Poetry in the United State arose first when colonists wrote poetry to add to the poetic voices in the United Kingdom. As expected, early American poetry closely matched the British models of poetic form, diction and theme. A distinctly American lyric voice of the colonial period was Phillis Wheatley, an African slave who was later liberated. After the unification of the colonies in the United States, American poets began to search for a distinctive American voice to distinguish them from their British counterparts. This was ultimately achieved by 19th century poets Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. They gave birth to two major poetic idioms which would define the poetry of the nation: the free verse and direct emotional expression of Whitman’s long lines; and the obscurity and irony of Dickinson’s short poems. Literary Modernism, which lasted from late 19th to mid-20th century, was a movement characterized by a radical break with traditional ways of writing in favor of new forms of expression. American poets played a significant role in the movement and several of the best known Modernist poems were written by them. American poetry continues to flourish with U.S. playing a leading role in the poetic tradition in the west. Here are the 10 most famous American poems of all time.
Poet: Allen Ginsberg
Howl can be divided into three sections. In the first, the speaker talks about the destruction of “the best minds” of his generation in an oppressively conformist and materialistic era. He asks the question “who” in this section and identifies these minds as poets, artists, political dissenters, musicians, drug addicts and psychiatric patients. In the second section, the speaker asks the question “what” destroyed these minds. He identifies the destroyer as the Biblical God “Moloch”, who is associated with child sacrifice. For the poet, Moloch represents war, government, capitalism and mainstream culture. The central question of the third section is “where”. It is addressed to Carl Solomon, a close fried of Allen Ginsberg, who is admitted at a psychiatric hospital. Howl is regarded as one of the great works of American literature. It is among the most famous American poems of the 20th century.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night
#9 Because I Could Not Stop For Death
Poet: Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson is considered among the greatest poets in English literature. She is known for her unusual use of form and syntax; and for being “the poet of paradox”. Many of Dickinson’s poems deal with the themes of death and immortality; and this is the most famous of them all. In it, Emily personifies death as a gentle guide who takes a leisurely carriage ride with the poet to her grave. Also known as The Chariot, the poem comprises of six quatrains and during these, the personification of death changes from one of pleasantry to one of ambiguity and morbidity. Because I Could Not Stop For Death is regarded as one of the finest poems of Emily Dickinson. According to prominent American poet Allen Tate, “If the word great means anything in poetry, this poem is one of the greatest in the English language; it is flawless to the last detail.”
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
#8 O Captain! My Captain!
Poet: Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman composed O Captain! My Captain! after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. The poem is classified as an elegy or mourning poem; and was written to honor the president and mourn his death. In the poem, Whitman refers to Lincoln as the captain of the ship, representing America. The poem also has several references to the American Civil War; and political and social issues of the time. It begins by describing the mood of the nation after the victory of the Union in the Civil War. The speaker then asks his Captain to rise and join the celebration not acknowledging that Lincoln is dead. He finally accepts that the Captain is dead and mourns his loss. O Captain! My Captain! is still widely read in the United States. It is the one of the most famous poem of Whitman and perhaps the most famous elegy written by an American.
O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring
#7 i carry your heart with me
Poet: E.E. Cummings
E.E. Cummings is considered one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century and this poem is his most famous work. The poetry of Cummings is radical for its unconventional punctuation and phrasing. This poem can be compared with a sonnet due to its similar structure but Cummings does add modern twists to it. It begins with the speaker describing the ubiquitous influence of his love in his life and goes on to touch several themes including oneness, and love as the originator of life. Its popularity can be gauged from the fact that its opening line is still often tattooed by people and that its lines have been used by several artists, including in the song Ion Square by English indie rock band Bloc Party. E.E. Cummings is renowned for his love poetry and i carry your heart with me is one of the most famous love poems of all time.
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
#6 Hope is the Thing with Feathers
Poet: Emily Dickinson
The most famous poem by Emily Dickinson, Hope is the Thing with Feathers is one of the best known short poems in the English language. It metaphorically describes hope as a feathered bird that rests in the soul. It sings without words and continuously, never stopping in its quest to inspire. It sounds sweetest in hardships and it must take an extremely troubling situation to abash this “little Bird” that gives warmth and comfort to so many people in difficult times. Moreover, despite serving in the direst circumstances, it never demands anything. Hope is the Thing with Feathers is an early poem of Dickinson but despite its simple style, it remains hugely popular.
”Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
#5 Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Poet: Robert Frost
Written in a very short time, Robert Frost called this poem,“my best bid for remembrance”. In it, the narrator stops to behold a lovely scene of snow falling in the woods and is tempted to stay longer. However, he ultimately decides to move on as he still has a considerable distance to travel before he can rest. The poem has been interpreted in many ways revolving around the pull the narrator faces between the “lovely” woods and the “promises” he has to keep. It has been thought to imply several things including being symbolic of the choice between adventure and responsibility. Stopping by the Woods is one of the most popular poems, especially its last four lines, which are among the most often quoted lines in poetry.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
#4 Song of Myself
Poet: Walt Whitman
Song of Myself is a mesmerizing mixture of romanticism and realism. The poem, which was initially titled Poem of Walt Whitman, an American, also serves as a biography of the poet. In it, Whitman emphasizes an all-powerful “I” which serves as the narrator. This “I” is not limited to Whitman. It transcends the conventional boundaries of self; and identifies with everyone and everything in the universe, including the dead. The poem ends with the narrator saying that he’s going to give his body back to nature to continue his great journey. The poem also focuses on what the narrator believes and what he is opposed to. Song of Myself caught the attention of public and critics alike when it was published. It is Whitman’s most famous poem; and it remains among the most acclaimed and influential poems written by an American.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
#3 Still I Rise
Poet: Maya Angelou
Still I Rise directly addresses the white oppressors of black people and responds to centuries of oppression and mistreatment they have suffered. It talks about various means of oppression, like writing, which the narrator addresses in the first stanza of the poem. Still I Rise hails the indomitable spirit of Black people; and expresses faith that they will triumph despite adversity and racism. It is the most famous poem of Maya Angelou and it was also her favorite. She quoted it during interviews and often included it in her public readings. In 1994, Nelson Mandela recited this poem at his presidential inauguration. Still I Rise is perhaps the most famous poem written by an African American and it has been called a “proud, even defiant statement on behalf of all Black people”.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
#2 The Raven
Poet: Edgar Allan Poe
In January 1845, The Raven appeared in the New York Evening Mirror and became an immediate popular sensation. It was soon reprinted, parodied and illustrated; and made Poe a household name. The poem tells the story of an unnamed lover who, while lamenting the death of his beloved Lenore, is visited by a talking raven. The raven enhances his distress with its constant repetition of the word “Nevermore”, slowly plunging him into madness. The poem makes use of a number of folk and mythological references; and is noted for its stylized language and supernatural atmosphere. It influenced numerous later works including the famous painting Nevermore by Paul Gauguin. The Raven is the most famous poem of Edgar Allan Poe, who is renowned for his dark romanticism.
“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
#1 The Road Not Taken
Poet: Robert Frost
Robert Frost was close friends with British poet Edward Thomas and the two took many walks together. In Frost’s words, Thomas was “a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other“. The Road Not Taken was initially meant to be a gentle mocking of indecision and Frost sent an advanced copy of the poem to Thomas. In the poem, the speaker stands in the woods pondering which of the two roads ahead should he take. Though Frost probably wrote the poem to highlight the human tendency to look back and blame minor decisions in their life, it has since been interpreted by readers as a poem on the benefit of free thinking and not following the crowd. The last lines of the poem are hugely popular and often quoted. The Road Not Taken is not only the most famous poem of Robert Frost but among the most renowned ever written.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.