Brief Highlights in the History of American Poetry

American FlagOkay, I’ll be honest, I tried to research and write a detailed history of American poetry, but I decided I couldn’t be bothered, so here instead is a selection of the really important bits.

The early history of what we think of today as American poetry is, of course, the history of the predominantly-English colonists (the oral traditions of the Indigenous population being regrettably ignored). Foremost among these were the deeply-religious Puritans, who were primarily focussed on the more practical problems of survival. The first poet of any note during this period was a woman, Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), whose Metaphysical poems combine the spiritual with the earthy with a distinctly feminine focus.

A century later another female poet would rise to prominence: Phillis Wheatley (c.1753-1784). Wheatley was a Black African transported to America as a slave in childhood (the name ‘Wheatley’ came from her master). Taught to read and converted to Christianity, Wheatley displayed a talent for poetry which combined Christian themes with Classical and traditional African religion. Given her position it is unsurprising that her work displays a certain ambivalence towards slavery. The Wheatleys took her to England, where her work made an impression on several prominent Abolitionists. She was emancipated in 1773, married, and had two children. Sadly, she died in poverty, as did her family.


Fireside Poets
Some of the Fireside Poets, including Longfellow and Whittier

In the 19th century a group known as the ‘Fireside Poets’ emerged in New England. The most famous among them was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), who is best remembered today for his ‘Song of Hiawatha’, and the Quaker hymnist John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892). Although he was more of an essayist than a poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) is also numbered among the Fireside Poets. A champion of individualism, he led the Transcendentalist movement, a philosophical movement which championed the natural goodness of people and nature and rejected both the intellectualism and religious practice of the time. Although most of her work was only published posthumously, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is the most widely-remembered poet in this tradition.


Also active at this time was Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), whose mysterious and macabre stories and poems, the best-known of which is probably The Raven, continues to attract readers today.

Leaves of GrassBut it was with the publication of the first edition of Walt Whitman’s (1819-1892) ‘Leaves of Grass’ that a poetry that was distinctly American finally emerged. Whitman’s free verse, influenced by the style of the King James Bible, gloried in the varied American landscape and the diverse American population, and expressed the American ideals of personal freedom and democracy. Some of the verses were sensual, even homoerotic, which led to his work being rejected by many, and embraced by many others. Whitman continued to expand his work over the years, including poems dealing with the American Civil War (‘Drum Taps’) and the death of Abraham Lincoln (most famously ‘O, Captain, My Captain!’).

Robert Frost (1874-1963) was one of the poets who reacted against the style of Whitman and Dickinson, writing short, rhymed poems dealing with the immediately recognisable and everyday. He was one of the first poets whose works I really enjoyed as a child.

Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou

The emergence of Modernism in the inter-War period saw American poets dominate the world of English-language poetry for the first time: although many of them spent time in Europe, Ezra Pound (1885-1972), T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), e. e. cummings (1894-1962), and many others were American by birth. The various political movements of the 20th century, most notably the Civil Rights movement and Feminism, expressed themselves in poetry as well as song and literature. Once again women played a key role here, most famously Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) and perhaps the best-loved 20th century American poet of all, Maya Angelou (1928-2014).

As I said at the beginning I’ve left out an awful lot: if there’s anything or anyone you think simply must be mentioned, feel free to add them in the comments below.

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