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The 10 Best American Poems

from The Guardian UK

The 10 best American poems

The list could go on and on, but these are the poems that seem to me to have left the deepest mark on US literature – and me

 Walt Whitman

Engraving of Walt Whitman by George C Cox. Image: Bettmann/Corbis

 

For whatever reason, I woke up today with a list of the 10 greatest American poems in my head that had been accumulating through the night. Every list is subjective, and of course the use of “greatest” even more so – but these are not just “favorite” poems. I’ve been thinking about American poetry – and teaching it to university students – for nearly 40 years, and these are the 10 poems that, in my own reading life, have seemed the most durable; poems that shifted the course of poetry in the United States, as well as poems that I look forward to teaching every year because they represent something indelible. The list could go on and on, of course. I deeply regret leaving off Roethke’s “The Lost Son”, Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” and “The Asphodel, that Greeny Flower” by William Carlos Williams. But I guess I just sneaked them onto the list, didn’t I?

1. “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman

Whitman reinvents American poetry in this peerless self-performance, finding cadences that seem utterly his own yet somehow keyed to the energy and rhythms of a young nation waking to its own voice and vision. He calls to every poet after him, such as Ezra Pound, who notes in “A Pact” that Whitman “broke the new wood.”

2. “The Idea of Order at Key West” by Wallace Stevens

Stevens’s sumptuous, glittering language takes blank verse and reinvents it. This poem raises to a sublime level what Stevens once called a war “between the mind and sky.” The poem celebrates the “blessed rage for order” at the heart of all creative work.

3. “Because I could not stop for death” by Emily Dickinson

A perfect poem, and one of Dickinson’s most compressed and chilling attempts to come to terms with mortality. Once read, it stays in the head forever, in part because of the ballad stanza, so weirdly fresh in her capable hands.

4. “Directive” by Robert Frost

This surprising late poem concentrates Frost’s lifetime of thinking and working as a poet. “Drink and be whole beyond confusion,” he says at the end, mapping out the inner life of any reader. It is blank verse cast in Frost’s trademark craggy voice, and it might be considered a local response to Eliot’s more cosmopolitan “The Waste Land.”

[ click to continue reading at The Guardian ]

Posted on March 19, 2011 by Editor

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