Literature

The Best Poems of the 1950s

The 1950s was the age of austerity and the end of wartime rationing in the UK, while American poetry found a new voice in the disillusioned and politically active Beat poets. Below, we introduce ten of the greatest 1950s poems, ranging from the very short (see the e. e. cummings poem, for instance) to the very long, almost epic poem by David Jones. These classic poems sum up the decade of the 1950s in one way or another; we hope you enjoy exploring them.

David Jones, The Anathemata. This is the first poem on this list, but also the longest. It is also without doubt the most challenging – because Jones, a Welsh modernist poet and painter, fuses poetry and prose, ancient British myth with modern poetic style, religious and secular themes, and much else. It’s not as well-known as Williams’s Paterson (below) or Pound’s The Cantos, but it’s just as great an achievement in Anglophone modernist poetry. You can listen to Jones reading an excerpt from the poem by following the link above, or buy the whole book here: The Anathemata.

Dylan Thomas, ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’. One of Dylan Thomas’s most famous and best-loved poems, ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ is a villanelle, a poem divided into three-line stanzas where the same two repeated lines of verse comprise the last line of each alternating stanza. This poetic form enables Thomas to use the title within the poem as both an instruction (or request) and a simple indicative statement. Written about the death of Thomas’s own father, the poem was completed not long before Dylan himself would die, aged just 39, in 1953 – reportedly having drunk eighteen straight whiskies.

Sylvia Plath, ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’. Sylvia Plath was born on Dylan Thomas’s 18th birthday, 27 October 1932. And like Thomas, she wrote a classic example of the villanelle: ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’, which was written several years before Plath found her voice as a ‘confessional’ poet but which prefigures her later work in terms of its subject matter. ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ was written when Plath was still a student in the early 1950s. Who is the ‘you’ Plath addresses in the poem? It’s possible to see the poem as a response to schizophrenia and to posit that the ‘you’ is actually Plath, or a version of her: she is addressing herself.

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 and so a real landmark in 1950s poetry.

Philip Larkin, ‘Mr Bleaney’. This poem is about a man who rents a rather small and downmarket room in his landlady’s house and muses upon the life of the previous occupant, Mr Bleaney. It shows Larkin’s excellent use of syntax: the last two stanzas constitute one long sentence, culminating in a simple three-word statement. We particularly like the image of the speaker stuffing cotton-wool in his ears to drown out the sound of his (most likely half-deaf) landlady’s television set in the living room below. Written in 1955, ‘Mr Bleaney’ captures the trappings and mood of mid-1950s Britain.

Stevie Smith, ‘Not Waving but Drowning’. This is the best-known poem by Stevie Smith (1902-71), whose real first name was Florence but who acquired the nickname ‘Stevie’ after a famous jockey, because she was so small. In 1995, it was voted Britain’s fourth favourite poem in a poll. First published in 1957, ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ fuses the comic and the tragic, moving between childlike simplicity and darker, more cynical touches as it describes a man out at sea who appears to be waving but … well, the title makes it plain.

Ted Hughes, ‘The Thought-Fox’. In 1957 came The Hawk in the Rain, the first volume by a distinctive new voice in English poetry. It contained this poem, which explores the writer’s struggle to find inspiration, which is depicted in the poem by the fox. Rejecting the typical poetic trope of the stars, the poet is gratified to sense the arrival of the ‘thought-fox’, a fox whose presence gradually becomes clearer and more vivid. ‘The Thought-Fox’ is one of the most celebrated poetic accounts of the act of writing poetry and the attendant search for poetic inspiration. We’ve offered some further thoughts on this poem here.

William Carlos Williams, Paterson. This is an epic modernist poem which was published, in five volumes, between 1946 and 1958. It had its origins in a much shorter poem written in 1926, after Williams had read James Joyce’s great modernist novel Ulysses. Paterson had its culmination in the 1950s and reflects, in many ways, the culmination of American modernism (and certainly of Williams’s own achievement), focusing on the town of Paterson in New Jersey and describing its life and people using unconventional modernist techniques.

ee cummings, ‘l(a’. E. E. Cummings (or perhaps that should be ‘e. e. cummings’, after the poet’s self-styled rejection of capitals) was one of the most distinctive American poets of the twentieth century, whose work built on the earlier modernists such as Williams. A slender thing, this poem comprising a single sentence (if it can be called a sentence), with the phrase ‘a leaf falls’ placed parenthetically within the word ‘loneliness’. Probably inspired by the Japanese haiku form, this beautiful E. E. Cummings poem suggests a link between the eternal concept of loneliness and the fleeting motion of a falling leaf.

Gwendolyn Brooks, ‘We Real Cool’. In the 1920s, it was African American poets like Langston Hughes who pioneered a new kind of poetry – drawing on jazz rhythms and African-American Vernacular – during the Harlem Renaissance. Gwendolyn Brooks built upon this new tradition for this 1959 poem, which was inspired by seeing a group of young boys in a pool hall when they should have been in school. How do they view themselves, she wonders? This poem attempts to give them a voice – and in doing so, reflects the new phenomenon of the 1950s: the teenager.

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