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For nearly 20 years, the United Nations has designated March 21 as World Poetry Day, as part of UNESCO’s effort to “give poetry its rightful place in society” despite a “tendency in the media and among the general public to refuse to take the poet seriously.”
But that feeling is much older than a few decades. LIFE Magazine noted a similar sentiment in 1962, that it was easy to believe that Americans have a tendency to feel “somehow that poetry is high-flown talk and poets no real students of the world we know.” And yet, the magazine added, thanks largely to the poets whose words set the 20th century to new rhythms and who crafted the ideas that helped their readers see the modern world in a new way, that belief has often been proved false.
No matter what people may think about poetry as a concept, it’s hard not to react when confronted with a great poem.
One piece of evidence of that appreciation of poetry can be found in the pages of LIFE Magazine, where — though the magazine only occasionally ran actual poetry, usually in the course of news about poets and the poetry business — readers came face to face with some of the modern world’s most well-regarded poets. In one such instance, for a story about Robert Frost, the magazine quoted the poet Paul Engle’s statement that the best way to “praise a poet” was to write a poem. LIFE, however, was better known for photography than for poetry, and so the magazine gave credit in its own way to the men and women who crafted the century’s best-loved verses.
In honor of World Poetry Day, here’s a look back at 30 of those timeless portraits of poets.