Literature

The Best Poems of the 1920s

The 1920s was a key decade in poetry: modernism really came to the fore, with a number of major poets adopting an increasingly experimental approach to form, rhyme, imagery, and subject matter. Below, we introduce and discuss some of the best and most notable poems from the 1920s.

1. Ezra Pound, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.

We begin our pick of the best 1920s poems with a poem from 1920, which is very much a watershed poem: the US-born Pound described it as his ‘farewell to London’, before he moved to Europe and worked on his more ambitious long work, The Cantos.

Mauberley sees Pound responding to the last few decades of English verse, his attempts to ‘make it new’, and various failed poetic projects such as the 1890s ‘Rhymers’ Club’. A difficult and allusive work, it’s well worth diving into and reading – though perhaps our introduction to the poem will help (click on the link above to read the first part; part II is also online).

2. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land.

In 1922, the American-born T. S. Eliot – who had settled in London in 1914 – 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.

Eliot presents us with the modern world of 1920s London: civilisation has been reduced to a ‘waste land’ and the land has lost its fertility and ability to bring forth life. Even the living seem to be suffering from some kind of spiritual wound. But how can we fix this society? By regaining spiritual and psychological enlightenment and making peace with our demons. But that’s easier said than done.

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.

3. Marianne Moore, ‘Marriage’.

Published in 1923, a year after Eliot’s The Waste Land, ‘Marriage’ is a long(ish) poem by one of American modernism’s greatest poets. And like The Waste Land, Moore’s poem is allusive, taking in Shakespeare and the Bible as the poet explores the obligations and meaning of marriage (Moore herself never married). The poem is radical in both its form (modernist, free verse) and politics (we can label Moore’s treatment of marriage ‘feminist’).

4. William Carlos Williams, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’.

This 1923 poem should more properly be referred to as ‘XXII’, since it’s the 22nd poem to appear in Williams’s 1923 collection Spring and All, and the title ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ is one retrospectively applied to the poem (not by the poet himself). One of the most famous examples of American imagism, the poem invites us to reflect upon the importance of something as simple as red wheelbarrow and some white chickens.

Perhaps Williams literally means that much depends upon a red wheelbarrow and the white chickens: that these symbols of farming and agriculture are central to the maintaining of life as we know it. Of course, one may ask here why it’s important the wheelbarrow is red; would a green wheelbarrow be viewed as less important in the agrarian history of the world? But this interpretation is tenable, nevertheless.

We have analysed this poem here.

5. Wallace Stevens, ‘Sunday Morning’.

1923 was the year Wallace Stevens’ landmark collection Harmonium was published. Stevens, like Williams, was an American modernist – and an American who stayed in America, rather than moving to England (as Eliot did). ‘Sunday Morning’ is about a woman who stays home on a Sunday morning in America, instead of going to church. Does this make her any less spiritual or religious than her neighbours?

In many ways, Stevens’s poem can be viewed as part of a Romantic tradition in poetry, stretching back a century earlier to John Keats (who wrote, memorably, in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ that the bird ‘dwells with beauty – beauty that must die’), William Wordsworth, and others.

Romanticism was often about poets finding a sort of divinity and awe in the natural world, rather than looking to the heavens and to God to provide this sense of mystical wonder. ‘Sunday Morning’, when analysed from this perspective, is a belated Romantic poem.

We have analysed this poem here.

6. Robert Frost, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’.

Robert Frost (1874-1963) is regarded as one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century. And yet he didn’t belong to any particular movement: unlike his contemporaries William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens he was not a modernist, preferring more traditional modes and utilising a more direct and less obscure poetic language. He famously observed of free verse, which was favoured by many modernist poets, that it was ‘like playing tennis with the net down’.

Many of his poems are about the natural world, with woods and trees featuring prominently in some of his most famous and widely anthologised poems (‘The Road Not Taken’, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, ‘Birches’, ‘Tree at My Window’). Elsewhere, he was fond of very short and pithy poetic statements: see ‘Fire and Ice’ and ‘But Outer Space’, for example.

Was 1923 the annus mirabilis for American poetry? 1922 may have been the high point of European modernism, with Eliot’s The Waste Land (written in London and Lausanne, although Eliot himself was American), James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room among some of the important works published in that year; but 1923 saw Frost, Stevens, and Williams all publish some of their most famous works. Here, Frost (pictured right) observes the ‘lovely, dark and deep’ woods as he travels home one night, in an altogether more Romantic scene than many of the other poems on this list.

7. T. S. Eliot, ‘The Hollow Men’.

After he wrote The Waste Land, Eliot spent the next years working on a sort of follow-up poem whose form and language allude to that earlier poem in suggestive ways. Published in 1925, ‘The Hollow Men’ reflects the general malaise and sense of limbo that characterised the mid-1920s in Britain for many people: in the US many of the wealthiest may have been enjoying the Jazz Age, but post-war Britain was marked, for Eliot, by a loss of spiritual meaning and direction. ‘The Hollow Men’ brilliantly captures this.

8. Nancy Cunard, Parallax.

Although not as famous as Moore, Cunard was another female modernist poet who wrote a long poem in the wake of Eliot’s The Waste Land – and, in Cunard’s case, she seems to have deliberately alluded to Eliot’s work in order to challenge his despairing and pessimistic view of modernity.

Parallax was, like The Waste Land, published in Britain by Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press (in 1925). Cunard’s own poetry has often been overlooked, read by a few, and written off even by many of those who have read it. Although she was an influential part of the little magazines which modernist poets used to publish their work to a like-minded readership – she was a frequent contributor to Wheels, the Sitwells’ magazine, whose title was inspired by one of Cunard’s own poems – Nancy Cunard’s own poetry has not received much serious attention. Yet her long 1925 poem Parallax, published by the Hogarth Press run by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, is certainly worth paying serious attention to, not least because of its relationship to, and dialogue with, the work of T. S. Eliot.

Not all of Parallax is available online, but you can read an excerpt by following the link above and discover more about it here.

9. 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 this poem from 1926, and with an allusive nod to Walt Whitman’s poem ‘I Hear America Singing’, Hughes – describing himself as the ‘darker brother’ – highlights the plight of black 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’.

10. W. B. Yeats, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect …

Written in September 1926 and published the following year, this poem is about growing older and feeling out of touch with the new generation superseding you, feeling surplus to requirements, waiting for death. Perhaps this is something to do with the age gap between Yeats – who concludes this list of significant 1920s poems but was the oldest of the poets listed here – and modernists like Eliot, Pound, and Moore, all of whom were born at least twenty years later.

So Yeats’s thoughts of death and ageing in this poem are, perhaps, inevitable for a poet in his sixties when he wrote this powerful piece about one’s twilight years. Young love, birds singing, and other signs of joy and youth are not the province of the old. ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, as this opening stanza establishes, is about something that is still very much hotly debated and highlighted: how the elderly are neglected by the rest of society.

3 Comments

  1. Marianne Moore never fails to intrigue.
    The Red Wheelbarrow i have never ‘got’.
    No e e cummings? (We all have our quirks of liking.)

    • M. Murray: we all have poems we don’t “get.” For example, I didn’t “get” most of Robert Frost for many years, and I still don’t get one of his best-loved poems (“Birches”). But if you want to re-experience Red Wheelbarrow consider that it’s not one of those “analogy” poems where everything in it stands for something else at great length. Instead, it’s about. well, a red wheelbarrow. That it’s sufficiently beautiful, and if you want to extend that, so are our tools and our labor. And it’s short nature is meant to highlight that, to make a reader encountering it not miss that by eliminating the rest. Of course many of us DO miss that, but I guess W.C.W. was content with those of us who eventually come around.