The twentieth century was undoubtedly the period where America and her poets took over the mantle from the English and the Europeans as the most engaging voices of their time. A young country full of hope and aspiration for the future began to slowly dominate the whole world and its poets have always been there to tell some part of this very uniquely American story. Here is a selection of ten of the very best.
Song of Myself by Walt Whitman
Perhaps the greatest and most revered of American poets, Whitman’s cadences and words are utterly his own yet they somehow also speak with the very voice of the country that has defined him. There is before and after Whitman and those who come after will never forget his name or disavow the influence he has had over them.
Shine, Perishing Republic by Robinson Jeffers
This poet known mostly for his work based on the awe-inspiring central California coast wrote great epic narrative poems but is perhaps best known today for his short verse and the fact that he is considered an icon of the environmental movement.
Because I Could Not Stop for Death by Emily Dickinson
There are not many more perfect poems in the world than this one. Dickinson’s attempt to come to terms with mortality will stay long in your head and leave you wanting to hear so much more of this truly great voice.
For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell
A challenging poet whose work dealt with history and the sometimes dark recesses of the self. Despite, or perhaps because of this intensity, he is widely considered to be one of the great American poets of what was a truly golden twentieth century for the nation’s writers.
The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens
Howl by Allen Ginsberg
The powerhouse behind the Beat movement of which this poem immortalises forever. It is a shame that it is often the obscenity trial which will be forever associated with this poem rather than the words themselves. A poem that reaffirms the lust for life that should be alive in all men; best read out loud and on your feet.
The Wasteland by TS Eliot
While some will argue that Eliot was in fact British, it is true that it was only later in his life that he took on British citizenship. This poem is one of the twentieth century’s most important and represents a watershed mark in modern verse.
And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name by John Ashbery
Written by a very particular voice in the pantheon of great American poets, Ashbery draws you in and sometimes irritates you, but never fails to inspire. He brought a fresh way of seeing and saying to American poetry.
Daddy by Sylvia Plath
Although a lot of her fame in the modern world has been thanks to the tragic circumstances of her suicide, Plath left an indelible mark on American poetry, advancing the genre of confessional poetry that Robert Lowell and W.D. Snodgrass initiated.
Directive by Robert Frost
Arguably the most influential of modern day poets, Frost spent an entire lifetime simply thinking and working as poet. This craggy voiced man was the quintessential American poet and one universally revered by his contemporaries, as evidenced by his no less than four Pulitzer Prizes.