Twentieth-Century Poets Slideshow
Elizabeth Bishop has been called a “writer’s writer’s writer,” suggesting the admiration other poets feel for her work. Her total output was small, but she polished her poems to gleaming perfection. In works such as “Filling Station,” “The Moose,” and “First Death in Nova Scotia,” she displayed the precise observation, intellectual strength, and understated humor that continue to win admirers.
Bishop was born February 8, 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father died when she was an infant, and her mother, who eventually took her to live with maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia, suffered a series of breakdowns before being permanently hospitalized.
Despite these disturbances, childhood offered her satisfaction and interest. She loved learning the alphabet. Years afterward, she remembered: “It was wonderful to see that the letters each had different expressions, and that the same letter had different expressions at different times. Sometimes the two capitals of my name looked miserable, slumped down and sulky, but at others they turned fat and cheerful, almost with roses in their cheeks.”
In 1917, Bishop’s paternal grandparents brought her back to Worcester, a wrenching experience. “I felt as if I were being kidnapped, even if I wasn’t,” she later wrote. She lived with relatives, in Massachusetts and Nova Scotia, over the next several years, and entered Vassar College in 1930. A librarian there introduced her to the poet Marianne Moore, who encouraged her interest in writing and selected some of her work for publication in an anthology, giving an early boost to her career.
After graduating from Vassar in 1934, Bishop began an extended period of restless travel, staying in New York, Key West, and other places before settling in Brazil, where she lived for the greater part of two decades. She returned to the United States in the late 1960s, finally moving to Boston, where she taught at Harvard University.
In Bishop’s work, opposites are fused. Reticence and control—passionate feeling and also coolness—mark her writing. Her poems walk the line between public and private, the marvelous and the ordinary, and other contradictions. This heightened awareness or “double vision” came to her in childhood, as recounted in her well-known poem “In the Waiting Room,” in which she remembers sitting in a dentist’s office as a girl of six: “But I felt: you are an I, / you are an Elizabeth, / you are one of them.”
Bishop is celebrated for her powers of description and precise observation. There is something of the careful mapmaker’s exactness in her poems, reflected in the titles of several of her books, such as North & South (1946), Questions of Travel (1965), and Geography III (1976). Her poetry is aware of economic inequality and the edgy relationship between rich and poor. “Pink Dog” touches on the brutality of society in regard to outcasts. Scenes of hungry people during the Depression inspired her to write “A Miracle for Breakfast.”
Her autobiographical prose poem “In the Village,” widely considered a classic, presents life in the maritime village of her childhood as enchanting if not fully understood. Poignantly portraying the tension of living with an unbalanced person (her mother), it begins: “A scream, the echo of a scream, hangs over that Nova Scotian village. No one hears it; it hangs there forever….”
In the words of one critic, her poems “accommodate the smallest details and the largest issues.” Bishop’s poems seem open to almost any subject, including even a dirty filling station, and consistently defy expectation. “First Death in Nova Scotia” finds surprising humor in a child’s struggle to make sense of the death of a younger cousin. In “The Armadillo,” a festive fire balloon splatters against a cliff “like an egg of fire” and sends animals in the vicinity into a panic; with great subtlety, Bishop calls aerial bombing to mind, and “The Armadillo” turns out to be an anti-war classic, comparing human beings to the frightened animal with “a weak mailed fist / clenched ignorant against the sky.”
Elizabeth Bishop died suddenly of a cerebral aneurysm at her home in Boston on October 6, 1979. She received many awards and honors during her lifetime, and interest in her work continues to grow.
Joseph Brodsky, an exile from the Soviet Union, was the first foreign-born poet to be appointed Poet Laureate of the U.S. (1991–92). His meditative, lyrical elegies, often fused with classical themes, explored personal issues of loss and loneliness as well as such universal ideas as death and the meaning of life. Praised for writing in both Russian and English, Brodsky published several poetry collections in his lifetime as well as three collections of essays. In 1987, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature for “all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity.”
Brodsky was born on May 24, 1940, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia. After leaving school at age 15, he worked at a variety of jobs, primarily as an unskilled laborer. He also read voraciously and eventually taught himself Polish and English through poetry. By 1960, his own poems were circulating widely in the underground press.
Although Brodsky was not a dissident, he attracted the attention of Soviet officials. In 1964, he was arrested and formally charged with “social parasitism” because of his sporadic employment. Sentenced to five years labor on a farm in the north, Brodsky was released in 1965 after serving 18 months. He continued to write poetry after his return to Leningrad, but despite his growing reputation as a gifted and committed poet, he was ultimately forced to leave the Soviet Union in 1972.
In the years between his arrest and exile, Brodsky wrote one of the most important poems of his early career. Comprising 14 cantos and nearly 1,400 lines, the epic “Gorbunov and Gorchakov” records the dialogue between two patients in a psychiatric hospital, interspersed with the patients’ philosophical monologues and interrogations from their doctors. “I feel my very self’s at stake / when I don’t have an interlocutor,” muses Gorchakov, alone one night. “It is in words alone that I partake / of life.” Writing the poem proved therapeutic for Brodsky, who had stayed in a similar institution for a short period during his 1964 trial.
Brodsky settled in the U.S. in 1972 and had become a U.S. citizen by the end of the decade. He had a self-proclaimed “love affair with the English language” and translated many of his poems himself. He wrote numerous essays in English, and in the late 1980s, he even began composing poems in English. Yet the pull of his homeland—and native tongue—remained strong. As he states in “A Part of Speech”: “What gets left of a man amounts / to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.”
A thread of displacement, loneliness, and loss runs through many of Brodsky’s poems. “I don’t know where I am or what this place / can be,” he writes in “Odysseus to Telemachus,” which draws on Homer’s Odyssey. “To a wanderer the faces of all islands / resemble one another.” In “Lullaby of Cape Cod,” he writes of moving between empires and navigating unfamiliar landscapes, while in “Lithuanian Nocturne” he asks, “Muse, may I set / out homeward?”
Brodsky never did return to Russia, but he embraced the country he came to call home—and the U.S. embraced him in return. In addition to teaching at universities in Michigan, New York, and Massachusetts, he published poems and essays in the New York Times, Vogue, and other places. He received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 1981 and the 1986 National Book Critics Circle Award for Less Than One, a collection of essays about Russian and American poetry.
As Poet Laureate of the U.S., Brodsky sought to make poetry more accessible to Americans. “This assumption that the blue-collar crowd is not supposed to read it,” he stated soon after his appointment, “or a farmer in his overalls is not to read poetry, seems to be dangerous, if not tragic.”
Stricken with a heart condition that made him frail at a young age, Brodsky had a heightened sense of his own mortality, and images of time and death persist in his poems. “Lately I often sleep / during the daytime,” he writes in “Nature Morte.” “My / death, it would seem, is now / trying and testing me.” Brodsky died in New York City on January 28, 1996.
Gwendolyn Brooks is best remembered for distinctive, lyrical portraits of everyday urban life. Her poems combine traditional forms—such as the sonnet and ballad—with experimental free verse, jazz and blues poetry, and colloquial language. A committed voice against sexual and racial oppression, Brooks, who determinedly described herself as Black, was the first Black American to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, and grew up in Chicago, Illinois. A shy and reticent girl, she poured her emotions and experiences into poetry, which she began writing before age ten. In 1930, she published her first poem, and she continued to publish throughout her teens and into her twenties. By the mid-1940s, Brooks’s poetry had begun to win awards and critical recognition.
Brooks found much of the inspiration for her first collection, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), in the sights and sounds of her own neighborhood. “We wonder. But not well! not for a minute! / Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now, / We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it,” she writes in “kitchenette building.” Once characteristic of Chicago’s South Side, kitchenettes were small apartments housing several families who shared one bathroom. In these cramped, crowded spaces, dreams and ambitions had to compete with “onion fumes” and “yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall.” Yet among the poverty and struggle of daily living, beauty and love persisted. “It was quite a time for loving. It was midnight. It was May,” writes Brooks in “the old-marrieds.” “But in the crowding darkness not a word did they say.”
Brooks was especially attuned to the circumscribed, sometimes luminous lives of Black women. For her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Annie Allen (1949), Brooks focused on just one woman and followed her life from birth to adulthood. At the heart of the collection is “The Anniad,” an elaborate and lengthy piece about Annie’s marriage and disillusionment as dreams give way to reality. Even as “the culprit magics fade,” however, Annie finds pleasure in the world around her: “Hugging old and Sunday sun / Kissing in her kitchenette / The minuets of memory.”
From the beginning of her career, Brooks demonstrated a controlled mastery of traditional poetic structures such as the sonnet, ballad, and epic, yet she never felt constrained by them. Arguably her most famous poem, “We Real Cool” elevates the short lyric to a new level of conciseness while also infusing the verse with a contemporary swinging rhythm:
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Brooks frequently experimented with rhyme and meter, playing with both conventional and unconventional forms, and even invented a new hybrid form, the “sonnet-ballad.”
Perhaps best known for her poems about the intimate experiences and emotions of individuals, Brooks also addressed national and international issues. “Gay Chaps at the Bar,” a sequence of 12 sonnets, was based on letters Brooks received from Black soldiers serving in World War II. “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock” considers the struggle to desegregate the nation’s public schools.
Published in 1968, In the Mecca was nominated for the National Book Award. The collection included the monumental “In the Mecca,” in which the faded grandeur of the decaying Mecca building mirrors the condition of many Blacks at the time.
In addition to numerous honorary degrees, Brooks received a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts. She served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (the position later renamed Poet Laureate) from 1985 to 1986 and as Poet Laureate of Illinois from 1968 until her death. In addition to poetry, she published two unconventional autobiographies, Report from Part One (1972) and Report from Part Two (1996). The semi-autobiographical Maud Martha, her only novel, was published in 1953.
Brooks died on December 3, 2000, at her home in Chicago.
E. E. Cummings
E. E. Cummings expertly manipulated the rules of grammar, punctuation, rhyme, and meter to create poems that resembled modernist paintings more than traditional verse. His works about love and relationships, nature, and the importance of the individual transformed notions of what a poem can do and delighted readers of all ages. Criticized by some readers for his unconventional and highly experimental style, Cummings eventually became one of the most enduringly popular poets of the 20th century.
Cummings was born on October 14, 1894, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Encouraged by his mother, he wrote poems, stories, and essays throughout his childhood. Eight Harvard Poets, a collection published in 1917, included eight poems written by Cummings while he was a student at Harvard University. His first book, The Enormous Room (1922), was a memoir in the form of a novel. Now considered a classic, this work describes his four-month internment in a French prison during World War I on unfounded suspicions of treason.
Published in 1923, Cummings’s first collection of poetry, Tulips and Chimneys, comprised 66 poems, including what may be his most famous, “in Just-.” Drawing on images from Cummings’s own idyllic childhood, the poem imagines children at play in springtime, “when the word is puddle-wonderful” and “bettyandisbel come dancing // from hop-scotch and jump-rope” at the whistle of the “old balloonman.” Critics praised the collection for its fresh, vivid energy, but the poet’s unconventional style puzzled some of them.
Not satisfied merely to describe a moment or sentiment, Cummings aimed to reproduce experiences directly on the page. He deleted or added spaces between words and lines in order to guide the tempo of a poem. He frequently combined words or created unexpected new ones and used capitalization for emphasis. Punctuation added complexity and nuance. Appearing in Cummings’s 1931 collection W (1931), “n(o)w” mimics the rumble, electrical hiss, and sudden crash of a thunderstorm, when the sky “iS Slapped:with;liGhtninG / !.” A whimsical piece about a grasshopper from No Thanks (1935), “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r,” has letters playfully jumping in and out of order, obscuring and enhancing the poem’s meaning at the same time.
Cummings loved to paint, and his experience as a painter led him to create paintings with words, poems that cannot be truly understood until seen laid out on the page. For the simple four-word poem “l(a,” for example, he embedded the parenthetical phrase “a leaf falls” within the single word “loneliness.” The poem’s thin, vertical arrangement on the page evokes the graceful cadence of a leaf falling from a tree, while its sparse language communicates ideas of fragility and death, universality and rebirth.
Despite Cummings’s affinity for avant-garde styles, much of his work is traditional. Many of his poems are sonnets, and he even adopted the well-worn pattern of nursery rhymes, particularly in 1 &mult; 1 (1944), a collection that received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America.
Nevertheless, Cummings strongly resisted conformity, a theme that threads its way through much of his poetry. “So far as I am concerned,” he once wrote, “poetry and every other art was, is, and forever will be strictly and distinctly a question of individuality.” For “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” Cummings created the quintessential individual, “anyone,” who is loved by “noone.” Disliked by the judgmental “someones” and “everyones” around them, anyone and noone embrace life, content with what they have: “when by now and tree by leaf / she laughed his joy she cried his grief / bird by snow and stir by still / anyone’s any was all to her.”
During the 1950s, Cummings read his poetry publicly in museums, theaters, and educational institutions. He loved performing, and the effort not only increased his audience but also introduced poetry to new legions of fans.
In addition to several award-winning poetry collections, Cummings also published plays, fairy tales, and nonfiction. In late 1950, he received the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets, one of the nation’s most prestigious poetry awards, and in 1958 he received the Bollingen Prize in Poetry from Yale University.
Cummings died on September 3, 1962, in North Conway, New Hampshire.
The poems of Robert Hayden reflect his brilliant craftsmanship, his historical conscience, and his gift for storytelling. Many of his works, such as “Middle Passage” and “Runagate Runagate,” render aspects of the black American experience with unforgettable vividness. Others are more personal: “Those Winter Sundays” describes his father’s routine of rising early to tend to the fireplace and other chores, and becomes an appreciation for such habitual expressions of love.
Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey on August 4, 1913, in Detroit, Michigan, where he grew up. He was still an infant when his biological parents gave him to a local couple, William and Sue Ellen Hayden, who raised him. He was bookish, wore thick eyeglasses, and was teased by other children; as an adolescent, he felt guilt and shame when his family received welfare assistance during the Depression.
He found consolation in poetry. He read the poets of the day, among them Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes. Cullen, especially, was influential for the way his work combined racial awareness with a command of traditional poetics. By the time Hayden went to high school, he knew he wanted to be a poet.
As a student at Detroit City College (later Wayne State University), where he studied languages, Hayden published poems in the school paper. Beginning in 1936, he worked for the Federal Writers’ Project researching black history and folklore, giving him a store of knowledge from which he drew for his poems. His first book, Heart-Shape in the Dust, was published in 1940. Hayden would come to regard this collection of traditional, imitative verse as apprentice work.
In 1944, Hayden received his master’s degree in English from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he studied under W. H. Auden. In 1946, he took a job at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he taught literature until 1968. The following year, he returned to the University of Michigan, where he was on the faculty until his death on February 25, 1980.
As Hayden’s books of mature work appeared—among them A Ballad of Remembrance (1962), Words in the Mourning Time (1970), Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems (1975), and American Journal (1978)— his reputation and popularity grew. He is now recognized as one of America’s foremost poets, the author of many works considered classics.
In the terrifying “Night, Death, Mississippi,” Hayden inhabits the mind of an old man who fondly recalls taking part in lynching. He pays tribute to singer Bessie Smith in “Homage to the Empress of the Blues” and brings a hackneyed commercial character to glorious life in “Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves.” One of Hayden’s most celebrated works, “Middle Passage,” presents a kaleidoscopic look at the slave trade. In “Runagate Runagate,” he imagines his way into the world of escaping slaves. (The word “runagate,” from renegade, was used to designate a runaway.) The latter poem features Harriet Tubman conducting passengers on the Underground Railroad “through swamp and savanna… / over trestles of dew, through caves of the wish,” with the “first stop Mercy and the last Hallelujah.”
In “Monet’s ‘Waterlilies’,” Hayden wrote about a painting he loved. He wrote several poems about his Bahá’í religious faith, which bolstered his belief in the oneness of all humanity and in the spiritual value of the arts. “[American Journal],” a longer piece from his final collection, was written from the point of view of an extraterrestrial visitor (who is indifferent to punctuation): “how best describe these aliens in my / reports to the Counselors”?
Hayden wanted to be known not as a black poet, but simply as an American poet. “American life is a point of departure for me into an awareness of the universal,” he told an interviewer. In 1975, he was elected Fellow of the Academy of American Poets. He won many prizes, including several honorary degrees and an invitation to read at the Carter White House. In 1976, he was appointed Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (the position later renamed Poet Laureate)—making him the first African American to receive this honor.
The award-winning author of more than 20 collections of poetry, Denise Levertov wrote mystical, meditative poems about nature, spirituality, love, and loss, as well as antiwar poems. She believed in the revolutionary nature of her art and used poetry to promote change. Weaving together public and private, active and contemplative, Levertov perfected an organic form of poetry that explored the political and social world through the intimate experiences and perceptions of the individual.
Levertov was born on October 24, 1923, in Ilford, England. Her parents schooled her at home, where literature and poetry were a constant presence. In 1940, she published her first poem, “Listening to the Distant Guns,” which hints at war in Europe. Her first collection, The Double Image (1946), included poems she wrote while serving as a civilian nurse in London during World War II.
Despite the setting in which she created them, Levertov addressed the issue of war sparingly and indirectly in her early poems. “Who can be happy while the wind recounts / its long sagas of sorrow?” she asks in “Christmas 1944.” “Though we are safe / in a flickering circle of winter festival / we dare not laugh.” More common were poems like “Midnight Quatrain,” about love and separation, self-awareness, and the power of imagination: “Listening to rain around the corner / we sense a dream’s reality, / and know, before the match goes out, / ephemeral eternity.”
For her early work, Levertov employed traditional poetic structures peppered with experiments in rhyme and meter. By the late 1950s, however, she had relocated to the U.S., a move that, she explained, “necessitated the finding of new rhythms in which to write.” Arguing that every poem had a unique identity, she began to let content dictate form. She used line breaks, punctuation, and sound patterns to hasten or slow the pace of a poem and to reveal nuance and meaning that transcend the words on the page. “A long beauty, what is that?” she asks in “Love Song.” The repetition of words and sounds in the lines that follow reveal the answer: “A song / that can be sung over and over, / long notes or long bones. // Love is a landscape the long mountains / define but don’t / shut off from the / unseeable distance.”
Although Levertov’s early poetry often demonstrated her strong social conscience, her poetry and social-political activism truly merged in the 1960s into what she called a “poetry of engagement.” Harrowing pieces like “Life at War” decried the Vietnam War while also offering hope for peace: “We are the humans, men who can make; / whose language imagines mercy, / lovingkindness; . . . ” She also wrote of her travels in Vietnam in “In Thai Binh (Peace) Province,” which moves from the violence of “scattered / lemon-yellow cocoons at the bombed silk-factory” to images of a peaceful future. Other poems considered Nazi Germany, the U.S.S.R., and contemporary American life.
Levertov drew her poetry from her own experiences, and she encouraged her readers to open themselves up fully to the world, to find answers to universal questions by looking inward. “I like to find / what’s not found / at once, but lies // within something of another nature, / in repose, distinct,” she explains in “Pleasures.” In her poems, public and private form a single universe in which fairy tales and myths mingle with the objects and events of everyday life.
Late in her career, Levertov delved deeply into her own spirituality. The long, six-part poem “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus” makes clear not only the force of her doubt but also the strength of her will to believe: “O deep, remote unknown, / O deep unknown, / Have mercy upon us.”
The recipient of numerous honors and awards, Levertov edited anthologies and published several essay collections and translations as well as a memoir, Tesserae (1995). She taught at colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and served as poetry editor for The Nation and Mother Jones.
Levertov died in Seattle on December 20, 1997. She had been a U.S. citizen since 1955.
Infusing her poetry with personal experience, Sylvia Plath probed the relentless conflict between inner self and outward appearance. Her complex body of work includes deftly imagined poems about marriage and motherhood, gender and power, death and resurrection, and the search for the self. Although she published just one collection of poetry and one novel in her lifetime, several collections of her work were published after her death and solidified her position as one of the leading American poets of the 20th century. Her Collected Poems (1981) received the Pulitzer Prize in 1982.
Sylvia Plath was born in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, on October 27, 1932. A high-achieving and driven student, she began publishing poems and short stories at a young age. By the time she graduated from Smith College in 1955, her work had appeared in Seventeen magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe, and Mademoiselle, among other periodicals. She received a Fulbright scholarship and studied at Cambridge University in England from the fall of 1955 through the spring of 1957. She then returned to Smith to teach but left in 1958 to focus on her own writing.
Plath’s first collection of poetry, The Colossus, was published in the U.K. in 1960 and in the U.S. in 1962. The themes of rebirth and the search for a new identity figure prominently in many of the poems, including the seven-part “Poem for a Birthday,” in which the narrator waits to be made anew: “This is the city where men are mended. / I lie on a great anvil. / . . . There is nothing to do. / I shall be good as new.” For the landmark title poem, Plath drew on the devastating death of her father when she was eight years old. “I shall never get you put together entirely, / Pieced, glued, and properly jointed,” she writes, imagining the narrator “like an ant in mourning” crawling over the monumental ruins of a collapsed statue.
Because many of her poems echo the events of her life, Plath has often been labeled a “confessional” poet. Autobiographical and direct, confessional poems reveal the honest details of the poet’s life and innermost emotions. Plath revisited the painful subject of her father’s death in several poems, including her most famous, “Daddy.” By the end of the poem, which she wrote in the singsong style of a nursery rhyme, the narrator has angrily shed the heavy burden of grief, both for her father and for the husband who betrayed her.
In using her own life as inspiration, Plath gave voice to the daily experiences of all women. “Pursuit” speaks of a woman’s desire for a man, for example, while in “Lady Lazarus,” the narrator breaks free of social constraints to emerge as a fully realized self. Especially moving are her poems about motherhood. “Such pure leaps and spirals— / Surely they travel // The world forever,” she muses in “The Night Dances,” in which comets and snowflakes lovingly reflect the random movements of a curious baby. In “Morning Song,” strong, distinctive images of a watch and a museum mark the birth of a baby: “Love set you going like a fat gold watch. / . . . Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue. / . . . And now you try / Your handful of notes; / The clear vowels rise like balloons.”
Plath also created vibrant poems about nature and the sweet, enjoyable moments of everyday life. “Blackberrying,” for example, recalls her life in rural England, where there was “nothing, nothing but blackberries, / Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly, / A blackberry alley, going down in hooks and a sea / Somewhere at the end of it, heaving.”
On February 11, 1963, Plath committed suicide in her London home. She had suffered bouts of depression since college and had attempted suicide ten years earlier, an event she recounted in The Bell Jar (1963), a semi-autobiographical novel. Of the collections published posthumously, Ariel (1965) is the best known and features 40 poems written in a short, fevered burst of creativity in 1962.
Theodore Roethke created intimate, introspective poems distinguished by lyricism and a sensual use of imagery. Best known for his poems about the natural world, Roethke was profoundly influenced by the events of his childhood and mined his past for the themes and subjects of his writing. He mastered a variety of poetic styles, from formal rhymes to experimental free verse, and received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1954 for his collection The Waking (1953).
Roethke was born on May 25, 1908, in Saginaw, Michigan, where he spent time as a child exploring the large greenhouse owned by his father and uncle. In 1929, he received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, and he took graduate courses there and at Harvard University before embarking on a teaching career at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania in 1931. During this period, his poems began to appear in the New Republic, Saturday Review, and other publications. He received a master’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1936.
The tight, carefully constructed poems of Roethke’s first collection, Open House (1941), included short metaphysical works about nature and the self. Written in conventional poetic forms, they include “The Light Comes Brighter,” in which Roethke describes the coming of spring, when “buckled ice begins to shift” and “the cold roots stir below.” In the title poem he writes more personally: “My truths are all foreknown, / This anguish self-revealed, / I’m naked to the bone, / With nakedness my shield.”
Roethke found his greatest and most joyful inspiration in the landscape of his childhood. Published in 1948, his second collection, The Lost Son and Other Poems, included the landmark “greenhouse poems.” Written in a looser, more experimental form than his earlier work, the series drew on Roethke’s recollections of the plants and insects, smells, and organic sensations of the family-owned greenhouse in Michigan where he spent his youth. “I can hear underground, that sucking and sobbing,” he writes in “Cuttings (later),” “In my veins, in my bones I feel it . . .” The poems range from tender meditations on orchids and carnations to rich descriptions of even the most mundane activities, such as pulling weeds and transferring plants from one location to another.
His relationship with his father, who died when Roethke was 15, also loomed large in the poet’s imagination. “He does not put on airs / Who lived above a potting shed for years,” he recalls in “Otto.” “I think of him, and I think of his men, / As close to him as any kith or kin.” Similar recollections surface in “The Premonition” and “My Papa’s Waltz.”
Throughout his career, Roethke changed styles frequently, moving dramatically from terse, formal rhymes to highly original free verse—and back again. For his third collection, Praise to the End! (1951), he re-imagined the world through the eyes and voice of a child. In the lengthy title poem, he adopted the comforting rhythm and nonsense sounds of a nursery rhyme: “Mips and ma the mooly moo, / The likes of him is biting who, / A cow’s a care and who’s a coo?— / What footie does is final.”
A passionate teacher praised for moving and exciting his students, Roethke taught poetry at colleges and universities across the U.S., including Pennsylvania State College, Bennington College, and the University of Washington. He also suffered from bouts of mental illness and a recurring feeling of discomfort in his own skin, but he was unafraid to confront his innermost thoughts and emotions in his work. “What’s madness but nobility of soul / At odds with circumstance?” he asks in “In A Dark Time.” “My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly, / Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?” In 1953, he married Beatrice O’Connell, formerly a student at Bennington College.
In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Roethke’s many honors include the Bollingen Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and a Fulbright lectureship. He received the National Book Award in 1959 for Words for the Wind: The Collected Verse (1958). “I Am!” Says the Lamb, a book of poems for children, was published in 1961.
Roethke died on August 1, 1963, on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Published posthumously, The Far Field (1964), a collection of poems, including love poems, received the National Book Award in 1965.
The poems of Wallace Stevens present a luxurious banquet of language and meaning. Their sensuous music and intellectual richness make reading a distinctive experience. Several works by Stevens, such as “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and “The Snow Man,” are widely taught in schools. Some of his many books are Harmonium (1923), Ideas of Order (1936), The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937), and Parts of a World (1942).
Stevens was born on October 2, 1879, in Reading, Pennsylvania, where his father, an attorney, and his mother, a former teacher, cultivated a literary household. He spent summers at his grandfather’s house in the Pennsylvania countryside, sparking a lifelong appreciation for the American landscape. A talented writer and orator, Stevens published poems in his high school journal. During a three-year course of study at Harvard University, he was particularly influenced by one of his teachers, philosopher George Santayana.
Subsequently, Stevens briefly worked as a journalist. After earning a law degree at New York University, he began a long and very successful career in the insurance business. “It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job,” he said. He lived within walking distance of his office in Hartford, Connecticut, and often got ideas for poems on walks. Nevertheless, he maintained a strict separation between the worlds of business and art—to the point where some of his associates were surprised to learn that he was a noted poet.
An elegant and playful writer, Stevens can also be enigmatic. He addresses subjects that can seem abstract and philosophical; draws on references from the arts and literature; and makes sudden shifts in rhetorical tone. Some of his poems are highly comic, while others are somber and spare. They richly reward patient reading. In one of his works, “Man Carrying Thing,” Stevens wrote, “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.”
Many of Stevens’s poems explore the relationship between consciousness and reality. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” collects 13 separate short poems like “chapters” in a brief essay on the relation between the perceiver and the perceived. In “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts,” Stevens writes of a rabbit at nightfall, liberated from daytime threats now that “the light is a rabbit-light,” and “The whole of the wideness of night is for you, / A self that touches all edges, // You become a self that fills the four corners of night.” In the words of one critic, “The imagination is the true hero of a Stevens poem.”
Accepting an honorary degree from Bard College in 1951, Stevens referred to poetry as “a way through reality.” In “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” and other works, he explored how the imagination can harness grief and despair. “Death is the mother of beauty,” he wrote in an early poem, “Sunday Morning.” Impermanence gives experience and things their meaning and value.
Stevens wrote about how uncooperative reality can be, intruding on our generalizations about it. His poems respond to the world of experience without needing to claim or categorize it. They counterpose the human need for order and meaning with the shifting, unknowable nature of the world. They are also a kind of philosophical investigation into the nature of language itself.
In the introduction to his book of essays, The Necessary Angel (1951), Stevens described poetry as a “force capable of bringing about fluctuations in reality in words free from mysticism.” He regarded poetry (and the arts in general) as a compensation for lost religious belief. “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” is a long poem spelling out his theory of poetry (and of life) in three sections, headed “It Must Be Abstract,” “It Must Change,” and “It Must Give Pleasure.” A late poem, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” contains the line “We say God and the imagination are one…”
Esteemed as one of America’s greatest and most influential poets during his lifetime—he was awarded many prizes and honorary degrees—Stevens died on August 2, 1955. Since then, admiration for his work has increased.
William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams was a doctor who typed out his poems between seeing patients. His work showed readers the extraordinary in the commonplace—a broken bottle, a red wheelbarrow left out in the rain, a crumpled piece of brown paper blown along by the wind—restoring to such things some of the mystery they had lost. In deliberately plain language, Williams wrote about his routine and the everyday life around him. Even today, his work contradicts what many people think poetry is supposed to be; this was especially true at the time he began writing, when rhyming verse in the style of the English Romantics was in fashion.
Williams was born on September 17, 1883, in Rutherford, New Jersey. His father, an Englishman, often went on business trips to South America and spoke fluent Spanish; his mother was born in Puerto Rico. Their children grew up hearing various languages spoken around them.
Looking back on his boyhood while writing his Autobiography (1951), Williams remembered being entranced by the natural world: “To touch a tree, to climb it especially, but just to know the flowers was all I wanted.” In high school, he became interested in poetry and decided to be a writer. He went into medicine to support his writing, entering dental school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1902, but switching to medical school a year later.
In 1913, Williams went to the watershed art exhibit known as the Armory Show, where he saw Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) and other works which caused him to laugh out loud in wonder and appreciation—and to think about how poems looked on the page. Williams realized he wanted to treat words as words in the same way these painters worked with paint as paint, not worrying so much about representing nature but instead adding to it. As he later wrote in his Autobiography, “It is NOT to hold the mirror up to nature that the artist performs his work. It is to make, out of the imagination, something not at all a copy of nature, but something quite different, a new thing, unlike any thing else in nature, a thing advanced and apart from it.” He also resolved that his artistic materials—subject matter and language—would be found locally, rather than in some rarefied aesthetic realm. This is one of the reasons why his work is often said to highlight the universality of the local.
Many of his early, experimental poems are now considered classics, including “This Is Just to Say” (about eating the plums his wife had stored in the icebox), “The Great Figure” (about a fire truck speeding down a rainy street), and the poem widely known as “The Red Wheelbarrow” (“so much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow….”). In addition to poetry, Williams wrote plays, short stories, novels, and essays. His prose works include the novel A Voyage to Pagany and In the American Grain, a series of innovative essays on historical events and figures including George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln.
In another formal experiment, Williams developed “the variable foot”—a unit of one or several words intended to have the same weight in the poem—typically grouped in threes to make up a triadic line that, in the words of one critic, “combines the staccato and fragmentary nature of American speech with a dreamy fluency that is both haunting and hypnotic.” He used this triadic line in various works, including “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” (from which the following lines come): “It is difficult // to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack // of what is found there.”
Williams died March 4, 1963, at his home in Rutherford. His longest poem, Paterson, a collage mixing prose and poetry with “found objects” such as letters from friends, stretched over many books. For his late collection, Pictures from Brueghel (1962), Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, awarded posthumously in 1963. His manner and language were such that Williams seemed distinctively American even when writing about the paintings of an old Dutch master.