Voices that Matter


The poems for the course were chosen mainly from those written in English during the 20th Century. A few more recent poems dealing with events of the 20th Century and several poems translated from other languages are also included. Within the selection are several longer poems that we shall only consider in part. I have considered song lyrics to be poetry.

I have tried to be representative in my choice of poems, but when in doubt I have chosen those that appeal to me. I believe that a good poem must somehow immediately attract the reader’s or listener’s attention. It must not promise a wealth of meaning after long study without some initial evidence that such study will be worthwhile. Life is too short for poems that can only be accessed with a scholarly commentary. Another reason was the availability of the poems in the voice of the poet or some other talented reader. Sometimes a poem’s meaning only becomes clear when it is heard.

The texts of the poems can be downloaded as pdf files. My notes for the lectures are also available – these include the photographs and artwork that illustrate the poems and document their context.


Session 1A. The Twentieth Century in Short. Part I. A preview of the poets and poetry of the Twentieth Century through a selection of short poems. Text. Notes

Session 1B. The Darkling Thrush. Poetry from the turn of the century until the onset of World War I. Thomas Hardy. The Spoon River Anthology. Imagism. Popular poetry, such as by Robert Service. Interactions between Robert Frost and Edward Thomas. Text. Notes

Session 2A. Never Such Innocence Again. Poetry of World War I. The early patriotism and bravado (Blunden, Brooke, Seeger) give way to pity and outrage (Rosenberg, Owen, Sassoon). After the war, what happened cannot be glorified in monuments (Pound, MacLeish). Text. Notes

Session 2B. A Heap of Broken Images. The Cantos of Ezra Pound and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot inaugurate academic modernism. Meta-physics comes with Wallace Stevens, and realism with William Carlos Williams. Text. Notes

Session 3A. The Centre Cannot Hold. W. B. Yeats combines modernism with the bardic tradition: The Second Coming, Sailing to Byzantium. D. H. Lawrence and e e cummings infuse modernism with passion. Text. Notes

Session 3B. Honey Mixed with Liquid Fire. The poetry of jazz. Langston Hughes describes the blues. Billy Holiday, Bessie Smith and Nina Simone sing. Later poets such as Philip Larkin, William Matthews, Hayden Carruth and Terence Hayes remember the music. Text. Notes

Session 4A. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Poetry of the Depression. Ballads such as Joe Hill. Robert Frost Two Tramps at Mud Time. Robert Hayden and Donald Justice remember. Visual poetry: The Plough that Broke the Plain, Walker Evans’ photographs. Text. Notes

Session 4B. We Must Love One Another or Die. The gathering storm. T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton. Wars in Spain and China are prelude to World War II. W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice portray the “low dishonest decade.” Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem. Text. Notes

Session 5A. What Thou Lov’st Well. World War II and its aftermath. Douglas Simplify Me. Anthony Hecht Sacrifice, More Light, Book of Yolek. Is there no poetry after Auschwitz? The madness of Ezra Pound (Canto XLV Usura and Pisan Canto LXXXI). Text. Notes

Session 5B. North and South. Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell interact in the Americas. Both try to understand anxieties of modern life. Dylan Thomas and R. S. Thomas provide two different poetic views of Wales. Text. Notes

Session 6A. Mr. Tambourine Man. The Beats. Alan Ginsberg and Howl. Eastern religions make their way to the west. Gary Snyder’s Riprap. Poetry of the Sixties. Bob Dylan. Dream Songs of John Berryman. Vietnam and the peace movement.  Text. Notes

Session 6B. A Dream Deferred. Civil Rights and Racism in America. Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrienne Rich, Terrance Hayes describe the black experience. Lowell’s For the Union Dead. Philip Levine They Feed They Lion. Text. Notes

Session 7A. A Gold Light in Certain Old Paintings. Poets consider the other arts. Donald Justice, Gold Light and Death Speaks. James Merrill completes a jigsaw puzzle. Dorothy Livesay listens to Bartok. Peter Porter goes to the opera. Conrad Aiken remembers Li Po.  Text. Notes

Session 7B. Warming Her Pearls. The changing nature of sex and love. Edna St Vincent Millay and Dorothy Parker describe the new freedom of love. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Philip Larkin’s High Windows. Louise Glück’s Eros. Text. Notes

Session 8A. Millennium Approaches. Cavafy’s Ithaka. Poetry of Ireland: Easter Rising and the Troubles Auden’s In Memory of W. B. Yeats and the nature of poetry. The AIDs epidemic. Derek Walcott’s Omeros. Seamus Heaney’s Postscript and Larkin’s Aubade. Text. Notes

Session 8B. The Twentieth Century in Short. Part II. A final summary of the century as portrayed in its shorter poems. Text. Notes


There are several good anthologies of 20th Century poetry:

Ramazani, J., Ellmann, R., & O’Clair, R. (2003).The Norton anthology of modern and contemporary poetry. New York: Norton.

Nelson, C. (2000). Anthology of modern American poetry. New York: Oxford University Press.  This has an associated website with biographical and critical essays:

Tuma, K. (2001). Anthology of twentieth-century British and Irish poetry. New York: Oxford University Press.