20th Century Poems

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.

an afternoon nap

by Arthur Yap

‘an afternoon nap’ by Arthur Yap explores the lacunae in the modern education system and how it results in anxiety and stress in students.

A typical 20th-century poem that showcases the discord in a mother-son relationship with the help of the free verse form.


by Stevie Smith

‘Parrot’ is a moving exploration of imprisonment and suffering set against the backdrop of the modern, urban world.

Stevie Smith's life spanned much of the twentieth century and her work captures the essence of that period.

The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano

by B.H. Fairchild

‘The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano’ by B.H. Fairchild is a free verse poem about how the creative process can connect a father and daughter.

This poem is an excellent representation of the 20th century. Published in 1998, it reflects on the poet's childhood watching his father operate lathes growing up. However, it does so in an indirect way and takes an outsider's perspective on labor, industrialization, and family relationships. Stylistically, the imagery-focused free verse structure is also en excellent example of the customs of the 20th century.

The Rose That Grew From Concrete

by Tupac Shakur

‘The Rose That Grew From Concrete’ is a moving celebration of personal resolve against the backdrop of oppressive forces.

Written between 1989-1991, Shakur's poem engages with themes and issues pertinent to his period, notably the treatment of African Americans in society.

Air Raid

by Chinua Achebe

‘Air Raid’ by Chinua Achebe is a poem that provides a glimpse into the Nigerian/Biafran Civil War using symbolism and dark humor.

The poem has a specific historical context, as it takes place during the Nigerian Civil War which took place between 1967-1970. Much of Achebe's writing is set in Nigeria at various points during the twentieth century and the changing nation is one of his most recurrent themes.


by Jean Bleakney

‘Nightscapes’ beautifully captures the feeling of being isolated from nature that is common in urban environments.

Published in her 1999 collection, 'The Ripple Tank Experiment', the poem arrived right on the cusp of the new millennium.

The Dancing

by Gerald Stern

‘The Dancing’ by Gerald Stern is an emotionally complex poem that wrestles with feelings of joy and bittersweetness inspired by a fond memory.

This poem's allusions to the second world war and the memory of celebrating it with their parents (immigrants from Germany and Poland) make it an interesting perspective from a second generation child.

The Fish

by Marianne Moore

‘The Fish’ by Marianne Moore uses imagery and form to objectively describe nature and humanity’s ability to survive and mature in the face of death, destruction, and loss.

Marianne Moore wrote 'The Fish' in the early 1900s, but she was a revolutionary poet who, in many ways, changed American poetry forever. Her use of self-designed verse structure, focus on syllable quality, and use of breath in place of meter is something that would remain critical to almost every school of poetry up until now.

In Memory of the Utah Stars

by William Matthews

‘In Memory of the Utah Stars’ captures the manner in which memories can provide us with both pleasure and pain.

The poem is very specifically situated in the historical moment - the years after the cancellation of the Utah Stars in 1975. However, due to its focus on memory, the poem is able to transcend this moment in time and remains powerful today.

Poem About My Rights

by June Jordan

‘Poem About My Rights’ by June Jordan is a one-stanza poem revealing a speaker’s thoughts on misogyny, sexism, and racism from their experience. It is celebrated for accurately portraying the struggles of women and men of color in a patriarchial and predominantly white society.

'Poem About My Rights' is a product of the political and feminist movements that took place in the 20th century. The poem is very relevant for that age, but it is also a timeless poem since we continue to witness the same issues the poet persona explores today.

A Muse of Water

by Carolyn Kizer

‘A Muse of Water’ by Carolyn Kizer is a unique poem that places women as a force of nature, like water, that men attempt to control, redirect, and oppress.

'A Muse of Water' is an excellent example of the second-wave feminist poetry of the 1960s, although it is not the most representative poetry of the 20th century. It does employ free verse, breath, and rhythm, though, all of which are notable features of modernist and postmodern poetry, which were the leading movements during Kizer's life.

She Had Some Horses

by Joy Harjo

‘She Had Some Horses’ by Joy Harjo illustrates the plurality of differences among people.

Harjo's poem stands out as a charged description of both human nature and the lives of Indigenous people. Making it an important piece of literature of the 20th century, especially as it underscores the complexities of plurality.

The Forest

by Susan Stewart

‘The Forest’ by Susan Stewart is a complex, cyclical poem about how memories can give new life to things that no longer exist.

'The Forest' by Susan Stewart was published in the mid-1990s, an era of American poetry that embraced the use of original form, but also favored poets who used traditional forms as inspiration for structural growth.

The Hand That Signed the Paper

by Dylan Thomas

‘The Hands that Signed the Paper’ is a war protest poem that derides the appalling apathy and ruthlessness of the rulers toward ordinary citizens.

This poem though written by the poet when Dylan Thomas was only 19, still has a deep understanding of the world political scene at the time, and the poem has a unique perspective about the powerful yet pitiless leaders.

Indian Weavers

by Sarojini Naidu

‘Indian Weavers’ explores the inevitability of death while celebrating the cycles of human existence and experience.

Published in 1905, the poem is both a reflection of Naidu's experience of India but also captures the craft that had been practiced there for centuries.

My Mother Would Be a Falconress

by Robert Duncan

‘My Mother Would Be a Falconress’ by Robert Duncan explores a son and mother’s relationship through the lens of a falcon breaking free from his handler.

This poem is an excellent example of mid-20th-century poetics. While Duncan was a significant member of the Black Mountain poets, he also developed a very unique style that borrowed from imagism and modernism. As such, this poem is a culmination of many of the most notable poetic movements at the time.


by Gillian Clarke

 ‘Sunday’ by Gillian Clarke was inspired by the poet’s personal experience of attempting to enjoy a Sunday morning but then being reminded of all the suffering that’s going on in the world. 

The poem is taken from Clarke's 1982 collection, Letter from a Far Country. The disturbing events referenced in the poem could refer to the Falklands War or other international events that were occurring during this period.

The Victor Dog

by James Merrill

‘The Victor Dog’ by James Merrill is a humorous, yet deep poem that puts the listener in the position of a dog listening to music, hearing but not understanding the complexity of its art.

'The Victor Dog' is unique in its use of iambic pentameter with free verse structure, and thus, is not wholly a great representative of the conventions of the 20th century. However, its relevance to its time, in the 1970s, makes it a very meaningful piece for people who grew up with the symbol of the Victor dog and appreciated music made by RCA.

Death of a Young Woman

by Gillian Clarke

Explore ‘Death of a Young Woman,’ where Clarke depicts how a loved one’s death lets a person free from their inward, endless suffering.

This twentieth-century-verse revolves around the sudden death of a young woman suffering from some underlying disease.

Gacela of Unforseen Love

by Federico Garcia Lorca

‘Gacela of Unforseen Love’ explores the relationship between love and despair through a remembered romance which has run its course.

The poem was written during the 1930s and first published in 1940. However, its form draws heavily on much older Arabic poetic styles and its story of lost love is timeless.

Go to Ahmedabad

by Sujata Bhatt

‘Go to Ahmedabad’ shows the psychological struggle of an immigrant dealing with disturbing past events and contemporary issues with newly developed views.

'Go to Ahmedabad' was published in 1988. The issues and themes of Postcolonial and Diasporic Literature gained importance in the last decades of the 20th century. 'Go to Ahmedabad' represents the prominent themes of Diasporic Literature, such as liminality, hybrid identity, homelessness, identity crisis, and troubled psyche.

Latin & Soul

by Victor Hernández Cruz

‘Latin & Soul’ by Victor Hernández Cruz conveys the sublimely affecting power of music on a group of dancers.

What makes this poem somewhat timeless is its pure expression of the effect music has on those caught up in the rapture of it. Cruz dedicates it around a celebration of Latin soul and Joe Bataan, but even beyond genre influences the imagery is breathtaking to behold.

Ruins of a Great House

by Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott’s ‘Ruins of a Great House’ combines themes of historical and cultural abuse with factual reasoning and literary references to bring together a massive emotional conflict in the Speaker’s perception.

Derek Walcott's 'Ruins of a Great House' captured a large piece of historical relevance in the 20th century. This poem matches the mindset of many in this time period. These readers had not experienced slavery or colonialism, but they had heard the stories and been taught the history. This poem accurately describes a person's feelings relating to the people before them, their past, and the current day.

The Portrait

by Stanley Kunitz

‘The Portrait’ by Stanley Kunitz is a sad poem about the speaker’s ill-fated attempt to learn more about their deceased father.

There isn't much within the poem to tie it in any significant way to one specific era. But because of that it possesses a timelessness owed to its devotion to understanding universally shared themes like dealing with the death of a parent.

The Virgins

by Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott’s poem ‘The Virgins’ gives a holistic view of the life, economy, and culture of one of the Virgin Islands of the US, Saint Croix.

Published in Derek Walcott's 'Sea Grapes' (1976), 'The Virgins' comments on the 20th-century free-market economy of the Virgin Islands.

Personal Helicon

by Seamus Heaney

Heaney’s ‘Personal Helicon’ draws inspiration from his rural carefree childhood and intimate connection with nature.

First published in Heaney's 1966 collection, Death of a Naturalist, the poem captures Heaney's memories of growing up in Northern Ireland in the middle of the twentieth century.

The Powwow at the End of the World

by Sherman Alexie

‘The Powwow at the End of the World’ by Sherman Alexie is a stunning poem that reveals the apocalyptic price of an indigenous person’s forgiveness.

Sherman Alexie's poem is an important 20th century poem, as it gives voice to the centuries of oppression and abuse indigenous groups have suffered at the hands of colonizers and the American government. All while also searing images of both the devastating cost on the environment and the triumphant renewal of Native groups.

Gathering Leaves

by Robert Frost

‘Gathering Leaves’ is a profound poem that delves into the themes of man versus nature, productivity, and change.

First published in 1923, the poem's themes are largely timeless, as they pertain to autumn which is a cyclical occurrence.


by Marilyn Nelson

‘Star-Fix’ by Marilyn Nelson is a poem that lionizes the noble role of the navigator onboard an aircraft.

An important poem of the 20th century by an author that presents a Black individual as an almost mythical figure. One that, though not free from the imposition of race, draws attention to the fact that there are other angles apart from oppression with which to highlight people of color.

The Hermit

by Alan Paton

‘The Hermit’ by Alan Paton suggests that it is impossible to find peace by locking out the pain, hunger, and emotions of others. Justice and peace are only possible through human connection and compromise.

'The Hermit' is timeless, as it does not explicitly give away details about Apartheid in South Africa, but it is, nonetheless, a critical poem for the anti-Apartheid groups that existed in the 20th century. As such, it carries both a universal and specific meaning that is relevant to all people today.

The Best-Kept Secrets of Poetry

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry ever straight to your inbox

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry, straight to your inbox

Start Your Perfect Poetry Journey