Qwiklit’s Guide to 20th Century Poetry

10. Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966)

Anna Akhmatova

Why is this century worse than those others?

Maybe, because, in sadness and alarm,

It only touched the blackest of the ulcers,

But couldn’t heal it in its span of time.

– “Why is this Century Worse than those Others?”

Who are they?

Born in Odessa, Ukraine, Akhmatova moved to St.Petersburg at a young age and ended up joining the active Acmeist literary movement of the time. Unfortunately, the Bolshevik revolution and the rise of communism thrust her out of the publishing world and forced her to write in secret, and the execution of her ex-husband in 1921 took a great toll on her. After Stalin’s death, her poetry became known around the world, and her vivid description of his purges had a great effect on the international community.

Her Poetry:

Requiem, her three-part poem based on Stalin’s purge, was supposedly first composed outside of a Leningrad prison as she awaited the fate of her son, who was targeted for the being the son of a counter-revolutionaries. Often told to her friends in secret, the verse is sparse and fragmented, and reflects the dissolution of a world gone mad. Strung with ellipses and cold, concrete language, she was lauded by many for keeping the human spirit alive during one of the century’s darkest moments.

11. Nelly Sachs (1891-1970)

 Nelly Sachs

”World, do not ask those snatched from death

where they are going,

they are always going to their graves.

The pavements of the foreign city

were not laid for the music of fugitive footsteps -”

– “World, do not ask those snatched from death”

Who are they?

Born in Berlin, Sachs would write poetry for the majority of her adult life, but she would only achieve her first success as Germany began descending into darkness. As Hitler began his leadership in 1933, she became a key figure in Jewish literary circles in Germany.  After emigrating to Sweden to escape Nazi Germany, though, she continued writing, and in 1966, she was rewarded with the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Her Poetry:

Sachs is regarded as one of the most important literary documenters of the Holocaust, but she is chiefly remembered for the images she conjured from an “inexpressible” tragedy. Critics have praised her poems’ concrete directness towards a reality that one cannot look away from. The power of her language pulls us towards the intimacy too easily forgotten by history.

12. Edna St.Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

 Edna St.Vincent Millay

My heart is warm with friends I make,

  And better friends I’ll not be knowing,

Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,

  No matter where it’s going.

– “Travel”

Who are they?

Born in Maine, Millay quickly became a popular literary figure in the New York literary scene. In 1923, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. She was also a member of the Provincetown players, a theater group associated with Eugene O’Neill and Susan Glaspell.

Her Poetry:

While she did not write as experimentally as some of the modernist poets of her time, critics looking back at her work still continue to praise her treatment of love and death, even at a young age. She has also been praised for her imaginative capacity as a poet, fusing her poetry with fairy tale and current events, such as the rise of fascism in the 1930’s.

13. Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

 Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

     Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

     Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

– “Anthem For Doomed Youth”

Who are they?

After studying at the University of London, Owen briefly tutored in France before heading off to the front to fight in the First World War. During the war, he wrote several pieces of poetry. Seven days before the armisitice and the end of the war, Owen was killed at the Sambre Canal in France.

His Poetry:

As one of the poets that depicted the disastrous conditions of trench warfare, Owen’s work demonstrated the important changes between glorified accounts of warfare in the 19th century and deflated accounts of premature, merciless death characteristic of the war. His use of assonance and rugged language within the traditional form is striking considering his age and circumstances, and even today, few poets have since been able to revive the same vivid action of chaotic battle.

14. ee cummings (1894-1962)

 EE cummings

(i do not know what it is about you that closes

and opens;only something in me understands

the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)

nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

– “W [ViVa]”

Who are they?

Born in Massachussetts, cummings went to Harvard before enlisting as an ambulance driver in the First World War, where he was taken as a prisoner of war . He spent most of his time between Greenwich Village and New Hampshire.

His Poetry:

cummings was perhaps the most experimental and whimsical poet of his time, but he defied the conventions imposed by punctuation and syntax for a reason. He believed that language (and its rigid order) had the potential to eliminate the pleasure and spontaneity of daily life. His liberating verse has since influenced children and adults alike.

15. Robert Graves (1895-1985)

 Robert Graves

Yet this is my country beloved by me best,

The first land that rose from Chaos and the Flood,

Nursing no fat valleys for comfort and rest,

Trampled by no hard hooves, stained with no blood.

– “Rocky Acres”

Who are they?

Known as one of the fathers of Historical fiction, Graves’ poetry is equally as engaging. Born in England and a veteran of the First World War, Graves became the head professor of poetry at Oxford before retiring to Majorca, Spain. He also published a lot of nonfiction, including one of the first modern-day dictionaries of Greek mythology.

His Poetry:

While many English-language poets were challenging the conventions of traditional verse, Graves retained a structured and formal style. He was, however, more concerned with the content of his verse and how images in daily life can bring out deep-seated passions and fears.

16. Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Langston Hughes

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong

– “I, Too, Sing America”

Who are they?

Born in Missouri, Hughes took up a number of odd jobs in America and around the world before settling in New York City. As one of the many figures to spearhead what is now known as the Harlem Renaissance, he became active in artistic and political circles during the 1920’s and 30’s. While he was accused of Communist sympathies later on in his career, he continued writing towards the end of his life, just as the Civil Rights movement was picking up steam across the country.

His poetry:

Langston infused his poetry with many musical elements stemming from the Jazz and Blues music of the day. Syncopated rhythms, sharp cuts and sudden changes reflected the artistic innovation within the African-American community at the time, while his emphasis on the orality of his poetry attested his the storied heritage of his people.

17. Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)

 PabloNeruda

I have scarcely left you

When you go in me, crystalline,

Or trembling,

Or uneasy, wounded by me

Or overwhelmed with love, as

when your eyes

Close upon the gift of life

That without cease I give you.

– “Despair”

Who are they?

Born in Chile, Neruda began writing poetry at an early age, which he continued throughout his life in various different countries, including Burma, Singapore, Spain and Mexico. After witnessing the death of fellow poet Federico Garcia Lorca, he moved back to Chile to work as a senator, but soon fled again. He won the Nobel Prize in 1971.

His Poetry:

One of the most important characteristics of his poetry is its universalism. While poets will rarely achieve popularity outside of their language, Neruda’s blank verse describes love, the erotic, nature and loss in simple, accessible terms. He often ties together the landscape and the body, encompassing both the large and the small into single poems.

18. W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

WH Auden

He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest,

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

– “Funeral Blues”

Who are they?

English, Oxford-educated poet who was an ambulance driver in the Spanish Civil War and a student of various philosophical disciplines, including Marxism, freudianism and existentialism.

His Poetry:

Auden’s poetry is quite varied, but over the course of his career, his writings shifted from erudite and exploratory to casual and understated. When reading his work, look at how he approaches objects and images–out of the chaos, he plucks out important details. In a way, it teaches you how to read the world.

19. Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)

 Theodore Roethke

Over the gulfs of dream

Flew a tremendous bird

Further and further away

Into a moonless black,

Deep in the brain, far back.

– “Night Crow”

Who are they?

Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan, and taught at a number of institutions around the United States. Many critics view his poetry as an escape from the trappings of a difficult childhood fraught with loneliness and insecurity, but he was duly rewarded for his work with a Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards.

His Poetry:

There is a certain formal delight in Roethke’s poetry. His use of formal rhyme schemes and a precise rhythms are not the marks of traditionalism, but rather expressions of the order he found in nature, family and friendship.

3 thoughts on “Qwiklit’s Guide to 20th Century Poetry

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