The best short poems by American poets selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
In the past, we’ve offered a crash course in Victorian poetry by choosing ten incredibly short poems by Victorian writers, as a sort of ‘taste test’ for the style and themes of Victorian verse. In this post, we offer ten extremely short poems by American poets (i.e. no longer than 14 lines), as a way into the rich diversity of American verse produced since the nineteenth century. What are your favourite short American poems? And are there any poets we’ve left off the list who wrote a mini-masterpiece you think should have been included?
NB: we’ve had to exercise somewhat arbitrary rules when deciding what counts as an ‘American poem’ or an ‘American poet’ here. Sylvia Plath was born in the US but wrote much of her mature poetry in England; Ezra Pound was also an American expatriate living in Europe. And yet we include the former and not the latter. This is a contentious decision, but our ruling is largely that Pound (and T. S. Eliot, for that matter) consciously embraced a European tradition and deliberately broke with American literature.Plath, given her links with Robert Lowell and the confessional poets of the mid-twentieth century, never did. Right, anyway, on with the classic American poems – and if you want to seek out more American poetry, we strongly recommend getting hold of the indispensable The Oxford Book of American Verse.
Anne Bradstreet, ‘To My Dear and Loving Husband’.
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me ye women if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold…
Although Anne Bradstreet (1612-78) was born in England, she moved to the New World in the 1630s and in 1651 became the first poet in America to have a book of poems published. Bradstreet praises her ‘dear and loving husband’, whom she regards as her complement: his love is more valuable to her than all the riches of the East, all the gold in the world. Okay, so Bradstreet isn’t an ‘American poet’ in the same way as some of the other names on this list, but she was the first poet to write about life in the American colonies and all the hardships – fever, lack of food, among others – suffered by early colonial settlers. Awareness of such hardship only makes ‘To My Dear and Loving Husband’ all the more touching. Click on the link above to read the full poem.
Walt Whitman, ‘I Hear America Singing’.
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands…
Although Whitman (1819-92) was a pioneer of free verse and often wrote long, expansive poems, ‘I Hear America Singing’ is just eleven lines long, though Whitman crams a lot into those eleven lines. What better way to continue our brief introduction to America’s best poets than with a poem by one of American poetry’s pioneers, praising the many different people in his nation and the various songs they sing? Click on the link above to read the whole of this great American poem and to learn more about it.
Emily Dickinson, ‘That it will never come again’.
That it will never come again
Is what makes life so sweet.
Believing what we don’t believe
Does not exhilarate.
This eight-line gem of a poem is by one of the greatest American poets of the nineteenth century, although many of Dickinson’s poems would not be published until the twentieth century. It’s a wonderful affirmation of the one life we definitely know we have – the one in the here and now. Click on the link above to read all of this American poem and to learn more about it.
Adelaide Crapsey, ‘Amaze’.
Not these my hands
And yet I think there was
A woman like me once had hands
Crapsey (1878-1914) is not much remembered now, but she left one important poetic legacy: the cinquain, or five-line unrhymed stanza form, modelled on the Japanese haiku. This poem, possibly inspired by Crapsey’s failing health (she died of tuberculosis in her mid-thirties), is a beautifully clear example of what the form Crapsey originated could achieve.
Wallace Stevens, ‘Anecdote of the Jar’. First published in 1919, this is one of Stevens’s best-known short poems. It appeared in his first volume of poems and has been baffling critics and readers ever since – Helen Vendler, a noted critic of Stevens’s work, interprets the poem as an American writer’s response to John Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’.
William Carlos Williams, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’. This is one of Williams’s best-known poems, and has been interpreted as the epitome of Imagist practice. It first appeared in Williams’s 1923 volume Spring and All, a book which combined free verse with pieces written in prose. Why does ‘so much’ depend upon such a minor thing as the red wheelbarrow? One answer is to interpret that red wheelbarrow as a metonym for something greater, as a specific example of a general phenomenon or idea. The red wheelbarrow being ‘glazed’ by the rainwater captures the wheelbarrow in a brief, transient moment after the rainfall, when the rainwater has made the red wheelbarrow shine in the sunlight. This moment will pass, as soon as the rain evaporates and the wheelbarrow is dry again. We might say, then, that Williams is declaring – in typically concrete, Imagist terms – that much depends on these fleeting moments, on capturing moments of beauty which may seem ordinary or mundane (wheelbarrow, chickens). It is important that we observe and perceive such small, everyday details, and recognise the poetic beauty in them.
E. E. Cummings, ‘l(a’. Although it’s nine lines long, this ingenious little poem only contains four words, which are arranged so that ‘a leaf falls’ appears parenthetically within the word ‘loneliness’. The shortest American poem on this list, but a classic one.
Samuel Menashe, ‘Curriculum Vitae’. Menashe (1925-2011) isn’t exactly a famous American poet, although he earned the praise of a number of high-profile poets and critics including Stephen Spender, who said his poetry was written in ‘language intense and clear as diamonds’. In 2005 his New and Selected Poems attracted some new, late, attention to his work. Menashe wrote very short poems – many of them comprising only a dozen words or so – about simple and universal themes and ideas. ‘Curriculum Vitae’ is a representative work: although split into two parts, it runs to only 14 lines in total, condensing the run of life to just 59 words.
A. R. Ammons, ‘Their Sex Life’. At just two lines and six words, this poem is the briefest on this list, and might almost be described as a one-liner, since it works much like a joke. (Of course, as it’s a couplet – describing a coupling or rather series of couplings – it would have to be a two-liner.) Ammons (1926-2001) twice won the National Book Award in 1973 and 1993.
Sylvia Plath, ‘Poppies in October’. Many of Sylvia Plath’s most famous poems are longer than 14 lines, but ‘Poppies in October’ comes in under this upper limit. Although this poem gives a nod to Plath’s own suicide attempts (the last of which, of course, tragically, was successful) in its reference to a woman in an ambulance whose heart is likened to the flowering poppies, it is, first and foremost, a poem in celebration of the bright red flowers.
That concludes our selection of classic short American poems. Which brief masterpieces would you add to our list? Continue your American odyssey with Andrew Dix’s pick of ten interesting film adaptations of American novels and discover more classic American poetry with these classic Walt Whitman poems our analysis of Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’. See our pick of the best poetry anthologies here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.