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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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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, rant and 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.”