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A Brief But Enjoyable History Of Poetry Part 3

In the series so far we have journeyed through the Sumerian epics, been inspired by the mystics and troubadours from the East, felt rejuvenated by the Renaissance poets, and most recently entertained by Chaucer and Shakespeare.


Now we begin to enter a period of poetry that is getting closer to what we could call 'contemporary poetry' although we've still got quite a way to go yet to the present day as we are still only just in the 19th century.


There is a movement known as Romanticism, which is considered to be one of the most illustrious movements in the history of literature. The strange thing about this historic period is that it only lasted approximately 25 years, from 1790 until 1824, and also only comprised of just six poets; William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. These Romantic poets, although they wrote about many and varied subjects, made nature very central to their bodies of work. They were deemed 'romantic' in that they wrote more freely about their own personal feelings, and they sought a freer more emotional expression in their work.


The influence of the English Romantic poets was felt strongly in America, where a generation of poets in the mid 1800's were inspired to build on this 'romantic' legacy and create work which would lead them to become known as the American Transcendentalists; Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Louisa May Alcott were amongst some of the better known names. Their collective work espoused utopian values, spiritual exploration and championed the development of the creative arts.


By the turn of the 20th century poetry starts to take a more recognisable shape to our now 21st century ears and eyes. The structure and form of poetry had become much more fluid and free, and although the purists of any era will always reject change, creative expression was now the key. From about the end of the 19th Century until recent years the broad term to describe poetry has simply been Modernist poetry.


It almost becomes impossible to document the Modernist era of poetry accurately for a variety of reasons. The advent of print and then digital technology in the 20th century enabled the mass production and distribution of any form of creative work. A singular poet's influence became less potent and symbolic of a particular era, and instead a multitude of talent was abundant. Of course there are some key names who would become synonymous with poetry, and I shall attempt to touch on these here.


The 20th century almost began with the outset of the First World War and so naturally this had a huge effect on the literary world. Some of the great poets in Modernist poetry came out of this era; T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Thomas Hardy, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney and Wilfred Owen. This era of poetry is filled with understandably contrary themes; while some poets wrote with a heroic and nationalistic sentiment, others wrote fantasy and escapism, while others chose gritty realism. What is clear though is that the challenges of life during this period bore incredibly creative fruit in the world of literature.


Perhaps the next big explosion of poetry in the 20th century is that of the Beat poets, essentially a New York movement from the 1950's and 60's and including poets such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. The Beat generation started up after the Second World War and was an understandably spiritual and philosophical response to the war itself and the post-war consumerism and counter culture that then enveloped America. The Beat generation would have a heavy influence on the music of the 1960's where artists such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, The Grateful Dead, Jim Morrison amongst many others would take their ideas and ideals and help them lead the generation who would famously heed the words of Harvard professor Timothy Leary and 'turn on, tune in and drop out'.


In the next, and final, part of the history of poetry series I will look at the poets that have shaped the poetic landscape for the last half century.



If you would like to get up to speed with the first two parts of this journey through the history of poetry then you can read part one here and part two here.


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