A distinctly American lyric voice of the colonial period was Phillis Wheatley (1753 – 1784). An African woman sold to slavery, Wheatley became a renowned poet in not only the American colonies but also in England and other nations. The first internationally acclaimed poet of independent United States was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). However, he has been criticized for imitating European styles. 19th century saw the emergence of poets in U.S. who searched for a distinctive American voice to distinguish them from their British counterparts. The final emergence of a truly indigenous English-language poetry in the United States was achieved by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson; and they are regarded as among the greatest American writers. Late 19th century saw the emergence of the Modernist movement in poetry and U.S. contributed significantly to it through figures like Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and E. E. Cummings. However, it was Robert Frost who was the most influential and renowned American poet of the 20th century. The United States has significantly influenced western poetry and continues to impact the poetic tradition of the present world. Here are the 10 most famous American poets and their best known poems.
#10 Ezra Pound
Lifespan: October 30, 1885 – November 1, 1972
Literary Modernism was a movement which was characterized by a radical break with traditional ways of writing in favor of new forms of expression. Imagism was the first organized Modernist literary movement in the English language. It stressed on clarity, precision and economy of language. Ezra Weston Loomis Pound was the most influential and prominent figure of the Imagist movement. In his poetry, he intentionally used confusing juxtapositions, yet led the reader to an intended conclusion. He rejected Victorian and Edwardian grammar and structure; and instead created a unique form of speech, employing odd words and jargon. Ezra Pound is credited with single–handedly crafting the tradition of Modernist literature as he was primarily responsible for discovering, advancing and shaping the work of several major writers associated with the movement including T. S. Eliot, James Joyce and E.E. Cummings.
In a Station of the Metro (1913)
The Cantos (1925)
Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920)
#9 Sylvia Plath
Lifespan: October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963
Sylvia Plath is regarded as a pioneer in the genre of Confessional poetry, a term used to define poems which focus on the individual; her experience, her psyche, her trauma and the like. Her first poetry collection The Colossus and Other Poems was published in 1960. Plath committed suicide, at the age of 30, on February 11, 1963, by placing her head in the oven with the gas turned on. Some of her best known poems were written in the months leading to her suicide. They were published after her death as part of her renowned poetry collection Ariel. The poetry of Plath is known for featuring intense coupling of violent or disturbed imagery with playful use of alliteration and rhyme. Sylvia Plath is considered among the leading writers of the 20th century and she remains one of the most popular female poets in the English language.
#8 Charles Bukowski
Lifespan: August 16, 1920 – March 9, 1994
Charles Bukowski was born as Heinrich Karl Bukowski in Andernach, Germany. His family moved to Los Angeles in 1930. Charles had a difficult childhood being bullied by boys of his own age and being beaten up by his father. He began his career at the age of 35 by publishing in underground newspapers in Los Angeles such as Open City and the L.A. Free Press. He ultimately wrote thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories and six novels. The poetry of Bukowski depicts the depravity of urban life and the downtrodden in American society. He relied on experience, emotion, and imagination in his work, using direct language and violent and sexual imagery. Prominent themes in his work are the ordinary lives of poor Americans, alcohol, relationships with women and the drudgery of work. In 1986, Time magazine called Bukowski a “laureate of American lowlife”. He remains a cult figure in American poetry.
The Laughing Heart (1993)
So You Want to be a Writer
#7 E. E. Cummings
Lifespan: October 14, 1894 – September 3, 1962
Also a novelist, playwright and painter; Edward Estlin Cummings is most famous for his poems which were radical for their use of unconventional punctuation and phrasing. Most of his verse is in lowercase and he capitalizes words only when it is relevant to the work. The structure and use of compound words in his poems is of significance to the verse and not arbitrary. Also, satire is pervasive in his works. A typical Cummings poem is spare and precise, employing a few eccentrically placed key words. E. E. Cummings was not a very renowned poet for a large part of his career but was able to gain widespread fame and recognition by the 1950s. One of the most innovative poets of his time, he is now regarded as a towering figure in literary modernism. Cummings remains one of the most famous American writers with his poems on love and nature, and his erotic poetry being extremely popular.
i carry your heart with me (1952)
in Just- (1923)
Buffalo Bill’s (1920)
#6 Langston Hughes
Lifespan: February 1, 1902 – May 22, 1967
Centered at the Harlem neighborhood in New York City, Harlem Renaissance was an African American movement which peaked around the mid-1920s and during which African Americans took giant strides politically, socially and artistically. Langston Hughes is the most famous person associated with the Harlem Renaissance and among the most influential leaders of the movement. He was one of the early innovators of the genre of poetry known as Jazz Poetry, which demonstrates jazz like rhythms. Many of his poems are based on African American culture and blacks being denied the American dream of equal opportunity for all. Also a novelist, playwright, and columnist, Langston Hughes is most renowned for his poetry and he is regarded as one of the greatest African American poets ever.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers (1921)
The Weary Blues (1925)
#5 Maya Angelou
Lifespan: April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, Maya Angelou was one of the most renowned figures of the 20th century. She began her career as a singer and dancer; worked as a civil rights activist and journalist; wrote seven acclaimed autobiographies; taught at Wake Forest University; and received many honors including the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Angelou was a prolific poet who explored numerous themes in her poems including that of women, love, loss, music, struggle, discrimination and racism. She has been referred to as “people’s poet” and as “the black woman’s poet laureate”. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration. She was the first female poet and the second ever after Robert Frost to be so honored. The poems of Maya Angelou continue to be extremely popular and have been called the anthems of African Americans.
Still I Rise (1978)
On the Pulse of Morning (1993)
Phenomenal Woman (1978)
#4 Walt Whitman
Lifespan: May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892
Free verse is a form of poetry that does not use consistent meter patterns, rhyme or any other musical pattern. Walt Whitman, as the father of free verse, made perhaps the most important American contribution to poetry. He wrote in a singularly American character and, although much of his work does not explicitly discuss politics, most of it implicitly deals with democracy. Whitman is thus often referred to as America’s first “poet of democracy”. Throughout his life, Whitman kept working on his poetry collection Leaves of Grass and by the time of his death it became a compilation of more than 400 poems. Initially described as obscene for its overt sexuality, Leaves of Grass was with time recognized as one of the central works of American poetry. Walt Whitman is, without a doubt, one of the most influential poets in history and many regard him as the greatest American poet ever.
Song of Myself (1855)
O Captain! My Captain! (1867)
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d (1865)
#3 Edgar Allan Poe
Lifespan: January 19, 1809 – October 7, 1849
Romanticism was a cultural movement which laid emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as glorification of the past and of nature. Poe is widely regarded as a central figure of Romanticism in the United States. He is celebrated as the supreme exponent of Dark Romanticism, a genre which focuses on human fallibility, self-destruction, judgment, punishment and the demonic; as well as the psychological effects of guilt and sin. One of the prominent theme in his poems is the death of a young, beautiful and dearly loved woman; which he called “the most poetical topic in the world”. The best known poem of Poe is The Raven. It influenced numerous later works including the famous painting Nevermore by Paul Gauguin. Apart from poetry, Poe is considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre and an important contributor to the emerging genre of science fiction. Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most influential and famous figures of American literature. His poems appear throughout popular culture and lines from them are often quoted.
The Raven (1845)
Annabel Lee (1849)
A Dream Within a Dream (1849)
#2 Robert Frost
Lifespan: March 26, 1874 – January 29, 1963
Robert Lee Frost is highly regarded for his deep understanding of human nature leading to brilliant dramatic monologues or dramatic scenes in his poetry. He is known for his realistic depictions of rural life, capturing the rhythms of actual speech and depicting the human response to nature’s processes. In 1924, Frost won the Pulitzer Prize for his book New Hampshire: A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes. He went on to win three more Pulitzers. He remains the only poet and one of only four persons to achieve this feat. In 1960, he was awarded the United States Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award in the U.S. He was also the first poet to honor a presidential inauguration. He recited his poem The Gift Outright for President John F. Kennedy. Robert Frost is one of the most popular and critically acclaimed poets in history. He was called the unofficial “poet laureate” of the United States and is widely regarded as the greatest American poet of the 20th century.
The Road Not Taken (1916)
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (1923)
Mending Wall (1914)
#1 Emily Dickinson
Lifespan: December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886
Emily Dickinson lived an introverted life and most of her friendships were formed through correspondence. During her life she was known as an eccentric and few people knew of her immense talent. It was only after her death that her nearly 1800 poems came to light. Initially there was mixed response to her poetry with some praising its “rare individuality and originality” while others disapproving her unusual non-traditional style. Interest in Dickinson’s poetry became widespread by the early 20th century and critics realized that the irregularities in her poems were consciously artistic. Today she is most known for her unusual use of form and syntax; and for being “the poet of paradox”. Emily Dickinson has had a deep and profound influence on American poetry. Also known as the “Belle of Amherst“, she is ranked among the greatest poets in English literature and she is perhaps the most famous American poet.
Hope is the Thing with Feathers (1891)
Because I Could Not Stop For Death (1890)
I’m nobody! Who are you? (1891)