The Best Spanish-Language Poets You Should Read

Vicente Palmaroli – Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer on his Death Bed | © Google Cultural Institute/Wikipedia
Vicente Palmaroli – Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer on his Death Bed | © Google Cultural Institute/Wikipedia
Photo of Lauren Cocking
20 June 2017

Spanish is a beautiful language, which makes for impressive, gripping, and enticing poetry. Famous for literary giants such as Pablo Neruda and Federico García Lorca, Spanish poetry, from the Golden Age to the contemporary, has come to define much of the Western canon. Here we take a look at some of the best Spanish-language poets of all time.

Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda grew up in southern Chile, and was taught by the famous poet Gabriela Mistral. A naturally gifted poet, Mistral recognized the young Neruda’s talent and nurtured it, giving him the books and support he lacked at home. By the time he finished high school, Neruda had already published in local papers and magazines and had won several literary competitions. After leaving for Santiago in 1921, Neruda completed what is now one of his most critically acclaimed pieces of work, the cycle of love poems entitled Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty Poems of Love and One Hopeless Song). From here on, Neruda went on to become perhaps the most famous Chilean poet of his time, producing timeless works throughout his politically complicated and rich life.

Pablo Neruda | © Alexan/WikiCommons

Federico García Lorca

Born in 1898, Federico García Lorca was the son of a Spanish farmer, and lived a childhood that was very different from that of Neruda, in that his talents were nurtured. He wrote his first book, Impresiones y Paisajes (Impressions and Landscapes) in 1919, inspired by a trip to Castile with his art class in 1917. Lorca went on to give up university and dedicate his life to poetry, organising theatrical performances and reading poems in public. His Libro de poemas (1921) was a compilation of poems based on Spanish folklore. Much of Lorca’s captivating poetry was influenced by flamenco, as well as Gypsy culture, and he gained great fame and success with his work Romancero gitano (The Gypsy Ballads). A key Spanish poet, Lorca’s works are captivating, descriptive and unique, thanks to his background as a dramatist and novel writer.

Statue of Lorca | © Javi/Flickr

Octavio Paz

Born in 1914 in Mexico City, Octavio Paz was an intensely political man. This was apparent in his poetry, in which he often touched upon themes such as the experience of Mexican history. Among his most famous and praised pieces of work is The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), as well as the poem Sun Stone (1957), a book-length work of 584 lines, representing the 584-day cycle of the planet Venus. This innovative and gripping poem is a perfect example of the genius that is Octavio Paz. His later works show an even deeper intelligence and complexity, broaching topics such as philosophy and religion. In such works, Paz truly fulfils his desire to turn life into poetry, rather than to make poetry from life.

Octavio Paz with Heminio Martínez | © Royalwrote/WikiCommons

Lope de Vega

Lope de Vega was born in Madrid in 1562 to a humble family. He showed signs of genius from an early age, and by the age of five was already reading in Latin and Spanish. His private life was colorful and influenced his work greatly. Having suffered two lawsuits and one stint in prison, he went on to have numerous affairs and many illegitimate children. An intriguing character who produced even more intriguing pieces of poetry, de Vega is now considered second only to Cervantes in the Spanish canon. A notable piece of work is the epic poem The Beauty of Angelica, inspired by his experience in the Spanish Armada. In a disastrous venture against Britain, his ship was one of few to return back safely, and on the sixth month of his voyage, he wrote this captivating poem.

Lope de Vega | © Basilio/WikiCommons

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer

Born in 1863 in Seville, Bécquer was a poet of the late romantic period, and is now considered one of the first modern Spanish poets. Strongly influenced by his brother, who was a painter, Bécquer developed his own artistic side and moved to Madrid in 1854 in pursuit of a literary career. Beginning by contributing to newspapers and magazines, Bécquer produced nearly 100 sensitive, restrained, and deeply subjective rhymes. They appeared in book form only after his death, when his friends collected and then published his writings. Bécquer’s poetry explored themes of love, touching often on disillusionment and loneliness, probably because of his own unhappy romantic experiences.

Vicente Palmaroli – Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer on his Death Bed | © Google Cultural Institute/Wikipedia

José Martí

Born to poor Spanish immigrant parents in 1853, Martí showed a talent for writing early in his life, publishing several poems by the time he was 15. He spent his life not only writing poetry, but also campaigning for Cuban independence; he was exiled from Cuba in 1871, and spent much of his life abroad. Even at 16, Martí was a revolutionary in the making and, combining his political desires with his love for poetry, created a newspaper called La Patria Libre, for which he wrote several significant poems, including Abdala, in which he dreamed of liberation. With a style of writing that is difficult to characterize, Martí’s writings are creative and gripping, with many short and memorable lines, as well as long and complex sentences, creating a compelling rhythm and flow.

José Martí statue | ©Matthias Schack

Jorge Luis Borges

Credited with influencing the Latin American literary movement of magical realism, as well as defining the form and essence of Spanish-language poetry, Borges is considered one of the most important 20th -century writers. His poetry revolves largely around themes of dreams and labyrinths, using the fantastic to explore the inner mind of the poet and the characters in his narrative works. Borges was critically acclaimed both in his own lifetime and after — in 1961 he won the first ever Prix Formentor, which he shared with Samuel Beckett, and is today considered one of the must-read poets of his generation.

Jorge Luis Borges