Poems from the 20th Century

The 20th century played host to poets such as W.B. Yeats, Rudyard Kipling, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Poems from this century are noted for their diversity of themes, from love to nature, and the purpose of life. Modernist poetry flowered during this period, with writers such as  T.S. Eliot creating his best-known works. Familiar movements of the century include Imagism, the Harlem Renaissance, and Formalism.

Touch Me by Stanley Kunitz

‘Touch Me’ by Stanley Kunitz is a moving poem about aging, the loss of identity, and desire. It explores what keeps people, and creatures of all varieties, going as they enter the final “season” of their life. 

Touch Me by Stanley Kunitz Visual Representation

The Yachts by William Carlos Williams

‘The Yachts’ by William Carlos Williams depicts the winners, or yacht-owners, in the capitalist system and the losers, or the poor, who are drowning in the waters around the boats. 

The Yachts Poem Visual Representation

Who in One Lifetime by Muriel Rukeyser

‘Who in One Lifetime’ by Muriel Rukeyser is a poem about resistance in the face of war and suffering. The speaker asserts that a woman referred to only as “she” is standing strong despite what she’s seen. 

Who in One Lifetime by Muriel Rukeyser Visual Representation

Peter Quince at the Clavier by Wallace Stevens

‘Peter Quince at the Clavier’ by Wallace Stevens is a musical depiction of the story of Susanna and the Elders from the Book of Daniel. It describes the “feeling” of “music” and the nature of beauty.

Peter Quince at the Clavier by Wallace Stevens Visual Representation

A Brave and Startling Truth by Maya Angelou

‘A Brave and Startling Truth’ by Maya Angelou is a commonly quoted poem about humanity’s future. The poet alludes to the “truth” that humanity will arrive at when “we” realize we are the one true wonder of the world. 

A Brave and Startling Truth by Maya Angelou Visual Representation

Persimmons by Li-Young Lee

‘Persimmons’ by Li-Young Lee is a beautiful poem that describes the poet’s interest in language. It explores how a persimmon comes to symbolize both his family connections and his feelings of alienation from his peers. 

Persimmons by Li-Young Lee Visual Representation

Ma Rainey by Sterling A. Brown

This heartfelt Sterling A. Brown poem is all about the famous 20th-century blues artist Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, also known as the “Mother of the Blues.”

Ma Rainey by Sterling A. Brown Visual Representation

Macavity: The Mystery Cat by T. S. Eliot

‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat’ is about a fiendish feline character from T. S. Eliot’s light verse collection, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Macavity, the mastermind of criminal plots, knows how to cover his tracks.

Macavity The Mystery Cat by T. S. Eliot Visual Representation

How to Like it by Stephen Dobyns

‘How to Like It’ by Stephen Dobyns was written in order to explore a man’s struggle to accept change as he ages. The poem uses humor and very relatable emotions in order to appeal to readers. 

How to Like It by Stephen Dobyns Visual Representation

Singapore by Mary Oliver

‘Singapore’ by Mary Oliver is a highly relatable poem that speaks about life’s struggles and the beauty of mundane and graceful work. It is set in an airport bathroom in Singapore. 

Singapore by Mary Oliver Visual Representation

Grandfather by Michael S. Harper

‘Grandfather’ by Michael S. Harper describes the treatment Harper’s grandfather endured and alludes to racism within the United States more generally. 

Grandfather by Michael S. Harper Visual Representation

Old Timers by Carl Sandburg

‘Old Timers’ by Carl Sandburg speaks on the nature of war. Sandburg alludes to the ways in which history repeats itself no matter which country or time period one is in. 

Old Timers by Carl Sandburg Visual Representation

The Language of the Brag by Sharon Olds

‘The Language of the Brag’ by Sharon Olds is an unforgettable poem about the strength and exceptionality of women’s bodies. It is set against the backdrop of giving birth. 

The Language of the Brag by Sharon Olds Visual Representation

Old Man by Edward Thomas

‘Old Man’ by Edward Thomas is a thoughtful piece about the loss of memory and a disconnect to one’s past. 

Old Man by Edward Thomas Visual Representation

Quid Pro Quo by Paul Mariani

‘Quid Pro Quo’ by Paul Mariani is a confessional poem that narrates a speaker’s anger and frustration at God subsequent to his wife’s second miscarriage.

Quid Pro Quo by Paul Mariani Visual Representation

Credo by Robinson Jeffers

‘Credo’ by Robinson Jeffers is a powerful poem that asserts the poet’s beliefs about humanity’s connection to the natural world and explores how they contrast with the main tenants of Transcendentalism.

Credo by Robinson Jeffer Visual Representation

The Legend by Garrett Hongo

‘The Legend’ by Garrett Hongo speaks on themes of alienation and the struggle of immigrants within the United States. It focuses on the symbolic death of an older, Asian man in Chicago.

The Legend by Garrett Hongo Visual Representation

Incident by Countee Cullen

‘Incident’ by Countee Cullen describes a terrible incident from the poet’s youth that occurred when he was happily visiting Baltimore. 

Incident by Countee Cullen Visual Representation

Me We by Muhammad Ali

Comprising only two syllables, Ali’s ‘Me We’ is one of the shortest poems ever written. This poem evokes a wide array of meanings with just two simple pronouns.

Me We by Muhammad Ali Visual Representation

The Map by Elizabeth Bishop

‘The Map,’ written in 1934, is the signature poem of Elizabeth Bishop that transcends the boundaries of the real and imaginatively inspects the topographical features within a map.

The Map by Elizabeth Bishop Visual Representation

The Song of the Jellicles by T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Song of the Jellicles’ features the characteristics and nature of the Jellicle Cats, made famous by the musical adaptation, Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The Song of the Jellicles by T. S. Eliot Visual Representation

Bleezer’s Ice Cream by Jack Prelutsky

Have you ever gone to an ice cream store selling twenty-eight different flavors of literally everything? You’ll be doing yourself a favor by visiting BLEEZER’S ICE CREAM STORE.

Bleezer's Ice Cream by Jack Prelutsky Visual Representation

Nikki-Rosa by Nikki Giovanni

In ‘Nikki-Rosa,’ Nikki Giovanni explores her experiences while growing up in a closely-knit black community in 1950s America.

Nikki-Rosa by Nikki Giovanni Visual Representation

Mementos, 1 by W. D. Snodgrass

William DeWitt (W. D.) Snodgrass’s personal piece ‘Mementos, 1’ is about the discovery of an old photograph of the speaker’s divorced wife and the stream of memories that came with it.

Mementos, 1 by W. D. Snodgrass Visual Representation

Two Songs by Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich’s ‘Two Songs’ explores the themes of lust, physicality, and pleasure. These poems feature a speaker’s “post coitum” feelings.

Two Songs by Adrienne Rich Visual Representation

Complaint by James Wright

‘Complaint’ is one of the early poems of James Wright with a conventional form and meter. This poem is about a rural folk’s dissatisfaction with her dead wife’s absence.

Complaint by James Wright Visual Representation

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