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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 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
Wilfred Owen
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, et al.
Robert Burns
Walt Whitman
William Blake

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 was"?

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.

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