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’. 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.
Walt Whitman, ‘I Hear America Singing’. 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?
Emily Dickinson, ‘That it will never come again’. 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.
Adelaide Crapsey, ‘Amaze’. 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.
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’.
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.