Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
The twentieth century gave us modernism, postmodernism, and greater prominence to marginalised voices largely absent from the poetic canon in earlier periods of literary history.
Below, we’ve selected ten of the greatest and most representative poems of the twentieth century, to act as a sort of introduction to a busy century in literary development and innovation. We’ve confined ourselves to poetry written in English, so haven’t covered anything written in French or other languages, even though someone like Guillaume Apollinaire could easily have been included in any list of the greatest twentieth-century poems.
1. H. D., ‘The Pool’.
In many ways the quintessential imagist poem, ‘The Pool’ is from 1915 and was written by the US-born Hilda Doolittle after she had settled in the UK and become a part of the imagist movement with her husband Richard Aldington and her friend (and former fiancé) Ezra Pound.
Labelled ‘the perfect imagist’, H. D. (as she styled herself, after Pound’s suggestion) here presents us with a clear image – as clear as a rock-pool, in fact – that has a mystery at the heart of it. What is the thing in the pool? Is it nothing more than the image of her own face gazing back at her? Is this a love poem, a nature poem, or a poem about the self? We’ve analysed H. D.’s mysterious poem here.
2. Wilfred Owen, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind …
Not everyone writing in the 1910s was an imagist, of course. That short-lived movement may have helped to launch literary modernism in English, but many poets of the time still preferred more traditional verse forms and ways of writing. During his short life, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) perfected the war poem, writing powerfully about what he himself called ‘the pity of war’ during the conflict of 1914-1918.
This is probably his most famous poem, which sees him describing in harrowing detail a gas attack, before turning to address the likes of Jessie Pope who wrote jingoistic war propaganda encouraging young, impressionable men to sign up and give their lives for the war cause.
3. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land.
After imagism ended as a movement in 1917, modernist poetry became bigger and more ambitious, and in 1922, the American-born T. S. Eliot – who, like H. D., had settled in London – produced this masterpiece of some 433 lines, incorporating numerous verse forms and taking in the post-war world from squalid encounters in bedsits to chatter in East End pubs. The allusions to nymphs, Tiresias, and Elizabethan England suggest at once a continuum with the past and a break with it – everything is simultaneously worse than it used to be, and yet the same as it ever was.
In some ways, Eliot’s poem represents the end of civilisation as Shakespeare, Greek myth, and various holy texts go through the literary waste-disposal, regurgitated only as fragments. One of the high points of the modernist movement and one of the most important and influential poems of the twentieth century.
4. Langston Hughes, ‘I, Too’.
The finest poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes (1902-67) often writes about the lives of African Americans living in America, especially in New York, in the early twentieth century.
In an allusive nod to Walt Whitman’s poem ‘I Hear America Singing’, Hughes – describing himself as the ‘darker brother’ – highlights the plight of African Americans at the time, having to eat separately from everyone else in the kitchen when guests arrive, but determined to strive and succeed in the ‘Land of the Free’.
5. W. H. Auden, ‘September 1, 1939’.
Auden (1907-73) had the opposite trajectory to Eliot’s: born in Yorkshire, he emigrated to the United States shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, and wrote this, one of his most famous poems, on the day that Nazi Germany invaded Poland.
The poem earns its place on this list for two reasons: Auden’s was an important poetic voice in the mid-twentieth century, and he wrote about many atrocities, wars, and injustices from the Holocaust to the Japanese invasion of China, but the poem also has an immediacy in being written so soon after the events which plunged Europe, and eventually the rest of the world, into another major conflict.
Although Auden disowned the poem, it remains well-loved by many of his readers. It also struck a chord with many people reading it in the wake of the September 11 attacks of 2001.
6. Allen Ginsberg, ‘Howl’.
‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness’, this classic poem of the Beat Generation famously begins. Completed in 1955, ‘Howl’ is dedicated to Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg had met in a mental institution, and the poem is, in one sense, an extended meditation on mental instability and despair. Are those who we consider ‘sane’ really so? And are those who are branded ‘mad’ really insane?
This is the quintessential Beat poem.
7. Sylvia Plath, ‘Lady Lazarus’.
The 1960s was the great decade of Confessional poetry, best typified by American poets such as John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and most famously of all, Sylvia Plath. Plath’s poem is about her numerous suicide attempts and addresses this challenging subject matter in a direct and honest way, yet the poem is also technically dextrous and weaves in references to mythology and unlikely poetic frames of reference too.
8. Philip Larkin, ‘This Be The Verse’.
Poets had used naughty swear words before 1971, but Philip Larkin’s famous poem about parents really marked a watershed in twentieth-century poetry, with his colloquial and no-nonsense opening line cutting through the pretentiousness (as he saw it) of high modernism and offering something more relatable and universal. The poem was published three years later in Larkin’s final collection, High Windows (1974) and is one of the most famous poems to come out of ‘the Movement’, the mid-century anti-modernist movement to which Larkin belonged.
We have analysed this poem here.
9. Maya Angelou, ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’.
An important voice in the Civil Rights movement and its aftermath in the second half of the twentieth century, Maya Angelou became one of the most popular poets of her lifetime, both in the United States and elsewhere. A poem about overcoming fear and not allowing it to master you, ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’ is a powerful declaration of self-belief and the importance of facing one’s fears.
Angelou lists a number of things, from barking dogs to grotesque fairy tales in the Mother Goose tradition, but comes back to her mantra: ‘Life doesn’t frighten me at all’. We’re especially fond of Angelou’s image of walking the ocean floor and never having to breathe.
10. Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Warming Her Pearls’.
When H. D. was writing imagist poetry at the beginning of the twentieth century, the poet’s bisexuality could only be hinted at through coded symbol and allusion. By the end of the twentieth century, the Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy (born 1955) could explore same-sex desire in a more direct way, as in this beautiful poem about hidden love and desire between a servant and her mistress.
For a good anthology of twentieth-century poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse (Oxford Books of Verse).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.