Wole Soyinka (born 1934): A Nigerian playwright, poet, and the first African Nobel laureate in Literature, Wole Soyinka’s poetry often confronts the social and political issues facing Nigeria and Africa as a whole. His collection “A Shuttle in the Crypt” explores themes of imprisonment, oppression, and resistance.

Kofi Awoonor (1935-2013): A Ghanaian poet and diplomat, Awoonor’s poetry is known for its incorporation of traditional Ewe oral poetic forms and imagery. His collection “The House by the Sea” explores the struggles and aspirations of postcolonial Africa through the lens of personal experience.


Persian Poetry

Persian poetry is a prominent literary tradition that has flourished for over a millennium, particularly between 10th to 15th centuries

One of the most important poetic forms in Persian literature is the ghazal, a short lyric poem that primarily focuses on themes of love, loss, and longing. Some of the key poets in Persian literature include:

Ferdowsi (940-1020): considered the father of Persian poetry, and known for his epic poem, “Shahnameh” (The Book of Kings), a text central to preserving the Persian language and cultural identity.

Omar Khayyam (1048-1131): A mathematician and astronomer remembered for his collection of quatrains called “The Rubaiyat.” His poetry often touches upon existential themes.

Rumi (1207-1273): A revered Sufi mystic and poet, Rumi’s works, such as “Masnavi” and “Divan-e Shams Tabrizi,” explore the themes of divine love and the human quest for spiritual union.

Hafez (1315-1390): Regarded as one of the most influential Persian poets, Hafez’s collection, “Divan-e Hafez,” is revered for its eloquent ghazals.


Latin American Poetry

In the early 20th century, a group of Latin American poets began to experiment with new forms and styles which distinctively incorporated their cultural heritage.

One of the most prominent figures in Latin American poetry is Pablo Neruda, a Chilean poet who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971. His work is characterized by its lyrical, romantic, and politically charged themes. In his poem “If You Forget Me,” Neruda expresses his love for his homeland and the pain of separation:

*everything carries me to you,*
*as if everything that exists,*
*aromas, light, metals,*
*were little boats*
*that sail*
*toward those isles of yours that wait for me.*


Neruda’s political poems in “Canto General” chronicle Latin America’s struggles for independence and social justice.

Other key poets in Latin American poetry include Octavio Paz (1914-1998), a Mexican poet, writer, and diplomat who is widely regarded as one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century.

Paz explores existential questions through surrealism in his collection “The Labyrinth of Solitude.” His poem “Sunstone” weaves together Aztec mythology with personal reflections on time and existence.

Indigenous Poetry

While Indigenous poetry has long been a part of the oral traditions of many Indigenous cultures, it gained wider recognition in the literary world during the latter half of the 20th century.

One of the unique aspects of Indigenous poetry is its strong connection to the natural world, and the exploration of cultural identity, reflecting the diversity and resilience of Indigenous communities in the face of historical and ongoing colonization and cultural assimilation.

Joy Harjo, for example, born in 1951 as a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the first Native American to be appointed as the U.S. Poet Laureate, explored these themes in her works “She Had Some Horses” and “An American Sunrise”. Similarly, Sherman Alexie (born 1966), a Spokane-Coeur d’Alene writer, addresses the struggles of reservation life and colonization in his collection “The Business of Fancydancing”.


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