Greatest American Poets and The Work that Makes Them Great
America has produced some of the most well-known and read poets in the world. These great American poets’ works have been so influential and powerful that for many, their poems define poetry for them. Many new readers of poetry have had their entrance through the poems written by these poets and no matter whether one is an expert poet or if one is just a novice reading in middle school, the poems were written by these poets are enjoyable for all.
So we decided to make a list of some of the greatest American poets with one of their extremely moving poems as a testament to their greatness. We’ll be adding a brief description for the poet and the poem mentioned.
The poets have been placed randomly on the list with no “ranking” in any sense. The names have been placed arbitrarily.
Greatest American poets, and their works
Robert Frost is the face of American poetry and is a name that has become synonymous with poetry itself. Diving deeply into the philosophical aspects of human lives, Frost’s works have a powerful guiding push in them, something that the poet gathered himself in his life.
Frost was born in San Francisco, California but later had to move to England. Before making his name in the US, he started gaining popularity in England. Reading his poetry will make you believe that “poetry has the power to change the world”.
Our pick: It is very difficult to pick a favorite from the beautiful collection of Frost’s poems. But for the sake of this article, we’ll choose a poem that most people are familiar with; The Road Not Taken.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
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.
Read the analysis of The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost here.
Emily Dickinson is my favorite poet and her works have been empowering, inspiring, and mesmerizing to say the least. There is an essence of originality, a feeling of raw, personal expression in the poems of Dickinson. That is because her poems were not written for publication. She just wrote to express and that is what the meaning of poetry is.
Our pick: Again a very difficult task to choose one from hundreds of “favorite” poems. Let’s take the poem that has a powerful message about the power of truth, and how to manage it. How beautifully Dickinson conveys the power of truth in these poetic verses, condensed to just eight lines. Take a look at the poem.
Tell the Truth, but Tell it Slant (1263)
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Not just a poet, but a painter, essayist, playwright, author, and to some extent, a philosopher. E.E. Cummings has contributed so much to the world of poetry with some of the most magnificent poems. He was known for his free-form poetry with a modern approach and a message within. And for the people wondering, his full name was Edward Estlin Cummings.
Our pick: Our pick would be the poem pity this busy monster, manunkind. Since the poem is not under the public domain, we cannot place it here. If you want to read the poem, click here.
The poem is about the world that humans have created, this progress that we’ve made has turned us into lazy beings. Perhaps the best line from the poem would be this;
a hopeless case if — listen: there’s a hell
of a good universe next door; let’s go
Walt Whitman is considered to be the father of American poetry. He is also called the Father of free verse poetry. Whitman was born in Long Island and was a poet during the Civil War. His poems were centered around the pain of loss, the recovery from tragedy, and sometimes, about national pride.
Our pick: Continuities. This philosophical poem by Whitman encapsulates the essence of his poetry so brilliantly. The poem talks about the changing nature of the world and the universe, how things don’t last, and how appearances are ephemeral. Take a look at the poem;
(From a talk I had lately with a German spiritualist.)
Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost,
No birth, identity, form—no object of the world.
Nor life, nor force, nor any visible thing;
Appearance must not foil, nor shifted sphere confuse thy brain.
Ample are time and space—ample the fields of Nature.
The body, sluggish, aged, cold—the embers left from earlier fires,
The light in the eye grown dim, shall duly flame again;
The sun now low in the west rises for mornings and for noons continual;
To frozen clods ever the spring’s invisible law returns,
With grass and flowers and summer fruits and corn.
T.S Eliot was a major figure in the American poetry scene. He did not write too many poems. And the ones he wrote weren’t about rhyme or structure, but just the essence and meaning of it.
Our pick: Hysteria (American) is also called Ode (British). Take a look at the poem, or more like prose.
As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty green iron table, saying: “If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden…” I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe needs no introduction. With his gothic style, dark hair, and a grave countenance, one would almost always imagine Edgar Allan Poe to be with a large raven sitting on his shoulder. Not just a poet, but a writer, editor, and literary critic, Poe’s works are read worldwide, especially his poems.
Our pick: The Raven
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door,
Only this, and nothing more.”
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;, vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow, sorrow for the lost Lenore,
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore,
Nameless here for evermore.
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me, filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
“‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door,
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;-
This it is, and nothing more.”
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”, here I opened wide the door;-
Darkness there, and nothing more.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore!”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”,
Merely this, and nothing more.
Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice:
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore,
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;,
‘Tis the wind and nothing more.”
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door,
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door,
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore.
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore,
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
Much I marveled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning, little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blest with seeing bird above his chamber door,
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”
But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered, not a feather then he fluttered,
Till I scarcely more than muttered, “other friends have flown before,
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said, “Nevermore.”
Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore,
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of ‘Never, nevermore’.”
But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore,
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o’er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!
Then methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee, by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite, respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!, prophet still, if bird or devil!,
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted,
On this home by horror haunted, tell me truly, I implore,
Is there, is there balm in Gilead?, tell me, tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil, prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us, by that God we both adore,
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore,
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
“Be that word our sign in 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
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted, nevermore!
A very famous (or infamous) name in the American literary world, Ezra Pound was the founder of the Imagist movement in poetry. Imagism is a type of poetry genre where the words are used economically, and the subjects are concrete and not abstractions. Ezra Pound started many other movements and had many controversies. He was also said to be a major supporter of fascism.
Our pick: A Pact
I make truce with you, Walt Whitman—
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root—
Let there be commerce between us.
With his iconic beard that could rival Darwin’s and a poetic genius that created literary masterpieces, H.W. Longfellow is a planted name in the world of poetry. Longfellow’s poems are thought-provoking, philosophical, and with such profound meaning that you’d want to read his poems every day.
And keeping all that points in mind, the poem we choose to represent Longfellow’s works with all their essence is A Psalm of Life. It is one of the most inspirational and empowering poems. Take a look:
A Psalm of Life
What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
“Life is but an empty dream!”
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,”
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Finds us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,–act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing
Learn to labor and to wait.
Elizabeth Bishop’s works have always focused on the world around the poet, the impressions she took of it, and how she interpreted all of those in her poems. Her works dealt with how things affect us internally, emotionally.
Our pick: One Art
An American poet who took the genre of confessional poetry to another level, Plath was one of the most complex and intriguing poets, exhibiting these characteristics both through her life and her works.
Our pick: Daddy
The poet who inspired me to write, who inspired me to get up and start learning more and writing more, Charles Bukowski is a poet who is filled to the brim with experiences and letting us know more about them through his works. When you read Bukowski, you are not concerned with the rhyming or the structure of the poem, but what the poem says. It feels like Bukowski is speaking with his deep, raspy voice throughout the poem.
Our pick: So You Want to Be a Writer
More of a story-teller than a poet, Maya Angelou’s poems have an invigorating essence in them. She writes with conviction, with strong words and powerful sentences. You can feel the strength emanating from her poems. And to describe all these qualities, we’ve chosen the right poem, also considered to be her most famous one.
Our pick: Still I Rise
An American poet that is often sidelined because of other gigantic names, Hart Crane was a revolutionary poet who wrote brilliant poems. He was considered to be the only Romantic poet in the time of Modernism and Free verse poetry. And his poems truly show the tinge of Romanticism, in a modern way.
Our pick: Garden Abstract
The apple on its bough is her desire,—
Shining suspension, mimic of the sun.
The bough has caught her breath up, and her voice,
Dumbly articulate in the slant and rise
Of branch on branch above her, blurs her eyes.
She is prisoner of the tree and its green fingers.
And so she comes to dream herself the tree,
The wind possessing her, weaving her young veins,
Holding her to the sky and its quick blue,
Drowning the fever of her hands in sunlight.
She has no memory, nor fear, nor hope
Beyond the grass and shadows at her feet.
This concludes the article. These were our picks for the most influential and popular poets that America has given the world. You can read more articles related to this one. Take a look at some suggestions: