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7 Poems That Shook the World

From Allen Ginsberg to Adrienne Rich, these poems invoked controversy and shifted our political consciousness.

A poem must be powerful indeed to shake the world, for poets, at least in this country, are generally the least-read writers. (And the least-paid. But that is a subject for another article.) A poem can achieve a large readership in various ways—by galvanizing political movements or making political statements; by revolutionizing poetry through the introduction of radically new techniques, forms, or subjects; or even by shaping the language during times of linguistic chaos. Here are seven that shifted our consciousness.

7. “Somebody Blew Up America” by Amiri Baraka

Named New Jersey poet laureate in August 2002, Baraka believes poetry should rattle readers rather than serving as decoration. Weeks after his inauguration, he recited his poem about 9/11, lines of which allege that the Israelis and President Bush had advance knowledge of the terrorist attacks. The piece rattled quite a few readers, including then-Governor of New Jersey James E. McGreevey, state legislators and the Anti-Defamation League. Accusations of anti-Semitism flew, and the governor demanded that Baraka resign. When he refused, a protracted battle ensued. Unable to fire him directly, the governor and state legislature abolished the poet laureate post altogether, causing concerns over free speech.

The celebrated poet is no stranger to controversy. In fact, he has encountered it in all the stages of his career, stages in which he changed form like Proteus – “Greenwich Village beatnik, Harlem black nationalist, bloodied warrior of the 1967 Newark riots, Marxist [and] critic of Newark mayors,” to quote journalist Matthew Purdy.

The controversy surrounding “Somebody Blew Up America” threatens to cloud the poem’s larger message. As journalist Jeremy Pearce explains, “the poem announces the plight of the downtrodden through history, repeatedly asking ‘who’ is responsible for political oppression across the globe.”

6. “Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich

Ruth Whitman calls “Diving into the Wreck,” published in 1973, “one of the great poems of our time,” and Cheryl Walker hails it as “one of the most beautiful poems to come out of the women's movement.”

The solitary speaker in the poem leaves her schooner and explores a shipwreck beneath the ocean’s surface. For Deborah Pope, “the wreck represents the battered hulk of the sexual definitions of the past, which Rich, as an underwater explorer, must search for evidence of what can be salvaged. Only those who have managed to survive the wreck—women isolated from any meaningful participation or voice in forces that led to the disaster—“ can “write its epitaph and their own names in new books.”

According to Erica Jong, the underwater explorer is an androgynous “stranger-poet-survivor” who “carries ‘a book of myths’ in which her/his ‘names do not appear.’ These are the old myths of patriarchy, the myths that split male and female irreconcilably into two warring factions, the myths that perpetuate the battle between the sexes. Implicit in Rich's image of the androgyne is the idea that we must write new myths, create new definitions of humanity which will not glorify this angry chasm but heal it.” Rich also implies, Jong concludes, that anyone hoping to save civilization from destruction must transcend gender.

5. “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats

Some of the most striking, haunting images penned in the 20th century appear in “The Second Coming,” which concludes with these famous, apocalyptic lines: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Written in 1919, the poem reveals a Yeats appalled by the “anarchy” and “blood-dimmed tide” soaking the planet: World War I, in which over 16 million soldiers and civilians died, had ended only a year earlier, and now Russia and Ireland, his homeland, were steeped in the bloodshed of civil war. Yeats—who believed history cycled, with one era being replaced by an antithetical era every two thousand years—felt the world events of his time augured the end of the Christian age, which had itself replaced the Greco-Roman age.