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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.
 
 
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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.

Given the poem’s lyricism and memorable gravitas, it should come as no surprise that writers and other artists have used some of its phrases to title their works. For instance, Joan Didion used a phrase for her 1968 essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem; in 1999, hip-hop group The Roots used a phrase for their album Things Fall Apart; and of course Chinua Achebe, years earlier in 1958, used the same phrase for his famous novel about colonialism’s detrimental effects on Nigeria.

4. “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg

Published in 1956 in the collection Howl and Other Poems, the poem, Slate columnist Fred Kaplan concludes, “was an anguished protest, literally a howl, against the era's soul-crushing conformism and a hymn to the holiness of everything about the human body and mind, splashed in verse that breaks free from standard meter but speaks instead in the long lines and jangling rhythm of natural breath and conversation, a style inspired by the expressive poets who went ignored in the ivory towers of high modernism—Whitman, Blake, Rimbaud—fused with the urban syncopation of… bebop jazz.” The rebellious poem emboldened other artists of the time to rebel as well.

Shortly after the publication of “Howl,” Ginsberg, the leading figure of the Beat movement, proclaimed, “I think what is coming is a romantic period … a reassertion of naked personal subjective truth.” The poet’s words, Kaplan argues, were prophetic.

Ginsberg wrote “Howl” to champion self-expression but also to come to terms with his gayness. His depiction of homosexual sex came at a time when the medical establishment portrayed homosexuality as an illness and many states criminalized it. While most of the avant-garde artists of that era were, as Kaplan points out, “outsiders of one sort or another” (gay, Jewish or black), Ginsberg, both gay and Jewish, “was the first to come out, not just openly but brazenly, to make something of it, to make it central to his voice, his art.”

Howl and Other Poems’ subject matter and profanity alarmed the government. A year after its publication, the book was tried in a San Francisco court on the charge of obscenity. If the judge had ruled against the book, Kaplan concludes, “San Francisco, which was just emerging as an avant-garde haven, would have retreated into backwater provincialism for years, if not decades. The publicity surrounding the trial also turned Allen Ginsberg into a superstar—and the Beat movement into the aesthetic style of the counterculture to come…. Ginsberg's success also persuaded Kerouac's reluctant publisher to put out On the Road, which ingrained the Beat style and ethos among restless young American men forever.”

3. The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot

Widely regarded as the most influential poem of the 20th century, The Waste Land, published in 1922, depicts the world after the First World War. As B.C. Southam clarifies, “the ‘waste’ is not, however, that of war’s devastation and bloodshed, but the emotional and spiritual sterility of Western man, the ‘waste’ of our civilization.” The poem, Helen Vendler argues, “showed up the lightweight poetry dominating American magazines. Nothing could have been further from either bland escapism or Imagist stylization.”

“The Waste Land” is radically innovative in terms of not only subject matter but also technique. It is a collection of fragments, a series of dramatic monologues. Multiple speakers, rather than just one, populate the poem. Furthermore, through countless allusions and references Eliot compares the present to the past. The poet, Vendler adds, often arranges fragments from the past in jarring juxtapositions—“the Buddha next to St. Augustine, and Ovid next to Wagner,” causing anyone who enters the poem to feel “thrust into a time machine of disorienting simultaneity.”

The poem’s juxtapositions disorient the reader while its musical free-verse lines seduce her. However, Eliot’s free verse is not truly free (“No vers is libre,” he famously said, “for the man who wants to do a good job”). He uses meter, but unlike completely formal poets he varies the number of feet in his lines in no real pattern. “The Waste Land,” like most of his poems, is a hybrid of free verse and formal poetry.

2. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Up until the Norman Conquest of 1066, Old English, a Germanic language, was spoken in England. When the Norman French conquered the country, they imposed their Latinate tongue, Old French, on the natives of England. Gradually, the Germanic language of the conquered fused with the Latinate language of the conquerors. The offspring of this linguistic marriage was Middle English, which eventually developed into the Modern English we speak today. The language’s mixed heritage explains its spelling and grammatical eccentricities and its twin vocabularies – one highbrow and mellifluous, the other everyday and guttural.

Initial attempts to compose poetry in Middle English were less than memorable. Accentual meter had worked well for Old English, which was dominated by short words with strong stresses; but it generally proved ineffective when poets tried to use it for Middle English, which contained not only short words but polysyllabic words with fewer strong stresses, which as a result roiled in linguistic chaos. This lackluster period in British poetry lasted for some three hundred years. Then, in the second half of the 14th century, Chaucer—along with John Gower and other important poets—developed accentual syllabic meter, which counted not only stresses but also syllables. This innovation revolutionized poetry in English, making great poetry possible again. Two hundred years later, British poetry fully flowered, thanks to the work of Shakespeare, Spenser, Marlowe and other Renaissance poets. However, their achievements would not have been possible had it not been for Chaucer’s metrical innovations, which arguably reached their highest form in his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales.

1. Hamlet by William Shakespeare

And topping our list… Shakespeare. Surprise, surprise. And yet he deserves top honors. No writer, poet or otherwise, has had a greater impact on the language than he (whoever he was), and the verse play Hamlet is arguably his magnum opus. He composed it and his other works during the Renaissance, when English was all over the place. (The only period in the history of the English language more turbulent than Shakespeare’s time was Chaucer’s.) With no grammar books or dictionaries in existence, there were no agreed-upon standards of spelling, grammar and pronunciation. Exact definitions for many words were in dispute, and many of the words that exist today didn’t exist then. To plug holes in the language, Brits imported words and expressions from other languages and cobbled together completely new words. With English in such a tumultuous state of flux, a dominant writer could have helped it or harmed it. It was a great boon that Shakespeare lived and wrote when he did. With his delicate ear, gift for word invention and genius for expressing ideas in memorable, irreducible ways, he rescued English from chaos, shaping it further, plugging many of its holes and helping to make spelling, grammar and pronunciation consistent. He coined over 1700 words and countless phrases now in daily use. From Hamlet alone come the words barefaced, besmirch, buzzer, excitement, outbreak, pander, rantand summit, and the expressions “flesh and blood,” “in my heart of heart,” “in my mind's eye,” “sick at heart,” “primrose path,” “there's the rub” and “a piece of work.” Harold Bloom concludes, “Early modern English was shaped by Shakespeare: the Oxford English Dictionary is made in his image.”

But Hamlet does more than reflect Shakespeare’s tremendous contributions to our language. It also reflects his significant contributions to world literature. According to Edward Hubler, “tragedy of the first order” had been dead two thousand years—since the time of the great ancient Greek tragedians—when Shakespeare resurrected it in 1600 with Hamlet. And out of all the characters in Western literature and perhaps in world literature, Hamlet is the most complex, the most thoroughly fleshed out, the one who comes closest to seeming like a real, breathing person. As Bloom puts it, Hamlet’s “total effect upon the world’s culture is incalculable. After Jesus, Hamlet is the most cited figure in Western consciousness.”

Dana Crum is a New York City–based poet, novelist and freelance writer. His work has appeared on Stories on Stage and in The Source, Black Issues Book Review, Gumbo: An Anthology of African American Writing, princeton.edu and other publications and websites. Learn more about him at danacrum.com.