The Most Influential Poets of All Time
by Michael R. Burch
Who were the most influential poets of all time? These are my personal (and
admittedly highly subjective) choices ...
The first wave: the Hebrew Prophets and Ancient Greeks
The second wave: Wyatt, Tichborne and Ralegh
The third wave: Marlowe, Shakespeare and Milton
The fourth wave: William Blake and the Great Romantics
The fifth wave: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, the Voices of Conscience
The sixth wave: Matthew Arnold and the Modernists
The seventh wave: Wilfred Owen and the Anti-War Poets
The eighth wave: Langston Hughes and the Protest Poets
The ninth wave: All Hell Breaks Loose ...
In my opinion the most influential poets were, in order of increasing influence:
The Russian Dissident Poets
The Holocaust Poets
William Butler Yeats
e. e. cummings
Darwish and the poets of the Arab Spring
The singer-songwriters: Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson,
The First Wave: Among the first remembered (perhaps because
they were intensely memorable) human voices to transform human cultures and
societies were the Hebrew prophets and the ancient Greek poets and philosophers.
The Hebrew prophets said that chesed (mercy, compassion,
lovingkindness) and social justice were more important than sacrifice and other
empty religious rituals. The Greek poets pointed out the horrors of war and the
Greek philosophers appealed to human reason.
The Second Wave: The early poetic reformers included Thomas
Wyatt ("Whoso List to Hunt"), Chidiock Tichborne (who wrote his famous elegy
shortly before being beheaded), Sir Walter Ralegh (who wrote his magnificent
anti-Establishment rant "The Lie" while awaiting execution in the Tower of
London), and Charles D'Orleans (a prisoner of war). These early penners of
protest poems wrote between 1391 and 1618. Were they emboldened by the fact that
they faced death and thus had little or nothing to lose if they "told it like it
The Third Wave: Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare and
John Milton were truth-tellers who didn't just praise their royal patrons, but
managed to expose some of their warts for public purview. They wrote between
1564 and 1674. While perhaps not "protest poets" in the modern sense, they
showed the riff-raff that kings and lords were as human as anyone else.
The Fourth Wave: William Blake was probably the greatest of all
the anti-establishment poets and artists. He wrote poetic tirades against
racism, sexism, children being forced to work long, dangerous hours as
chimneysweeps while adults praised God in whitewashed churches, etc. He
influenced Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Beat poets like Alan Ginsberg. The other
great Romantic poets — William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor
Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and Lord Byron — were also ahead of
their time on matters of equality and other social issues.
The Fifth Wave: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman were at
the forefront of the movement to create a more tolerant, embracing America.
Whitman was the first major American writer to make homosexuality and
auto-eroticism non-taboo subjects. The fact that he doesn't seem all that
shocking today shows just how influential he was.
The Sixth Wave: Matthew Arnold and the Modernists made it
possible for poets and other artists to question the "patriotism" of war and
even "faith" and God himself. After "Dover Beach" nothing was off limits to
poets in their quest for the truth.
The Seventh Wave: Wilfred Owen was the greatest of the anti-war
poets, and an influence on anti-war singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and John
Lennon. Owen described the horrors of war in graphic detail, and objected to the
"old lie" that it is fitting and just for young men to die for their country.
His continuing influence can be seen in any number of anti-war songs that have
hit the charts in recent years.
The Eighth Wave: Langston Hughes and the Protest Poets. Wilfred
Owen objected primarily to war. Langston Hughes and other "protest" poets
objected to racism and other social and economic inequalities. Holocaust poets
like Miklós Radnóti, Paul Celan and Primo Levi protested against the horrors of
racism and fascism. It became difficult to discern any appreciable difference
between the laments of black poets, Jewish poets and Arab poets.
The Ninth Wave: By this point, protest has become the norm
rather than the exception. Big Brother is being attacked from all sides, as
poets, singer-songwriters and other artists and writers protest against racism,
sexism, homophobia and other social and economic injustices. Darwish and the
poets of the Arab Spring protest the injustices of the West against Palestinians
and other Arabs. American singer-songwriters like Bruce Springsteen protest the
United States' injustices against its own citizens.