The 1960s was a heady time for many, thanks to the Summer of Love and ‘flower power’; it was an age of revolutionary politics and also extraordinary optimism. It was also the age of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, and this, too, is reflected in the selection of important 1960s poems we introduce below. We hope you enjoy these classic 1960s poems.
Sylvia Plath, ‘Daddy’. One of Sylvia Plath’s most famous poems, ‘Daddy’ controversially links the father in the poem to a Nazi officer, and references the Holocaust. Plath wrote the poem during a period of intense creativity in 1962. Variously seen as a highly autobiographical ‘confessional’ poem and as an extremely loose fictionalised account of Plath’s own relationship to her father (an entomologist and bee-expert who died when Plath was just eight), ‘Daddy’ continues to generate much discussion amongst Plath’s readers and critics.
Dudley Randall, ‘Ballad of Birmingham’. This is a powerful poem about the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, written that year and published as a broadside in 1965. Taking the form of a dialogue between a young child and her mother, the poem highlights the racial prejudice – and the real threats to their lives – that African Americans faced during Civil Rights-era America. The mother sends her daughter to church, thinking she will be safe from harm and trouble there; tragically, the church becomes another target of white nationalist hate.
Amira Bakara, ‘A Poem for Black Hearts’. The Civil Rights movement was a big part of the social and political landscape of 1960s America, and the poetry reflects that, as Randall’s poem above demonstrates. Bakara was another key voice of the decade, the founder of the Black Arts Movement, and the author of this poem about Malcolm X, who was assassinated in 1965.
Judith Wright, ‘Eve to Her Daughters’. This dramatic monologue sees the Biblical Eve transported to a post-nuclear landscape where man has succeeded in destroying the Edenic paradise of the world as we know it. Watch out for the play on the word ‘fallout’: both the quarrel between husband and wife (Adam and Eve) and nuclear fallout from the war. An apocalypse poem that is also an anti-war poem and a feminist poem.
Richard Brautigan, ‘All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace’. First published in Brautigan’s 1967 collection of the same name, this poem is a hymn to technology at a time when the world was far more optimistic about scientific discoveries than we’ve since become. Fittingly, Brautigan wrote the poem (and the whole collection) in just nine days in January 1967, while he was a poet-in-residence at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.
Philip Larkin, ‘High Windows’. Completed in February 1967, ‘High Windows’ was one of several poems which Larkin (pictured right) wrote around this time – during the so-called Summer of Love – which analyse the poet’s own middle-aged attitudes to the younger generation and the changing attitudes to sex. ‘Annus Mirabilis’ was written just a few months later, and ‘Sad Steps’, completed the following April, might also be partnered with ‘High Windows’ in this regard. Opening with a sweary stanza that seems almost wilfully anti-poetic, this poem is as much about Larkin’s generation – those who came to adulthood in the 1940s – as it is about the youth of the 1960s.
Geoffrey Hill, ‘September Song’. Beginning with the birth and death dates of a child who, we are told, was ‘deported’ (a military euphemism, we soon realise, for ‘killed’) in September 1942, ‘September Song’ was written by an English poet who was born in 1932 – and who, had he been born to Jewish parents in Germany at that time, may never have survived. Hill’s final line seems to hint at the difficulty of writing about the Holocaust. The poem was published in 1968.
Edwin Morgan, ‘The Computer’s First Christmas Card’. As well as being the decade of celebrating new technology, the 1960s was also a decade marked by experimentation – in rock ‘n’ roll, in people’s sex lives, in drug-taking, but also in poetry. In this poem, the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) gives us an unusual Christmas poem supposedly ‘written’ by a computer, and its attempt to produce the simple message ‘Merry Christmas’. A humorous poem from 1968 about the early technology of the modern computer.
Anthony Hecht, ‘The Dover Bitch’. Subtitled with the very Arnoldian-sounding ‘A Criticism of Life’, this 1968 poem ends this pick of the greatest 1960s poems on a lighter note, with Hecht’s witty and subversive response to Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’. Cutting through the portentousness of Arnold’s original (fine) Victorian poem is only part of it: Hecht also wants to think about the silent female addressee of Arnold’s poem, who was, after all, his new bride on her honeymoon. This poem has thrilled and irritated readers in pretty much equal measure since its publication in the 1960s.