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.

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.

Bix to Buxtehude to Boulez.

The little white dog on the Victor label

Listens long and hard as he is able.

It’s all in a day’s work, whatever plays.


by Frederick Seidel

‘1968’ describes the aftermath of a raucous Hollywood party. Seidel works into this context a broader critique of sociopolitical realities.

This poem effectively captures the spirit of an important moment in 20th-century American history. '1968' is often seen as the "annus horribilis" of that turbulent decade, a year marred by the assassination of major political figures and other eruptions of shocking violence. From the vantage point afforded by the lapse of several years, Seidel attempts - obliquely - an assessment of the year and the decade. Underneath its obvious political manifestations, he detects a substratum of moral decline.

A football spirals through the oyster glow

Of dawn dope and fog in L.A.’s

Bel Air, punted perfectly. The foot

That punted it is absolutely stoned.

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.

He wept for her and for the hard tasks

He had lovingly done, for the short,

Fierce life she had lived in the white bed,

For the burden he had put down for good.

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.

No one understood the perfume

of the dark magnolia of your womb

Nobody knew that you tormented

a hummingbird of love between your teeth.

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.

Go walk the streets of Baroda,

go to Ahmedabad

and step around the cow dung

but don’t forget to look at the sky.

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.

some waves

                     a wave of now

                                               a trombone speaking to you

a piano is trying to break a molecule

On Joy and Sorrow

by Kahlil Gibran

‘On Joy and Sorrow’ by Kahlil Gibran is a meditative, insightful, poetic essay that makes interesting implications about the inseparable emotions of joy and sorrow.

'On Joy and Sorrow' is a poem ahead of its time. Its conversational tone and easy-to-understand language hardly reveal that this poem was written in the early 1920s. Likewise, the unique form and structure of this poetic essay look forward to the future of poetry, which was undergoing a transition from formal structure to free verse and original form.

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.

And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.

And how else can it be?

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.

Stones only, the disjecta membra of this Great House,

Whose moth-like girls are mixed with candledust,

Remain to file the lizard’s dragonish claws.

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.

My mother never forgave my father

for killing himself,

especially at such an awkward time

and in a public park,

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.

Down the dead streets of sun-stoned Frederiksted,

the first free port to die for tourism,

strolling at funeral pace, I am reminded

of life not lost to the American dream;

won’t you celebrate with me

by Lucille Clifton

‘won’t you celebrate with me’ by Lucille Clifton addresses racism and inherent gender inequality. The speaker has overcome every hurdle and modeled herself in her own image.

Lucille Clifton was a prominent poet in the latter half of the 20th century, and 'won’t you celebrate with me' is a testament to the power and importance of her work during this time.

won't you celebrate with me

what i have shaped into

a kind of life? i had no model.

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.

I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall   

after an Indian woman puts her shoulder to the Grand Coulee Dam   

and topples it. I am told by many of you that I must forgive   

and so I shall after the floodwaters burst each successive dam   

A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto

by Czeslaw Milosz

‘A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto’ by Czeslaw Milosz presents a description of the Warsaw Ghetto from the eyes of a “poor Christian.”

The poem reflects the tumultuous nature of the 20th century and the profound impact of events such as World War II and the Holocaust on individuals and communities. The poem is not as famous as some 20th-century poetry, but it is an incredibly important piece of writing that should be read among the best poems of the period. It's highly connected to the events of the 1940s.

Bees build around red liver,

Ants build around black bone.

It has begun: the tearing, the trampling on silks,

It has begun: the breaking of glass, wood, copper, nickel, silver, foam

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.

Spades take up leaves

No better than spoons,

And bags full of leaves

Are light as balloons.

Archaic Torso of Apollo

by Rainer Maria Rilke

‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ by Rainer Maria Rilke details the remaining beauty and power of a damage sculpture missing its head and legs.

The 20th century saw a wide range of poetic styles and movements, from the modernist experimentation of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound to the confessional poetry of Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. The poetry of this era reflects the tumultuous social and political changes of the time, as well as a growing interest in the inner workings of the human mind.

We cannot know his legendary head

with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso

is still suffused with brilliance from inside,

like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

Childhood Ideogram

by Larry Levis

‘Childhood Ideogram’ by Larry Levis immerses readers in a nostalgic journey, where vivid imagery and contemplative reflections unravel the complexities of identity, memory, and the transient nature of time.

Larry Levis' poem is a good representation of 20th-century poetry with its introspective exploration of memory and its evocative language. It shares similarities with other poems of the time period that delve into personal experiences, reflects on the passage of time, and explore themes of identity and loss. However, each poet brings their own unique perspective and style to their work, so while it fits within the broader context of 20th-century poetry, it also stands as a distinct and individual piece.

I lay my head sideways on the desk,

My fingers interlocked under my cheekbones,

My eyes closed. It was a three-room schoolhouse,

White, with a small bell tower, an oak tree

High Flight

by John Gillespie Magee

‘High Flight’ by John Gillespie Maggee Jr. is a powerful WWII poem that was written in the weeks prior to the poet’s death. It explores flying, God, and human mortality.

The poem is widely regarded as a classic of 20th-century poetry, praised for its imagery, lyricism, and evocation of the human spirit. It is incredibly powerful and emotional in its relationship to contemporary events.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

of sun-split clouds,—and done a hundred things

In Celebration of My Uterus

by Anne Sexton

‘In Celebration of My Uterus’ by Anne Sexton is an uplifting poem about the meaning of womanhood. The poem explores Sexton’s perspective on feminine identity.

This poem is notable in the 20th century because of its genre. It is one of the pioneer confessional poems written by a woman. At the time, there was a lot of critique about women who wrote poems in this genre. Some notably male critics especially criticized Sexton's use of it but eventually came to acknowledge how well she wrote in the genre.

Sweet weight,

in celebration of the woman I am

and of the soul of the woman I am

and of the central creature and its delight


Polar Exploration

by Stephen Spender

‘Polar Exploration’ reflects upon peaceful isolation and urban life, particularly how the latter appears to make the former impossible.

Like much of Spender's poetry, the technological advancements of the twentieth century feature heavily and are presented to be obtuse and unappealing to the narrator. The modern world is shown to be a chaotic and frightening place.

Our single purpose was to walk through snow

With faces swung to their prodigious North

Like compass iron. As clerks in whited Banks

With bird-claw pens column virgin paper



by Marilyn Nelson

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

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

At his cramped desk under the astrodome, the navigator looks

thousands of light-years everywhere but down. He gets a celestial fix,

measuring head-winds; checking the log; plotting wind-speed,

altitude, drift in a circle of protractors, slide-rules, and pencils.

Still I Rise

by Maya Angelou

‘Still I Rise’ is an inspiring and emotional poem that’s based around Maya Angelou’s experiences as a Black woman in America. It encourages readers to love themselves fully and persevere in the face of every hardship.

This poem was first published in 1978 and is a prime example of the poetry of the 20th century, which often explored social and political issues and celebrated the power of the individual to rise above adversity.

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I'll rise.

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.

I have barred the doors

Of the place where I bide,

I am old and afraid

Of the world outside.

The Snowman on the Moor

by Sylvia Plath

‘The Snowman on the Moor’ explores the turbulent and abusive relationship between the speaker (presumably Plath herself) and her male spouse.

Considering the chronological context in which the poem was written, its content is extremely relevant, as it discusses women's limited rights and the abusive nature of relationships. Although the poem is loosely based on Plath's relationship, it is relevant to every woman who has ever been in or witnessed an unfulfilling relationship with an unstable power dynamic.

Stalemated their armies stood, with tottering banners:

She flung from a room

Still ringing with bruit of insults and dishonors

They Feed They Lion

by Philip Levine

‘They Feed They Lion’ by Philip Levine is a powerful poem that visualizes a scene of apocalyptic proportions. It was inspired by the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit riots.

The poem’s portrayal of the consequences of oppression reveals just how entangled the violence of the oppressor is with the violent rebellion of those being oppressed. Its basis on a historical moment like the Detroit riots lends its prescient recognition of the path racism, and the exploitation of working-class Americans will eventually lead to.

Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,

Out of black bean and wet slate bread,

Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,

Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,

To My Brother

by Lorna Dee Cervantes

‘To My Brother’ by Lorna Dee Cervantes captures the intense bittersweetness of remembering a childhood checkered by both strife and happiness.

Cervantes' writing gets at a number of themes indicative of the 20th century, from the rise in voices of people of color to the economic inequities that plague them. As a result, the poem is an important reflection of the individual effects observed by the author through the speaker as brown woman.

and for the lumpen bourgeoisie

We were so poor.

The air was a quiver

of thoughts we drew from

Two Armies

by Stephen Spender

‘Two Armies’ by Stephen Spender describes two armies on a devastating battlefield where every individual is suffering. Their common humanity is highlighted. 

This poem was written during the 20th century and should remind readers of both World War I but it is not representative of the period broadly.

Deep in the winter plain, two armies

Dig their machinery, to destroy each other.

Men freeze and hunger. No one is given leave

Week-night Service

by D.H. Lawrence

‘Week-night Service’ creates a vivid scene of a church at night. The sound of bells disturbs the otherwise quiet church yard and the nature that surrounds it.

D.H. Lawrence is one of the major writers of the twentieth century. 'Week-night Service' demonstrates many of the conventions of poetry in his lifetime, and particularly in the early years of the century. While the poem maintains structured stanzas and a regular rhyme scheme, its varied line length is suggestive of the more fluid free verse poetry that dominated much of the century.

The five old bells

Are hurrying and eagerly calling,

Imploring, protesting

They know, but clamorously falling

Another Insane Devotion

by Gerald Stern

‘Another Insane Devotion’ by Gerald Stern is about a man reflecting on his life experiences. His memories, while not always easily understood, help him see the value of the choices he has made.

This poem was originally published in 1987. While it is a highly accomplished and memorable poem, it is not one of the most famous poems of the century. The twentieth century was an extraordinary century for poetry, with many famous poems published.

This was gruesome—fighting over a ham sandwich

with one of the tiny cats of Rome, he leaped

on my arm and half hung on to the food and half

hung on to my shirt and coat.

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