An Introduction to American Poetry


List of Some Noted American Poets


     I      INTRODUCTION   

American Literature: Poetry, verse in English that originates from the territory now known as the United States. American poetry differs from British or English poetry chiefly because America’s culturally diverse traditions exerted pressure on the English language, altering its tones, diction, forms, and rhythms until something identifiable as American English emerged. American poetry is verse written in this altered form of English.

The term American poetry is in some ways a contradiction. America represents a break with tradition and the invention of a new culture separate from the European past. Poetry, on the other hand, represents tradition itself, a long history of expression carried to America from a European past. American poetry thus embodies a clearly identifiable tension between tradition and innovation, past and future, and old forms and new forms. American poetry remains a hybrid, a literature that tries to separate itself from the tradition of English literature even as it adds to and alters that tradition.

American poetry could be defined differently, however, especially if it is not limited to poetry in English. Without that qualifying term, American poetry has its origins in the rich oral traditions of Native American cultures. Each of these cultures developed complex symbolic tales of the origins and history of its people, akin to epic poems in the European tradition. These tales were performed as part of rituals and passed on through memorization from one generation to the next. Some of them have been translated into English. Yet these works tend to vanish from most histories of American poetry because they were part of ongoing performances based in spoken rather than written language. Moreover, their rhythms and sounds are bound to the native languages in which they evolved. Similarly, there is a rich heritage of Spanish-language poetry written in America from the time of the earliest Spanish explorers to current Hispanic and Chicano and Chicana poetry. American poetry traditions also have thrived in many other languages, from Chinese to Yiddish, as the result of centuries of immigration to the United States.

But most people mean by American poetry those rhythmic, memorable, and significant verse forms composed in English in the United States or in lands that became the United States. This overview of more than 300 years of American poetry tracks the creation of a national literature identifiably different from that of any other nation. In the 1600s colonial poets responded to the challenges of their new world and expressed the hopes and fears of Europeans who settled there. In the years following the Declaration of Independence (1776) American poets created a patriotic poetry as a defining literature for the new nation. A powerful new kind of poetry flowered in the mid- and late 19th century among the first poets to be born and raised as actual citizens of the United States. American modernist poetry emerged in the first half of the 20th century, as many writers sought to subdue nationalist impulses in their poetry and define themselves as part of an international advance in the arts. Finally, in the second half of the 20th century a multiplicity of diverse voices redefined American poetry. For information on American prose or drama, see American Literature: Prose; American Literature: Drama.


From the beginning until well into the 19th century, widespread agreement existed that American poetry would be judged by British standards, and that poetry written in America was simply British poetry composed on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Yet in responding to British styles, American poetry took inspiration from the new physical environment and the evolving culture of the colonies. In the process it recorded a subtle shift from poets who were dependent imitators to poets who spoke for and in the language of the new nation.

     A     New England Puritan Poetry

Puritans who had settled in New England were the first poets of the American colonies. Most Puritan poets saw the purpose of poetry as careful Christian examination of their lives; and private poems, like Puritan diaries, served as a forum where the self could be measured daily against devout expectations. Puritan leaders deemed poetry a safe and inspiriting genre, since they considered the Bible itself to be God’s poetry. Thus poetry became the literary form that allowed devout believers to express, with God’s help, divine lessons. Other genres, such as drama and fiction, were considered dangerous, capable of generating lies and leading to idle entertainment instead of moral uplift.

Puritan poets had grown up in England during a period when Christian epic poetry—culminating in Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton—was considered the highest literary accomplishment. When they came to America they maintained their cultural allegiances to Britain. Anne Bradstreet looked to British poets Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser; Edward Taylor looked to poets George Herbert and John Donne.

Bradstreet was the first poet in America to publish a volume of poetry. The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America was published in England in 1650. Bradstreet had lived in England until 1630, when at the age of 18 she arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where she spent the rest of her life. Although Bradstreet wrote many poems on familiar British themes and produced skilled imitations of British forms, her most remarkable works responded directly to her experiences in colonial New England. They reveal her attraction to her new world, even as the discomforts of life in the wilderness sickened her. Her poetry contains a muted declaration of independence from the past and a challenge to authority. Although Bradstreet’s verses on the burning of her house in 1666 and poems on the death of three grandchildren end by reaffirming the God-fearing Puritan belief system, along the way they also question the harsh Puritan God. Further, Bradstreet’s work records early stirrings of female resistance to a social and religious system in which women are subservient to men. In “The Prologue” (1650), Bradstreet writes, “I am obnoxious to each carping tongue / Who says my hand a needle better fits, / [than] A poet’s pen.…” Bradstreet’s instincts were to love this world more than the promised next world of Puritan theology, and her struggle to overcome her love for the world of nature energizes her poetry.

Taylor, a poet of great technical skill, wrote powerful meditative poems in which he tested himself morally and sought to identify and root out sinful tendencies. In “God's Determinations Touching His Elect” (written 1680?), one of Taylor’s most important works, he celebrates God's power in the triumph of good over evil in the human soul. All of Taylor’s poetry and much of Bradstreet’s served generally personal ends, and their audience often consisted of themselves and their family and closest friends. This tradition of private poetry, kept in manuscript and circulated among a small and intimate circle, continued throughout the colonial period, and numerous poets of the 17th and 18th centuries remained unknown to the general public until long after their deaths. For them, poetry was a kind of heightened letter writing that reaffirmed the ties of family and friends. Taylor’s poems remained unpublished until 1939, when The Poetical Works of Edward Taylor appeared. Many of Bradstreet’s most personal poems also remained unpublished during her lifetime.

Public poetry for the Puritans was more didactic or instructive in nature and often involved the transformation into verse of important biblical lessons that guided Puritan belief. Poet and minister Michael Wigglesworth wrote theological verse in ballad meter, such as The Day of Doom (1662), which turned the Book of Revelation into an easily memorized sing-song epic. Puritan poetry also included elaborate elegies, or poems honoring a person who had recently died. Puritans used these poems to explore the nature of the self, reading the character of the dead person as a text and seeing the life as a collection of hidden meanings.

     B     Southern Satire

Colonial poets of the 18th century still looked to British poets of their time, such as Alexander Pope and Ambrose Philips. Both were masters of pastoral verse—poetry that celebrated an idealized English countryside and rural life—and of satirical verse. Initially, this satiric tone was more prevalent in the southern colonies than in New England.

Two poets from the Maryland Colony, Ebenezer Cook and Richard Lewis, wrote accomplished satirical poems based on British pastoral models. But their poems cleverly undermine those models by poking fun at the British. Cook’s The Sot-Weed Factor (1708) is a long narrative poem written in rhyming couplets that mocks Americans as a backward people but aims its satire most effectively at the poem’s narrator, who is a British snob. Americans may be laughable, Cook suggests, but they are not as ridiculous as the British with their ignorance and prejudice about Americans.

     C     Revolutionary Era Patriotic Poetry

A penchant for satire continued in the American Revolutionary era, when American poetry was centered on Connecticut and a group of poets known as the Connecticut Wits (or Hartford Wits). This group, most of whose members were associated with Yale University, included David Humphreys, John Trumbull, and Joel Barlow. Along with other writers they produced The Anarchiad (1786-1787), a mock epic poem warning against the chaos that would ensue if a strong central government, as advocated by the Federalists, was not implemented in the United States. American poets used the British literary model of the mock epic as a tool to satirize and criticize British culture. Trumbull’s mock epic M’Fingal (1775-1782) lampooned the British Loyalists during the Revolution.

Revolutionary-era poets composed more than satire, however. They felt an urgency to produce a serious—even monumental—national poetry that would celebrate the country’s new democratic ideals. Epic poems, they believed, would confer importance and significance on the new nation’s culture. Educated in the classics, these poets were also lawyers, ministers, and busy citizens of the new republic. They did not bother with the question whether a new nation required new forms of poetry, but were content to use traditional forms to write about new subjects in order to create the first truly American poetry. Whereas traditional epics celebrated past accomplishments of a civilization, American epics by necessity celebrated the future. Examples of such epics include Barlow’s The Vision of Columbus (1787), later revised as The Columbiad (1807); Greenfield Hill (1794) by clergyman Timothy Dwight; and The Rising Glory of America (1772) by Philip Freneau. All offered the prospect of America as the future culmination of civilization.

Freneau, the most accomplished patriot poet, was not associated with Connecticut. He was born in New York City and later lived in a variety of places. His range of experience and clarity of expression made him a very popular poet, widely regarded as the first poet who spoke for the entire country. Much of his poetry focused on America’s future greatness, but he also wrote on other subjects, including the beauties of the natural world. Such lyric poems as “The Wild Honey Suckle” (1786) and “On a Honey Bee” (1809), can be seen as the first expressions in American poetry of a deep spiritual engagement with nature.

          D    Early Black Voices

Slavery was the great contradiction in the new nation that had affirmed in its Declaration of Independence a basic belief that “all men are created equal” and have “inalienable” rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Many of the country’s early leaders believed that African slaves were intellectually inferior to whites. Phillis Wheatley [1753?-1784], a Boston slave, challenged those racist assumptions early on. Brought to America as a young girl, Wheatley was educated by her masters in English and Latin. She became an accomplished poet, and her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) was published in England. Like the white patriot poets, Wheatley wrote in 18th-century literary forms. But her highly structured and elegant poetry nonetheless expressed her frustration at enslavement and desire to reach a heaven where her color and social position would no longer keep her from singing in her full glory.

Wheatley’s poetry, along with that of other slaves, begins a powerful African American tradition in American poetry. In 1746 Lucy Terry, a slave in Massachusetts who was also educated by her owner, wrote the first poem to be published by a black American: "Bar's Fight." The poem, which was not published until 1855, describes the victims and survivors of a Native American raid against settlers. It was followed by Jupiter Hammon’s biblically inspired, hymnlike verse, “An Evening Thought; Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries” (1761).

Born at the time of the founding of the nation, African American poetry retained its concern with the burning issues of the American Revolution, including liberty, independence, equality, and identity. It also expressed African American experiences of divided loyalties. Just as white Americans experienced divided loyalties in the republic’s early years—unsure whether their identity derived from the new country or from their European past—so too did African Americans, who looked always to their African past and to their problematic American present.

     III         THE 19TH CENTURY

The 19th century began with high hopes for poetic accomplishment. The first comprehensive anthologies of American poetry appeared in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s. In the first half of the century poets sought to entertain, to inform, and to put into memorable language America’s history, myths, manners, and topography, but they did not seek to forge a radical new poetic tradition. Their poetry built upon tradition, and they met the first great goal of American poetry: that it be able to compete in quality, intelligence, and breadth with British poetry. But just as they achieved this goal, poetic aspirations began to change. By the mid-19th century the new goal for American poetry was to create something very different from British poetry. Innovative poets, particularly Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, led the way.

     A     The Fireside Poets  
William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and John Greenleaf Whittier constituted a group sometimes called the Fireside Poets. They earned this nickname because they frequently used the hearth as an image of comfort and unity, a place where families gathered to learn and tell stories. These tremendously popular poets also were widely read around the hearthsides of 19th-century American families. The consensus of American critics was that the Fireside Poets first put American poetry on an equal footing with British poetry.

Bryant gained public recognition first and is best remembered for “Thanatopsis,” published in 1821 but written when he was a teenager. Still widely anthologized, this poem offers a democratic reconciliation with death as the great equalizer and a recognition that the “still voice” of God is embodied in all processes of nature. During a busy life as a lawyer and editor of the New York Evening Post, Bryant wrote accomplished, elegant, and romantic descriptions of a nature suffused with spirit.

Longfellow was the best known of the Fireside Poets, and it was with him that American poetry began its emergence from the shadow of its British parentage. His poetic narratives helped create a national historical myth, transforming colorful aspects of the American past into memorable romance. They include Evangeline (1847), which concerns lovers who are separated during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), and The Song of Hiawatha (1855), which derives its themes from Native American folklore. No American poet before or since was as widely celebrated during his or her lifetime as Longfellow. He became the first and only American poet to be honored with a bust in the revered Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey in London, England.

The accomplishments of the other Fireside Poets were various. Lowell’s Biglow Papers (1848) added to the American tradition of long satirical poems. Holmes wrote several memorable short poems such as “The Chambered Nautilus” (1858). Whittier became best known for Snow-Bound (1866), a long nostalgic look at his Massachusetts Quaker boyhood, when the family gathered around the fireside during a snowstorm.

     B     Abolitionist Poetry  
During the 19th century, black and white poets wrote about the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of slaves. George Moses Horton, a North Carolina slave, was the first Southern black poet. Joshua McCarter Simpson was a black poet from Ohio whose memorable songs of emancipation were set to popular tunes and sung by fugitive slaves. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper wrote passionate abolitionist and early feminist poems that called both blacks and whites to action against oppression. Black poets appropriated the language and style of the predominantly white, mainstream patriotic America. In using mainstream language, these black poets showed their white audiences how differently songs of liberty and freedom sounded from the perspective of those who had been left out of the “all men are created equal” equation. Black poets also often expressed themselves with irony and ambiguity so that different audiences heard different intonations and meanings, a double voicing that would become central to later African American writing.

White abolitionist poets, from their more privileged social position, could afford to be more confrontational about the issue of slavery. Whittier was a fiery abolitionist whose numerous antislavery poems were collected in Voices of Freedom (1846). Longfellow’s Poems on Slavery (1842) forms a long-forgotten but illuminating contribution to the tradition of American political poems. Lowell also was an ardent abolitionist.

     C     Mid-Century Innovation  
Many 20th-century critics date the beginnings of a uniquely American poetry to the appearance of Leaves of Grass (1855) by Walt Whitman. Whitman drew a good deal of inspiration from New England writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his 1844 essay “The Poet,” Emerson called for a radically new American poet who would make poetry out of the rough experience of America and break free of conventional patterns of writing and thinking. Emerson could not answer his own call; his poetry, always challenging and often cryptic and highly symbolic, tended to fall into conventional rhythms and remained aloof from day-to-day reality. After reading Leaves of Grass, Emerson realized that Whitman might be the first truly original American poet: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” he wrote to Whitman.

     D    Walt Whitman  
A newspaper reporter and editor, Whitman first published poems that were traditional in form and conventional in sentiment. In the early 1850s, however, he began experimenting with a mixture of the colloquial diction and prose rhythms of journalism; the direct address and soaring voice of oratory; the repetitions and catalogues of the Bible; and the lyricism, music, and drama of popular opera. He sought to write a democratic poetry—a poetry vast enough to contain all the variety of burgeoning 19th-century American culture. In 1855 Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, the book he would revise and expand for the rest of his life. The first edition contained only 12 untitled poems. The longest poem, which he eventually named “Song of Myself,” has become one of the most discussed poems in all of American poetry. In it Whitman constructs a democratic “I,” a voice that sets out to celebrate itself and the rapture of its senses experiencing the world, and in so doing to celebrate the unfettered potential of every individual in a democratic society. Emerging from a working class family, Whitman grew up in New York City and on nearby Long Island. He was one of the first working-class American poets and one of the first writers to compose poetry that is set in and draws its energy from the bustling, crowded, diverse streets of the city.

Whitman later added a variety of poems to Leaves of Grass. They include “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1856), in which Whitman addresses both contemporary and future riders of the ferry, and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (1860), a reverie about his boyhood on the shores of Long Island. Other poems were about affection between men and about the experiences and sufferings of soldiers in the Civil War (1861-1865).

Whitman’s work was initially embraced more fully in Britain than in the United States. An influential 1872 anthology, American Poems, published in England and edited by English literary critic William Michael Rossetti, was dedicated to Whitman and gave him more space than any other poet. From then on American poetry was judged not by how closely it approximated the best British verse, but by how radically it divorced itself from British tradition. Rough innovation came to be admired over polished tradition.

     E     Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson, along with Whitman, is one of the most original and demanding poets in American literature. Living her whole life in Amherst, Massachusetts, Dickinson composed nearly 2,000 short, untitled poems. Despite her productivity, only a handful of Dickinson’s poems were published before her death in 1886. Most of her poems borrow the repeated four-line, rhymed stanzas of traditional Christian hymns, with two lines of four-beat meter alternating with two lines of three-beat meter. A master of imagery that makes the spiritual materialize in surprising ways, Dickinson managed manifold variations within her simple form: She used imperfect rhymes, subtle breaks of rhythm, and idiosyncratic syntax and punctuation to create fascinating word puzzles, which have produced greatly divergent interpretations over the years.

Dickinson’s intensely private poems cover a wide range of subjects and emotions. She was fascinated with death, and many of her poems struggle with the contradictions and seeming impossibility of an afterlife. She carries on an argument with God, sometimes expressing faith in him and sometimes denying his existence. Many of her poems record moments of freezing paralysis that could be death, pain, doubt, fear, or love. She remains one of the most private and cryptic voices in American literature.

Because of Dickinson’s prominence, it sometimes seems that she was the only female poet in America in the 19th century. Yet nearly a hundred women published poetry in the first six decades of the 1800s, and most early anthologies of American poetry contained far more women writers than appeared in anthologies in the first half of the 20th century. Dickinson’s work can be better understood if read in the context of these poets. Lydia Huntley Sigourney, for example, was a popular early-19th-century poet whose work set the themes for other female poets: motherhood, sentiment, and the ever-present threat of death, particularly to children. She developed, among other forms, the same hymn stanza that Dickinson used, although she experimented with fewer variations on it than Dickinson, and her poetry was simple and accessible. The work of Sigourney, along with that of Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Frances Sargent Locke Osgood, Alice and Phoebe Cary, and Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt, was dismissed by most 20th-century critics until feminist critics began to rediscover the ironic edge to what had before seemed to be conventional sentimentality. The work of these and other women poets offers a window into the way 19th-century culture constructed and understood such concepts as gender, love, marriage, and motherhood.

     F     Poe, Melville, and Others 

Other poets who tried out distinctive new forms included Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville. Poe devoted great effort to writing poetry that was unlike anything before it. A careful craftsman, he examined in detail the effects that his every poetic choice had. Poe’s poetry earned little respect from his contemporaries, who dismissed him as “the jingle man.” He had, said Whitman, “the rhyming art to excess.” Yet Poe’s nightmarish scenes, unnerving plots, and probings of abnormal psychology gave his poetry, as well as his tales, a haunting, memorable quality that makes him one of the most admired innovators in American literature. The opening lines of his best-known poem, “The Raven” (1845), demonstrate Poe’s love of rhyming and his use of varying rhythm: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, / Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.”

Melville, though much better known as a novelist, nonetheless wrote powerful poetry about the Civil War, collected in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866). He later wrote a long and mysterious poem, Clarel (1876), about his search for faith, his struggle with doubt, and his anxiety about the decline of civilization.

Lesser-known innovators of the 19th century include Jones Very, Sidney Lanier and Henry Timrod. Very was a Massachusetts poet who produced strikingly original religious sonnets. Lanier was a Georgia poet who sought to reproduce in language the effects of music. Timrod, a Southern poet who was known as “the laureate of the Confederacy,” wrote some notably original and dark poetry in the 1860s.

     G    Toward the 20th Century

Whitman had hoped that his work would generate new energy in American poetry. But when he died in 1892, the American poetic scene was relatively barren. Most of the major poets had died and no successor to Whitman was emerging. William Vaughn Moody, a poet born in Indiana, wrote The Masque of Judgement (1900), which was the first in a series of verse dramas about humanity’s spiritual tortures and eventual spiritual victory. Stephen Crane, best known for his novels, published two volumes of poetry, The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895) and War Is Kind and Other Poems (1899). In their tone and fragmented form, his grim poems anticipate the concerns of many modern writers. But neither poet lived far into the 20th century.


By 1900 the United States was far different from the new nation it had been a hundred years earlier. Westward expansion, waves of immigration, and increasing urbanization all combined to create a physically larger, more populous, and far more diverse country than its founders could have imagined. These changes are tracked more visibly in America’s fiction than in its poetry, but the nation’s growing diversity is evident in the diverse voices of 20th-century American poets. American poetry in the opening decades of the century displayed far less unity than most anthologies and critical histories indicate. Shifting allegiances, evolving styles, and the sheer number of poets make it difficult to categorize 20th-century poetry.

     A     Regionalism

In the last decades of the 19th century, American literature had entered a period of regionalism, exploring the stories, dialects, and idiosyncrasies of the many regions of the United States. Dialect poetry—written in exaggerated accents and colorful idioms—became a sensation for a time though it produced little of lasting value. However, one major poet who rose to fame on the basis of his dialect poems was Paul Laurence Dunbar, a black writer from Ohio. Dunbar’s dialect poems, which romanticized the life of slaves in the pre-Civil War South, were extremely popular. His volumes Oak and Ivy (1893) and Majors and Minors (1895) brought attention to African American literature, although the dialect poems later embarrassed many black poets. Dunbar also wrote many nondialect poems and initiated through his work an important debate in African American literature about what voices and materials are appropriate for black writers.

Other regions and groups developed their own distinctive voices. Kansas-born Edgar Lee Masters achieved success with Spoon River Anthology (1915). His poetic epitaphs (commemorations) capture the hidden passions, deceits, and hopes of Midwesterners buried in the fictional Spoon River cemetery. Edwin Arlington Robinson explored the lives of New Englanders in his fictional Tilbury Town through dramatic monologues—poems written entirely in the voice of each of his characters. Many of the monologues employ the rhythm of everyday speech and reflect a Puritan sense of humankind’s moral corruption.

Robert Frost further developed Robinson’s New England voice in poems that can be read both as regional and as some of the most accomplished modern poetry of the early 20th century. Restrained, humorous, and understated, Frost’s poetry gives voice to modern psychological constructions of identity without ever losing its focus on the local and the specific. He often wrote in the standard meter of blank verse (lines with five stresses) but ran sentences over several lines so that the poetic meter plays subtly under the rhythms of natural speech. The first lines of “Birches” (1916) illustrate this distinctive new approach to rhythm:

“When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay

As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them

Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning

After a rain…”

And while Frost’s images and voice seem familiar and old, his observations of New England life have an edge of skepticism and irony that make his work, upon rereading, never as easy and carefree as it first appeared. Frost delivered American poetry into the 20th century.

     B     Modernism

The early 20th century was a time of huge industrial expansion in America, and many writers found the conditions for creating art unfavorable in a culture that was so focused on business and making money. Part of the struggle among modernist writers concerned the possibility or even desirability of continuing to develop a specifically American poetic tradition. Many writers exiled themselves in cultures that seemed more conducive to art, while others decided to stay and resist through their poetry the growing materialistic culture. One way to categorize the major modernist poets is to separate those who left the United States and wrote most of their poetry as expatriates in Europe from those who stayed in America. Among the expatriates are Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle (who wrote under the pen name H. D.), T. S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein. Those who stayed in the United States include William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Langston Hughes, and Robinson Jeffers. Most of the latter group visited Europe at some point and flirted with the idea of staying there to write.

     B1  The Whitman Tradition

During the first half of the 20th century a number of poets carried on what we might call a Whitman tradition. They wrote in free verse—a rhythm that responds to the specific subject instead of adhering to a predetermined, set meter. And they strived for a poetry that would have a wide appeal and would help define and develop a democracy. Carl Sandburg devoted his poetic career to celebrating the power of a tough, free, democratic working class. In this way he shifted Whitman’s focus on individual identity to a new concern with social identity, an idea that culminated in his Depression-era book, The People, Yes (1936).

Vachel Lindsay set out to tramp across America, trading poems for food. His goal was to build a kind of mass participatory poetry through what he called “the higher vaudeville,” performances in which he led large groups of people in chanting his poetry. Langston Hughes, who became one of the century’s most important black writers, wrote socially conscious poems that sought to capture the black experience. Hughes used the rhythmic structure of blues music and the improvisational rhythms of jazz in his innovative development of Whitman’s ideas, and he insisted on a more inclusive democracy than even Whitman had proposed. Michael Gold, born and raised in New York City slums, wrote impassioned chants to American workers, often invoking Whitman. Were Whitman alive—so Gold imagined—he would have joined the Communist struggle to liberate the working class.

William Carlos Williams, a physician from industrial New Jersey, looked to Whitman as the source of his own American rhythms, which he claimed to pick up from listening to Americans talk on the streets. Williams developed forms that broke Whitman’s long lines into brief lines that focused attention on the concrete reality in front of the poet: “No ideas but in things,” he said. Williams’s massive poem Paterson (1946-58), released in five volumes, is an epic about Paterson, New Jersey. Williams sought to make poetry out of material considered unpoetic by conventional standards: his focus was always on the local and immediate.

     B2  Imagism and After

Early in Williams’s career he belonged to a group led by Ezra Pound called the imagists. Pound, Williams, and Doolittle all met at the University of Pennsylvania and became part of Pound’s self-declared movement to remake poetry, or, as he said, to “make it new.” The imagist credo called for new rhythms, clear and stripped-down images, free choice of subject matter, concentrated or compressed poetic expression, and use of common speech. The poets who subscribed to this credo applied it differently: Williams found his new rhythms in everyday speech, while Pound sought his new rhythms in adaptations in English of Chinese, Greek, Provencal (southern France), and other poetic traditions. Pound’s Personae (1909) demonstrated his remarkable ability to write intense, beautiful experimental verse, echoing poems from other languages. Pound introduced the poetry of Hilda Doolittle as the model of imagism, and her chiseled and often erotic Sea Garden poems (1916) became for many the movement’s signature book. H. D., Pound, and Williams left imagism behind, but it continued to influence some poets for a number of years under the leadership of Amy Lowell, a descendent of James Russell Lowell.

Pound took his modernist revolution in a surprising new direction, building his brief imagist poems into a jagged collage that eventually became a massive long poem, The Cantos. While the individual poems that went to make up the Cantos were published in various forms from 1917 until the 1960s, the first complete English language edition of the poem was published in 1970 as The Cantos of Ezra Pound. This lifelong work invites comparisons with Whitman’s lifelong project, Leaves of Grass. Pound distanced himself from Whitman, however, disliking what he saw as the 19th-century poet’s over infatuation with America. Pound believed the poet should be a citizen of the world and a contemporary of all the ages, able to learn from excellence wherever and whenever it appeared. He and Williams debated this issue for years, Williams insisting that original poetry could emerge only from the local and the present and Pound insisting that fresh beauty could come only by encounters with the distant and the past, the lost and forgotten. Whereas Williams’s Paterson insists on staying in one place, Pound’s Cantos move through time, languages, and cultures—leading Pound eventually to a flirtation with fascism, which he embraced while in Italy during World War II (1939-1945). Yet both of their compilations share a collage style, built of sudden, unexpected juxtapositions of disparate materials. Doolittle also turned to long poems with her trilogy, The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to Angels (1945), and The Flowering of the Rod (1946). In these works she turned to Egyptian mythology, ancient history, and a reconfiguration of Christian tradition as a response to the violence of World War II.

An important result of Pound’s push to build long poems out of imagist fragments was his editing of The Waste Land (1922) by T. S. Eliot. For many readers this poem ranks as the great statement of despair in the aftermath of World War I (1914-1918). Before its publication Pound condensed and reshaped this highly allusive, darkly suggestive work, which is built on fertility myths and the legend of the Holy Grail. The Waste Land has been read in many different ways, its meaning as unstable and fluid as its diverse imagery. Eliot, born in St. Louis, Missouri, eventually became a British citizen and joined the Church of England. Much of his later verse, including Ash-Wednesday (1930) and Four Quartets (1943), relates to his spiritual concerns and suggests a religious pathway out of despair and toward a renewed sense of purpose.

Some American poets tried writing responses to The Waste Land. Williams was incensed by Eliot’s poem, because its erudition suggested that readers of poetry had to be scholars. Williams, meanwhile, championed a poetry more accessible to the general reader, a poetry written in the language of the common person. He saw his own Paterson as a kind of local and optimistic answer to Eliot’s cosmopolitan poem of pessimism. Hart Crane, too, viewed his epic-length The Bridge (1930) as an answer to Eliot. Crane sought a way to bridge the American past to a productive American future and reveal the wasteland of the present as a necessary stepping-stone to that future. The Bridge is a difficult poem, written in highly charged, symbolic language and suffused in dense imagery, much of it derived from American myth, legend, and history. Crane eventually came to believe it was a failure. Instead of answering Eliot, Robinson Jeffers wrote some of the bleakest poetry in all of American literature from his isolated home in California. His bitter vision, a kind of post-Waste Land, is of a cold natural world that would be better off cleansed of humanity. With no hint of redemption, Jeffers’s poetry anticipates the dark tones of the kind of science fiction that imagines the world after ecological or nuclear holocaust.

Other modernist poets focused even more intently on experimentation with language and form. Some of their work was quite playful and some of it showed the influence of dada and surrealism—European movements that undermined and mocked the value and traditions of art. E. E. Cummings wrote highly experimental poetry that parodied the platitudes of what he called the unworld, a sterile modern world that seemed to him to strip human beings of their humanity. Using puns, unorthodox typography—words, all lower-case, divided and sometimes spread out letter by letter across a page—and other fracturing of traditional poetic forms, he created a playful yet serious, highly individual poetic voice. One of the most radical innovators of modern poetry was Gertrude Stein, although most of her poetry was not published until after her death. Her work probed the ways that language ultimately refers only to itself, not to things of the world, and she experimented with multiple, shifting speaking voices.

Marianne Moore also wrote experimental poems, but her experiments led not to the shattering of form so much as the invention of strict new forms. She imposed on herself a discipline of precise syllable counts and elaborate structures, all in the service of precise, witty, and distanced observation of animals and other objects rendered in surprising metaphors. Her poetry scrutinizes the world and scrutinizes itself, always revealing a strong ethical regard for the things described. An incessant reviser of her poetry, Moore produced a small but intricately complex body of work.

Wallace Stevens created a cerebral, philosophical poetry that nonetheless shimmers with lush and often playful sounds. Abstract and often difficult, Stevens’s poetry seems almost the opposite of that of his friend William Carlos Williams. Whereas Williams believed ideas could emerge only from things, and that the poet must therefore attach words to solid reality, Stevens believed things emerged from ideas, and that without thought, there are no things or at least no things that language can embrace. Stevens began publishing his poetry late in life, and his work forms a mature reflection on the mind’s relation to the world and one way that the imagination can encounter the world. This encounter happens through the creation of what Stevens calls the supreme fiction—the belief that poetry or any art creates a meaningful order and pattern in life, an order we accept even while recognizing that it is artificially imposed by humankind.

One influential group of modernist poets from the South was dedicated initially to poetry that had a regional basis. But the main commitment of these poets—John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren—was to a well-wrought, ironic, and often indirect or obscure poetry. Their work led to what came to be called the New Criticism, a way of reading poems and other literature that tended to value work that was difficult, ambiguous, and that transcended its personal, historical, and cultural surroundings. The goal was a poem that could survive on its own as a perfected work of art. Their work built upon that of other modernists, such as Eliot, and encouraged a new formalism—that is, a return to careful craftsmanship and tradition as the primary virtues of poetry.

     C     After Modernism

As noted earlier a period of inaction in American poetry followed the death of the great 19th-century poets and lasted until the modernist poets arose a decade or so into the 20th century. A similar lull came after the great poems by the modernists in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. American poetry paused as many poets imitated what had been innovative a few decades before and produced the new formal poems that New Critics called for. By the 1950s most of the major modernists were still alive but they seldom produced innovative work and no longer had any interest in continuing to lead a poetic revolution.

A middle generation of 20th-century American poets emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, most of them born in the second decade of the century. Many achieved fame, including Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Karl Shapiro, and Delmore Schwartz. Several came to be known as confessional poets because of their use of modernist techniques to explore their own psychology and their lives. These techniques included irony, collage, verbal finish (careful attention to word choice for the effects of sound or rhythm as well as for meaning), and wide-ranging allusion. Berryman undertook such explorations in his Dream Songs (1964-1968), Lowell in Life Studies (1959), and Roethke in Words for the Wind (1958). Confessional poetry broke away from modernism’s dedication to impersonality and reopened poetry to intense self-exploration and frank revelation of personal experiences. Although the early confessional poets rarely used their poetry to explore political issues, their investigations of how personal identity is constructed laid the ground for a more openly political poetry that emerged in America in the late 1950s and was still written at the century’s close.

The confessional poets also became the first generation to teach the writing of poetry in America. As instructors at some of the earliest poetry workshops, they developed poetry as a subject at a number of American colleges and universities. Some of Lowell’s poetry students used his confessional techniques for even more intense and unsettling self-examinations—especially Anne Sexton in All My Pretty Ones (1962) and Sylvia Plath in Ariel (1966). Steeped in Freudian analysis and imagery, these poems tracked psychological breakdowns; and a number of confessional poets, including Sexton and Plath, took their own lives. Their poetry explored tortured family relationships and examined the female psyche, the female body, and the dynamics of mother-daughter interactions. Sexton’s and Plath’s poetry influenced the development of feminist poetry—poetry by women that questioned the traditional roles society assigned to females. Confessional poetry in general served as a counterforce to the prevailing mood of the country in the 1950s and 1960s, when the family was presented in the mass media as the source of stability and happiness.

Also important to the development of feminist poetry and a key poet in the tradition of political investigation is Muriel Rukeyser, whose poetry looks at labor problems and larger class issues. A contemporary of the confessional poets, Rukeyser’s work stands apart in its commitment to social justice. Another important female poet who is equally hard to categorize is Elizabeth Bishop. Influenced by Marianne Moore, Bishop was an intense observer of exotic and common things, always rendered in a most uncommon language, and many of her observations suggest a psychological dimension not unrelated to the confessional poets.

Rukeyser and Bishop served as disparate but equally important sources for the poetry of Adrienne Rich, who ranks as one of the most important poets of the second half of the 20th century. Like Plath and Sexton, Rich offers a probing examination of motherhood and of what it means to be a woman in America in a remarkable series of books starting with her first collection, A Change of World, in 1951. However, she moved beyond Plath and Sexton in discovering ways to apply her anger not to self-destruction but to pointed critiques and reenvisionings of society. Beginning with a formal and very finished modernist style, Rich’s poetry over the years took on a much more experimental form as she explored increasingly radical political positions and interrogated America’s assumptions about gender and the ways gender structures our social experience.

     D    New Directions  
Many poets who had begun writing formal poetry in the 1950s and 1960s underwent changes similar to Rich’s, making striking alterations in their verse forms and opening their poetry up to more experimental rhythms and more radical social thoughts. Some poets, including Richard Wilbur, Donald Justice, and Anthony Hecht, have devoted their entire careers to writing elegantly structured poems, becoming among the most accomplished formal poets in American history. Others who started out as formalists gave up allegiance to traditional forms to explore and respond to radical political change by opening up their own work to new forms and structures. W. S. Merwin, an admirer of Pound’s early work, wrote remarkable poetry in traditional forms in the 1950s. However, in The Moving Target (1963) he suddenly abandoned punctuation and created a haunting, new prophetic voice, free of conventional techniques. In later books such as The Lice (1967), he addressed societal ills, including the prospect of ecological disaster as a result of human irresponsibility. American poetry became less formal and more political, more engaged in the immediate moment during the 1960s, as America faced the social turbulence of the Civil Rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War (1959-1975).

This break from new formalism traces back to Black Mountain College, an experimental school in North Carolina, where Charles Olson taught, and where poets Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, and others studied in the early 1950s (see Black Mountain Poets). Olson owed much to Pound but had less interest in Pound’s love of tradition than in his attempt to construct a kind of poetic compendium of history and myth, as in the Cantos. Olson’s great work was The Maximus Poems (1953-1975), which focused on his hometown of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and owed much to Williams’s epic based on the city of Paterson. Olson developed a theory of poetry called projective verse, which called for poets to return to an organic basis for their form, to a poetic line controlled by the physiology of the poet's breathing instead of by pre-set meter. He urged an open form that would allow for poetry to be a process of discovery, where form emerged from the needs of the particular poem. Olson’s student Duncan later described the experience of reading and writing the new poetry as an “opening of the field,” the entering of a poetic space where one could wander and explore instead of being led along predetermined pathways. Olson’s call influenced many writers, who formed a variety of dissident groups from coast to coast—all dedicated to undermining the orthodox insistence on predetermined, closed form.

The most famous of the dissident groups came to be known as the Beats, so named for their weariness with American materialism after World War II and their faith in a coming beatification, a new spiritual America. The movement attracted poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and Gary Snyder. It began with a reading in San Francisco in 1955, when the greatest poet of the movement, Allen Ginsberg, read his free-flowing, surrealistic Howl, the poem that became the hallmark of the movement. Initially dismissed as unpoetical by most established and academic writers, the Beat Generation writers eventually became some of the best-known and most widely read American poets. Whitman had displaced Eliot and Pound as the poetic source for the Beats, and Williams had an increasingly important influence. Ginsberg throughout his career celebrated Whitman and Williams as his poetic progenitors and followed in their tradition as an essentially urban poet. Snyder took the Beat sensibility in a different direction, turning to the wilderness tradition in American literature and combining Zen Buddhism, Native American mythology, and deep ecological awareness in poetry that speaks eloquently of the human responsibility to nature.

Following many different trajectories, dissident poets began to explore the ways poetry could combine politics, sexuality, autobiography, and spirituality in an improvisational, jazzy mode. From about 1960 on, an explosive new plurality prospered in American poetry—a sense of multiple directions with no controlling authority. One direction was a black arts movement during the 1960s. This flourishing of African American poetry that resulted was reminiscent of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and early 1930s, when Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Jean Toomer, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Sterling Brown, Arna Bontemps, Melvin Tolson, and Jessie Fauset were all active writers.

In the 1960s black poetry underwent redefinition and turned to a more confrontational style. Rejecting the old gradualist and integrationist model that saw blacks merging into white society, it became a poetry written in support of social revolution and sought to be a distinctive voice of the black community. Gwendolyn Brooks had written poems about the Chicago slums since 1945, and in 1950 she became the first black to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. But with the black arts movement of the 1960s, she redefined her poetic mission, writing more directly for a black audience and becoming, as she said, more “non-compromising.” LeRoi Jones, who later took the name Amiri Baraka, was a central figure in the movement. He specifically rejected Eliot and the modernists and embraced the chanting, rebellious voices of Whitman, Williams, and the Beats. The new black poetry turned to the streets of the black communities for its language and to the powerful tradition of African American jazz, blues, and rock music for its rhythms. It also aligned itself with the poetry of oppressed people in other countries, particularly developing countries around the world.

A number of black poets developed the poetic possibilities of black urban speech in politically aware, performance-based writing, which sometimes involved chanting or rapping. These poets included Don Lee (who took the name Haki R. Madhubuti), Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and June Jordan. Other black poets, such as Michael Harper and Pulitzer-Prize winner Yusef Komunyakaa, examined the deep ironies of African American history in a more formal voice, yet retained associations with jazz and blues. And still others, including Rita Dove, the first black poet laureate in the United States, produced striking, lyrical composites of autobiography, confession, black dialect, and African American history in a language of precise observation reminiscent of Moore or Bishop.

Another direction away from formal modernism led to deep image poetry, a name given to the work of Robert Bly, James Wright, Galway Kinnell, and others who were born in the 1920s. These poets rejected what they saw as capitalism’s sterile public facade and turned to what Bly called a “deep inwardness,” looking to internal spiritual sources that lie deep within the self and taking leaps into the unconscious to retrieve mysterious, disturbing, and often healing images.

Yet another direction led to the New York School, a group of artists, writers, and musicians in which John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara represented poetry. Ashbery and O’Hara wrote wildly experimental poetry that derived from dada and from an embrace of Whitman’s open-road aesthetic—namely a desire to keep moving and to celebrate change, instability, and chance. The resulting poems provide verbal trips through landscapes of shifting discourse with no center and no fixed voice: modes of speech alternate rapidly, high diction is mixed with street slang, and moments from different realms of experience are juxtaposed. This work influenced Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein, and others who are known as Language poets. This group attacks the idea of a unified voice and, through collaborative work, disguises or erases the distinctions between individual poets. In doing so, the Language poets work to undermine all the institutions that are built on America’s infatuation with individualism, including much of American poetry itself.

It is impossible to name the myriad schools and movements in American poetry that flourished near the turn of the century, when vigorous and unbridled variety marked the poetic scene more than ever. Philip Levine, Frank Bidart, Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, and many other poets were developing the confessional poem in surprising ways, focusing autobiographical examination in more intense lyric forms than earlier confessional poets had. C. K. Williams added to the confessional poem a sometimes brutal narrative edge as he extended the possibilities (and the length) of the long line favored by Whitman and Ginsberg. Jorie Graham extended the poetic line as well, developing Stevens’s philosophical poetry through fascinating labyrinths of speculation and imagery that cross and juxtapose the multiple cultures of her experience.

     E     Multicultural Voices

In the last decades of the 20th century American poetry gained much of its energy from a melding of America’s many distinct cultural traditions. For example, Asian American writers—themselves part of a diverse and multicultured community—turned increasingly to poetry as a means of exploring both their integration into American culture and their growing sense of distinctive ethnic identity within that culture. Garrett Hongo, Alan Chong Lau, John Yau, and Cathy Song are just a few of the recent and remarkable poets whose work expands the definition of Asian American poetry.

Chicano and Chicana poetry also has a long history in America, much of it centered in New Mexico, where Victor Bernal published intricate lyrics in the early 20th century. But the amount of poetry increased dramatically after 1967, when Quinto Sol Publications was founded to publish Chicano and Chicana work. José Montoya, Rudolfo Anaya, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cherrie Moraga, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, and Gary Soto are among the innovative Chicano and Chicana writers. Much of their work blends poetry and prose, Spanish and English, and oral and written traditions.

Native Americans, of course, have the longest sustained tradition of poetry in North America, and many of the powerful Native American writers at work today ground their work in the long-standing traditions and oral cultures of their peoples. As with Chicano and Chicana writers, some Native American poets wrote in English early in the nation’s history. But most Native American poetry in English is of relatively recent origin. The highly original group of writers at work at the close of the 20th century included N. Scott Momaday (of the Kiowa people), Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), Simon Ortiz (Acoma), Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene), Carroll Arnett (Cherokee), Roberta Hill (Oneida), Wendy Rose (Hopi), James Welch (Blackfeet), Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna), Linda Hogan (Chicasaw), Joy Harjo (Creek), and Ray Young Bear (Mesquakie).

The history of American poetry is usually told as the story of a handful of great poets, from Anne Bradstreet through William Cullen Bryant, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and Robert Frost. But these poets form a small part of America’s vast poetic production, much of which is by people whose names are forgotten. Journals and newspapers preserve much of their work, and scholars have just begun to rediscover 18th- and 19th-century American poetry in those archives. Similarly, much of the most popular, politically astute, and radical 20th-century poetry appeared in workers’ newspapers and journals and popular songbooks—and a great deal of this work still awaits rediscovery.

With the vast amount of culturally diverse poetry being written today and with the growth and reach of the Internet, American poetry may well be approaching its most prolific stage. The Internet dwarfs the archives of the past in its ability to make thousands of new poetic voices available to everyone who cares to read them. “To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too,” wrote Whitman in 1855. His challenge remains valid today: The poets are out there, thousands of them, waiting for the audience that will be worthy of them.

Contributed By: Ed Folsom, e-mail:

Research Librarian: Kathy Magarrell, e-mail:
American Literature: Poetry” Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2001  


Some Noted American Poets

Poets selected by: Ed Folsom, Carver Professor of American Literature  in University of Iowa’s Department of English,

“American Literature: Poetry” Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2001


The “great” American poets designated by Ed Folsom:

Anne Bradstreet, William Cullen Bryant, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and Robert Frost.


Anne Bradstreet


The Prologue” (1650) “Contemplations

Michael Wigglesworth


The Day of Doom” (1662)

Edward Taylor


Upon A Wasp Chilled With Cold

Ebenezer Cook

1670? - ?

The Sot-Weed Factor (1708)

Richard Lewis


A Journey from Patapsco to Annapolis, April 4, 1730

Jupiter Hammon


An Evening Thought. Salvation by Christ, with Penetential Cries” (1760),

An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley” (1778)

Lucy Terry


Bars Fight” (1746)

John Trumbull


The Progress of Dulness (1772-1773)

David Humphreys


Poem on the Happiness of America

Philip Freneau


The Wild Honey-Suckle” (1786), “The Indian Burying Ground” (1787)

Timothy Dwight


“Greenfield Hill” (1794)

Phillis Wheatley


Poems on Various Subjects (1773)

Joel Barlow


The Hasty Pudding” (1796), Columbiad (1807)

William Cullen Bryant


Thanatopsis” (1817), “To a Waterfowl” (1821)

George Moses Horton


The Slave's Complaint” (1829, ) “Death of an Old Carriage Horse” (1865)

Ralph Waldo Emerson



Elizabeth Oakes Smith


To the Hudson”, “Strength from the Hills

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


The Song of Hiawatha (1855), “The Children’s Hour”, “The Village Blacksmith

John Greenleaf Whittier


Snow-Bound (1866), “The Library

Oliver Wendell Holmes


Old Ironsides” (1885), “Chambered Nautilus”, “Dorothy Q

Edgar Allan Poe


The Raven” (1845)

Frances Sargent Locke Osgood


“The Maiden’s Mistake”, “Woman” (1848), “The Wraith of the Rose” (c.1849)

James Russell Lowell


The Vision of Sir Launfal (1848)

Herman Melville



Walt Whitman


Leaves of Grass (first published 1855), “There Was a Child Went Fourth” (1855)

Joshua McCarter Simpson


“Away to Canada” (1850)

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper


Aunt Chloe”, “The Drunkard's Child”, “The Slave Mother

Alice Cary


Autumn”, “January

Phoebe Cary


The Leak in the Dike”, “When Lovely Woman

Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt          


The Black Princess”, “We Women

Jones Very                                


The New Birth”, “Life”, “Psyche

Henry Timrod


Ethnogenesis” (1861)

Emily Dickinson


I Tasted a Liquor Never Brewed

Sidney Lanier


The Marshes of Glynn” (1878)

Edgar Lee Masters


Spoon River Anthology (1915), Lucinda Matlock

William Vaughn Moody


Gloucester Moors”, “A Grey Day

Edwin Arlington Robinson


Miniver Cheevy” (1910)

Stephen Crane


I saw a man pursuing the horizon

James Weldon Johnson


Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917), The Glory of the Day Was in Her Face,  

Paul Laurence Dunbar


We Wear the Mask

Robert Frost


Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”, “The Road Not Taken

Amy Lowell


Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914), “Madonna of the Evening Flowers

Gertrude Stein


Daughter”, “Red Faces”, “Stanzas in Meditation

Robinson Jeffers


Unnatural Powers

Carl Sandburg


Cornhuskers (1918), Smoke and Steel (1920), “The Little Girl Saw Her First Troop Parade

Vachel Lindsay


Beyond the Moon

Wallace Stevens


Peter Quince at the Clavier”, “Sunday Morning” (both 1923)

Jessie Fauset


Enigma”, “La Vie C'est la Vie”, “ Words! Words!

William Carlos Williams


This Is Just To Say

Ezra Pound


The Tree

Hilda Doolittle, aka H. D.


Sea Garden (1916), Helen in Egypt (1961)

Alain Locke



T. S. Eliot


The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), The Waste Land (1922)

Marianne Moore


Poetry (1935)

John Crowe Ransom


Blue Girls

Claude McKay


The Tropics in New York”, “If We Must Die

e. e. cummings


In Just spring

Jean Toomer


Portrait in Georgia”, “Reapers”, “Song of the Son

Hart Crane


My Grandmother's Love Letters

Michael Gold                               



Melvin Tolson 



Allen Tate


Ode to the Confederate Dead” (1926)

Sterling Brown


Riverbank Blues”, “Slim Greer in Hell”, “Southern Road

Arna Bontemps


A Black Man Talks of Reaping”, “Nocturne of the Wharves

Langston Hughes


Dream Variations

Countée Cullen


Yet do I Marvel

Robert Penn Warren


San Francisco Night Windows, True Love

Theodore Roethke


The Waking” (1953), “Elegy for Jane

Charles Olson



Elizabeth Bishop


Filling Station” (1965)

Muriel Rukeyser


The Poem as Mask

Delmore Schwartz


In the Naked Bed in Plato’s Cave

Karl Shapiro


A Garden In Chicago ”, “The Olive Tree

John Berryman


Dream Song 29

Randall Jarrell


The Woman at the Washington Zoo

Gwendolyn Brooks


The Preacher Ruminates behind the Sermon”, “We Real Cool

Robert Lowell


Dolphin”, “Man and Wife

Robert Duncan


My Mother Would Be a Falconress”, “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow

Lawrence Ferlinghetti


In Goya’s Greatest Scenes”, “The Changing Light

Richard Wilbur


Advice to a Prophet”, “The Writer

Anthony Hecht


The Dover Bitch”, “The Transparent Man

Donald Justice


Ode to a Dressmaker's Dummy”, “Sestina: Here in Katmandu ”, “A Map Of Love

Robert Bly


Dawn”, “The Night Abraham Called to the Stars

Robert Creeley


Age”, “Water Music”, “A Wicker Basket

Allen Ginsberg



Frank O’Hara


A Quiet Poem”, “At Night Chinamen Jump

John Ashbery


Daffy Duck In Hollywood”, “Into the Dusk-Charged Air

Galway Kinnell


After Making Love We Hear Footsteps”, “Poem Of Night”, “Wait”, “Blackberry Eating

W. S. Merwin


My Friends”, “Yesterday

James Wright


A Winter Daybreak Above Vence”, “Beginning”, “May Morning

Anne Sexton


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Philip Levine


A Woman Waking”, “Among Children”, “Clouds”, “Detroit Grease Shop Poem

Ed Dorn


The Cosmology of Finding Your Spot

Adrienne Rich


Miracle Ice Cream”, “Woman and Bird

Gregory Corso 


Destiny”, “To a downfallen rose”, “The Mad Yak

Gary Snyder


Four Poems for Robin”, “Hay for the Horses

Sylvia Plath


Mushrooms”, “Daddy”, “Morning Song

LeRoi Jones aka Amiri Baraka


Ka 'Ba

Sonia Sanchez


Personal Letter No. 3 ”, “Poem #3

June Jordan


The Talking Back of Miss Valentine Jones: Poem # one

C. K. Williams



Michael Harper


American History

Frank Bidart


Love Incarnate”, “Self-Portrait, 1969”, “Dark Night

Susan Howe


From The Midnight”, “Rückenfigur

Don Lee aka Haki R. Madhubuti


change-up”, “destiny”, “IS TRUTH LIBERATING?

Sharon Olds


Sex Without Love”, “The Arrivals”, “The Pope's Penis

Nikki Giovanni


Possum Crossing”, “Knoxville Tennessee

Louise Glück


A Fantasy”, “Happiness”, “Love Poem

Yusef Komunyakaa


Facing It”, “Jasmine”, “The Whistle

Charles Bernstein


Asylum”, “April

Jorie Graham


The Guardian Angel Of The Private Life”, “Mind”, “The Way Things Work

Rita Dove


Adolescence II”, “The Bistro Styx”, “Weathering Out (audio only)

Asian American poets:



Alan Chong Lau



John Yau


Russian Letter

Garrett Hongo


Kubota”, “Something Whispered in the Shakuhachi

Cathy Song


The Hand That Feeds”, “Handful

Chicano and Chicana:



Victor Bernal



José Montoya



Rudolfo Anaya



Cherrie Moraga


I am the welder

Gary Soto


A Red Palm”, “Mission Tire Factory, 1969”, “Saturday At The Canal

Lorna Dee Cervantes


Freeway 280

Benjamin Alire Sáenz


In My House: Photographs”, “Students I See Every Day

American Indian Poets:



Carroll Arnett (Cherokee)



N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa)


Angle of Geese”, “Eagle Feather Fan”, “The Earth

Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna)


Anagram”, “Hoop Dancer”, “Taking a Visitor to See the Ruins

James Welch (Blackfeet)



Simon Ortiz (Acoma)



Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki)



Roberta Hill (Oneida)


Star Quilt

Linda Hogan (Chicasaw)


Deer Dance

Wendy Rose (Hopi)


Itch Like Crazy: Resistance

Ray Young Bear (Mesquakie)


The Aura of the Blue Flower That is a Goddess

Joy Harjo (Creek)


Deer Dancer”, “Equinox

Sherman Alexie (Spokane/ Coeur d’Alene)




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