Qwiklit’s Guide to 20th Century Poetry

30. Phyllis Webb (1927-)

 Phyllis Webb

I have found each station

of the cross and to each place

have verbs tossed free, to compass the bitter male

in this changed chancellery

and I have paced four walls

for the word, and I have heard

curiously, I have heard the tallest of mouths

call down behind my veil

to limit or enlargen me

as I or it prevails.

– “Poet”

Who are they?

Born in British Columbia, Webb became one of the leading figures in the Montreal poetry scene that included F.R. Scott and Irving Layton. She would spent the majority of her career as a broadcaster and director at the CBC.

Her poetry:

Webb’s poetry consistently shifts between intense curiosity and casual wit. One of the purposes of her poetry is to, in her own words, to execute an “intituitive sense of form.” She is often cited as a poet’s poet who is deeply concerned with unravelling the difficulties inherent in the creative process.

31. Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)

Adrienne Rich

We lie under the sheet

after making love, speaking

of loneliness

relieved in a book

relived in a book

so on that page

the clot and fissure

of it appears

words of a man

in pain

a naked word

entering the clot

a hand grasping

through bars:

deliverance

– “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children”

Who are they?

Born in Baltimore, Rich attended Radcliffe College and Harvard before embarking on a prolific career that included dozens of poetry collection. As a champion of women’s rights and a major critic of heteronormativity in modern society, she received the National Book Award in 1973 “On behalf of all women”.

Her Poetry:

Adrienne Rich’s poetry is intensely conscious of the movement of time and history, and she sees language as a way to salvage the present from the inexorable movement of time. She does, however, write in a remarkably common language that makes her work accessible and approachable, as opposed to many of the avant-gardists writing during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

32. Thom Gunn (1929-2004)

 Thom Gunn

For birds and saints complete their purposes.

At worse, one is in motion; and at best,

Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,

One is always nearer by not keeping still.

– “On The Move”

 Who are they?

Born in England but spending the majority of his career as a professor in the United States, Gunn maintained a reputation as a subversive bad-boy of poetry that, admittedly, often overshadowed his work. As a member of The Movement–a group that consisted of several English poets–Gunn gained recognition as one of the leading voices in Queer poetry in the latter part of the 20th century.

His Poetry:

With an emphasis on depicting the undercurrents of energy hidden in daily life, Gunn explores everything from sex, drug use and violence in his poetry. He often employs a very structured form, but it helps to contain the forcefulness of energies that Gunn sees as remaining in society.

33. Ted Hughes (1930-1998)

 Ted Hughes

The word oozed its way, all mouth,

Earless, eyeless.

He saw it sucking the cities

Like the nipples of a sow

Drinking out all the people

Till there were none left,

All digested inside the word.

– “A Disaster”

Who are they?

Born in Yorkshire, England, he is perhaps better known today as Sylvia’s Plath’s husband, but Hughes experienced a hugely successful career on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1984, Hughes became British Poet Laureate, capping off a prolific career that included several award-winning poetry collections.

His Poetry:

As one of the most original poets of his time, Hughes was known for his descriptions of the natural world, in particular the actions of animals like the otter or the pike. He has a special talent for removing the subjectivity that distances us from these natural elements; his use of musical and formal elements create building rhythms that make closer readings of his poetry all the more engaging.

34. Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

 Sylvia Plath

Nights, I squat in the cornucopia

Of your left ear, Out of the wind,

Counting the red stars and those of plum-color.

The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue.

My hours are married to shadow.

No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel

On the blank stones of the landing.

– “The Colossus”

Who are they?

Born in Massachussetts, she later married and had two children with fellow poet Ted Hughes before she committed suicide in London. Known best for her novel, The Bell Jar, Plath only publisehed one collection of poetry during her lifetime, with three other collections appearing posthmously.

Her Poetry:

Many credit Plath for being a leading figure in “confessional” poetry, but she herself insisted that the formal aspects of her work were more important to her. However, her fascination with death and the exploration of the inner self is undoubtedly brought out in her work, which focuses heavily on the vicissitudes of emotion and sanity.

35. Leonard Cohen (1936-)

Leonard Cohen

I was the last passenger of the day,

I was alone on the bus,

I was glad they were spending all that money

just getting me up Eighth Avenue.

Driver! I shouted, it’s you and me tonight,

let’s run away from this big city

to a smaller city more suitable to the heart,

– “The Bus”

Who are they:

Poet, novelist and songwriter, Cohen is one of the few poets in the second half of the twentieth century to achieve mainstream celebrity status. Born in Montreal, Cohen first gained popularity as a pseudo-Beat poet, but soon his decadent poetry fell out of favor with the countercultural norms of the day.

His Poetry:

Many people associate Cohen’s poetry with its erotic overtones, but there is a deliberate method in his verse that goes far beyond crude romanticism. Often seeking mystery in the mundane, Cohen will often paint portraits of everyday life that subtly seek out its more mystical qualities.

36. Margaret Atwood (1939-)

 margaret Atwood

A compass is useless; also

trying to take directions

from the movements of the sun,

which are erratic;

and words here are as pointless

as calling in a vacant wilderness.

– “Journey to the Interior”

Who are they?

While she is arguably better known for her novels today, Atwood began her writing career writing volumes of poetry. Born in Canada, she has used her work to explore feminine and Canadian identity in a variety of ways, often employing modern or futuristic contexts to disrupt traditional concepts.

Her Poetry:

Atwood’s verse explores several different facets of modern life, but she wants her work to elicit a response in the reader. She keeps the mind’s eye active by using sudden turns that deflate or challenge conventional norms. Consider how her infamous four-line poem, “You Fit Into Me”, introduces an unexpected feeling of discomfort:

You fit into me

like a hook into an eye

a fish hook

an open eye

37. Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

 Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:

My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds

Bends low, comes up twenty years away

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills

Where he was digging.

– “Digging”

Who are they?

A few months ago, Heaney died at the age of 74, ending a wonderfully-prolific career as the unofficial poet laureate of Northern Ireland and Ireland proper. After graduating from Queen’s College in Belfast in 1962, Heaney would spend the next five decades writing poetry (including a translation of Beowulf), winning a Nobel Prize and other awards along the way.

His Poetry:

Heaney masterfully weaves vivid, gritty language with recollections of Ireland’s past. Drawing on the poetry of Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Heaney believes that language–if skillfully and artfully put together–can become revelatory and almost spiritual. The above quote is a perfect example of how he “digs” into what is buried to rediscover the past.

38. Billy Collins (1941-)

Billy Collins

You know the parlor trick.

wrap your arms around your own body

and from the back it looks like

someone is embracing you

her hands grasping your shirt

her fingernails teasing your neck

from the front it is another story

you never looked so alone

– “Embrace”

Who are they?

Born in New York City, Collins received his Ph.D at the University of California – Riverside in Romantic poetry. One of the few American poets to balance mainstream popularity and critical praise for his work, Collins became American Poet Laureate in the year 2001. He is still active today.

His Poetry:

Unlike many of the earlier poets on this list, Collins believes that poetry is less about finding concealed, deep-seated wisdom, and more about deriving pleasure from wordplay and storytelling. His poetry is meant to be read, and Collins will often play with language to entertain the listener and provide a new perspective on commonplace events and objects.

39. Sharon Olds (1942-)

 Sharon Olds

To say that she came into me,

from another world, is not true.

Nothing comes into the universe

and nothing leaves it.

My mother—I mean my daughter did not

enter me. She began to exist

inside me—she appeared within me.

– “The Borders”

Who are they?

Born into a strict religious family, Olds studied literature at Stanford and Columbia University. After completing her Ph.D, she began publishing her poetry, which often depicted the difficulties of her upbringing. While she had already gained recognition as one of the country’s top poets by the end of the 20th century, she has maintained her success ever since, winning the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in poetry.

Her Poetry;

Just like Sylvia Plath, much of Olds’ poetry is confessional in nature. To the pleasure of many and the derision of some, she often discusses very sensitive topics, such as violence, trauma and sex in vivid, detailed language. Her poetry marks a shift from the analytical to the emotive, where the art turns back to its expressive roots.

40. Michael Ondaatje (1943-)

 Michael Ondaatje

If I were a cinnamon peeler

I would ride your bed

And leave the yellow bark dust

On your pillow.

Your breasts and shoulders would reek

You could never walk through markets

without the profession of my fingers

floating over you.

– “The Cinnamon Peeler”

Who are they?

Better known today as an author of fiction and nonfiction, Ondaatje composed several books of poetry earlier in his career, including The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, which lead to a Governor General’s award in 1970. Some of his poetry is included in his prose works, such as “The Cinnamon Dealer” in his childhood memoir, Running in the Family.

His Poetry:

Ondaatje’s poetry ranges from the conventional and subdued to the experimental and forceful. While there are few homogenous aspects in his form, he often seeks to deflate common myths while adding mystical characteristics to parts of daily life. This trend continues in novels like In the Skin of a Lion and Anil’s Ghost.

41. Anne Carson (1950-)

It could have been just a pole with some old cloth attached,

but as I came closer

I saw it was a human body

trying to stand against winds so terrible that the flesh was blowing off the bones.

And there was no pain.

The wind

was cleansing the bones.

They stood forth silver and necessary.

It was not my body, not a woman’s body, it was the body of us all.

It walked out of the light.

– “The Glass Essay”

Who are they?

Born in Toronto, Carson took an early interest in the Classics, receiving her Ph.D on the works of Sappho at the University of Toronto. Since then, she has written prolifically, and has taught at several Universities around North America.

Her Poetry:

Carson’s poetry combines elements of modernism and postmodernism with the classical. Perhaps her most famous work, Autobiography of Red, tells the myth of the Greek monster Geryon in a contemporary context, and depicts in great detail the sensibilities of Ancient Greek philosophy in accessible language.

___________________________________

I would like to thank Proquest and Literature Online for providing me with the resources to make this list.

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

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