Studying at a liberal arts college in Chicago gives you a real appreciation not only for the greats who honed their craft in their individual field, but for those who also took great risks. Poetry is one of those arts where many of the best were at one point or another during their career considered controversial.
Here we commemorate a few notable poets and their lasting legacy:
William Butler Yeats is generally regarded these days as one of the most influential poets of the 20th century. During the early part of his career, his works focused highly on mysticism and transcendence. During this time he was also a major player in the Irish nationalist movement. In his later works he writes about his lifelong political convictions, disillusionment with post-World War I Europe and the destruction wrought on his homeland of Ireland.
His 1920 poem The Second Coming, Yeats famously quotes:
“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
From the 1920s onward, Yeats’ work became much more direct and poignant, and this is the work he is most remembered for.
Argentinian poet Pablo Neruda lived his whole life very much on the left of the political spectrum. While this might not be a problem when attending a liberal arts college, in a country going through many sweeping political changes such as Argentina was at the time, it could be dangerous to share any unpopular political views.
Neruda let his convictions shine through in his poetry. While this may have garnered him international fame and even a Nobel Prize for Poetry, it may have also lead to his death. There were, and still are, allegations that Neruda was poisoned because of his loyalty to Salvador Allende, the president deposed by Augusto Pinochet
Many of the poets on this list had controversial opinions and views on the subject matter they were writing about. Geoffrey Chaucer, though, had a dangerously optimistic view on the English language itself.
In the 14th century, he eliminated a two century lack of poetry in England by developing a meter which counted not only stresses but also syllables. Middle English was filled with both short words and long polysyllabic words with few stresses, which made poetry using the Old English accentual meter difficult.
Chaucer’s accentual syllabic meter changed all of that. In the process, he revolutionized the English language itself. It makes sense then that his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, is still part of a great books college curriculum today.
Adrienne Rich was a noted poet, feminist, essayist and non-fiction writer. Her most notable work is 1973’s Diving into the Wreck, a poem about a shipwreck which is a purported allegory for gender roles at the time.
She is also known for bold acts off the page. In 1997, she refused to accept the National Medal for the Arts as a protest against the US Congress’ funding cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts.
Allen Ginsberg rose to prominence as a poet in the very conformist era of the 1950s. He was a hugely influential member of the Beat Generation and the counterculture of the 1960s, and his 1956 poem Howl raised the bar for blunt, politically-charged art.
The poem was initially banned, and the owner of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco went to jail for selling it. Ginsberg fought the ban in court and won on grounds of artistic merit. The bookstore owner was released and Ginsberg became a legend.
Can you think of any other inspirational and dangerously optimistic or controversial poets?