Writing in his 1821 essay ‘The Defence of Poetry’, the Romantic poet Percy Shelley famously declared that ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. A bold statement, it captures the rather paradoxical nature of the poet – at once a figure who has the potential to shape the world irrevocably with just a handful of well-chosen words, and one who is also perpetually overlooked and under-appreciated by society at large.
This new anthology seeks to shed light on the place and influence poets hold in the world – as forces of change and witnesses of history; as chroniclers of the everyday and architects of transcendent images – and to make sure that their genius is very much appreciated. Within the pages of the book you will discover an array of some of the greatest poems ever written by 366 different poets – one for each day of the (leap) year.
Poetry at its best has always, from Homer in Ancient Greece to contemporary greats such as Kae Tempest, Simon Armitage and Amanda Gorman, enabled us to see different worlds, or rather, our own world differently. And yet so many similar collections of verse have focused almost entirely on white, western male writers, creating an even more unacknowledged class among the already unacknowledged exceptional women, LGBTQIA+ and minority poets. It is important to redress this wrong and include a huge range of writers from across the globe and across time, going as far back as 2000 bc. Sitting alongside canonical titans such as Chaucer, Shakespeare and Wordsworth are lesser known names such as Enheduanna and Charlotte Mew.
But unlike my previous anthologies, which were built around the idea of offering A Poem for Every… the focus here is as much on the writers as their works. Each poet is introduced to you through a short paragraph that will give you a snapshot of their life story, their place in literary history and other pieces of context or anecdotes.
Much of this book is dedicated to the promotion of those who have been unfairly all but forgotten. But conversely, it’s also important to address the complex reputations of some of our most beloved writers. How do we go about reconciling the fact that so many writers who were so rich in talent were so inexcusably poor in their treatment of others? Racism, religious bigotry, misogyny, intolerance and cruelty have been found in countless poets – does this diminish the brilliance of their writing?
It is a difficult, sensitive issue with no easy answer, but maybe we can turn to the poets themselves for guidance. W. H. Auden – seemingly one of the good guys, who helped a woman escape from Nazi Germany through a marriage of convenience – once argued for the separation of the artist from their work in his poetic elegy for W. B. Yeats, saying, ‘The death of the poet was kept from his poems.’
But the book also seeks to celebrate all the progress that has been made. Poetry today is less an elitist circle, more an ever-growing community that’s enriched by a plurality of writers who are giving a voice to the historically voiceless and lending an ear to those too often left unheard. I’m proud to have put together an inclusive book that strives to be representative of, and relatable to, readers of all backgrounds.
A collection of such infinite variety fittingly has no set way of being read. You can make it a daily habit – a poem in the morning to invigorate the mind, or every evening to calm the soul – or approach it as a treasure trove of poetic gems to dip into whenever you want. 366 poets are waiting for you within these pages. All they need, dear reader, is you, as, in the words of Walt Whitman, ‘To have great poets, there must be great audiences.’
Allie Esiri curates poetry anthologies, audio projects, live shows and film. Her poetry anthologies are A Poem for Every Night of the Year, the bestselling new poetry book of 2016, A Poem for Every Day of the Year and Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year. Credited with bringing poetry into the digital age, Allie Esiri’s apps iF Poems and The Love Book feature readings with actors including Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Hiddleston, Bill Nighy and Emma Watson.