The 32 Most Iconic Poems in the English Language

From The Literary Hub:

Today is the anniversary of the publication of Robert Frost’s iconic poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” a fact that spurred the Literary Hub office into a long conversation about their favorite poems, the most iconic poems written in English, and which poems we should all have already read (or at least be reading next). Turns out, despite frequent (false) claims that poetry is dead and/or irrelevant and/or boring, there are plenty of poems that have sunk deep into our collective consciousness as cultural icons. (What makes a poem iconic? For our purposes here, it’s primarily a matter of cultural ubiquity, though unimpeachable excellence helps any case.) So for those of you who were not present for our epic office argument, I have listed some of them here.

NB that I limited myself to one poem per poet—which means that the impetus for this list actually gets bumped for the widely quoted (and misunderstood) “The Road Not Taken,” but so it goes. I also excluded book-length poems, because they’re really a different form. Finally, despite the headline, I’m sure there are many, many iconic poems out there that I’ve missed—so feel free to extend this list in the comments. But for now, happy reading (and re-reading):

William Carlos Williams, “The Red Wheelbarrow”

The most anthologized poem of the last 25 years for a reason. See also: “This is Just to Say,” which, among other things, has spawned a host of memes and parodies.

T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”

Without a doubt one of the most important poems of the 20th century. “It has never lost its glamour,” Paul Muldoon observed. “It has never failed to be equal to both the fracture of its own era and what, alas, turned out to be the even greater fracture of the ongoing 20th century and now, it seems, the 21st century.” See also: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”

Otherwise known as “the most misread poem in America.” See also: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” And “Birches.” All begin in delight and end in wisdom, as Frost taught us great poems should.

Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Real Cool”

This blew my mind in high school, and I wasn’t the only one.

Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”

Bishop’s much loved and much-discussed ode to lose, which Claudia Roth Pierpont called “a triumph of control, understatement, wit. Even of self-mockery, in the poetically pushed rhyme word “vaster,” and the ladylike, pinkies-up “shan’t.” An exceedingly rare mention of her mother—as a woman who once owned a watch. A continent standing in for losses larger than itself.”

Emily Dickinson, “Because I could not stop for Death –”

The truth is, there are lots of equally iconic Dickinson poems, so consider this a stand-in for them all. Though, as Jay Parini has noted, this poem is perfect, “one of Dickinson’s most compressed and chilling attempts to come to terms with mortality.”

Langston Hughes, “Harlem”

One of the defining works of the Harlem Renaissance, by its greatest poet. It also, of course, gave inspiration and lent a title to another literary classic: Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

Sylvia Plath, “Daddy”

To be quite honest, my favorite Plath poem is “The Applicant.” But “Daddy” is still the most iconic, especially if you’ve ever heard her read it aloud.

Robert Hayden, “Middle Passage“

The most famous poem, and a terribly beautiful one, by our country’s first African-American Poet Laureate (though the position was then called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress). See also: “Those Winter Sundays, which despite what I wrote above may be equally as famous.”

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

PG disputes the OP’s flippant contention that The Road Not Taken is “the most misread poem in America.”

He followed the link in the OP and found a 2015 Paris Review article written by someone called David Orr, article titled “The Most Misread Poem in America.” Merely by coincidence, at that time, Mr. Orr was the author of a newly-released book titled, The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong.

Despite having been published by Penguin Books, the book in question currently has a Best Sellers Rank of #389,543 in the Kindle Store.

Mr. Orr is a graduate of Princeton and received his law degree from Yale Law School.

Although Mr. Orr has created several online pages that describe his accomplishments, PG didn’t find any information about Mr. Orr actually practicing law.

Today, Mr. Orr is the poetry editor for The New York Times. Glassdoor states the average salary for a poetry editor in the US is $49K – $76K per year.

PG did a little checking and found the average starting salary for a raw law school graduate in New York City is a bit over $100K, with one firm offering $224K for new law school graduates.

PG will apologize in advance if Mr. Orr turns out to be a severely dehydrated boat person plucked out of the South China Sea by a passing US Navy Destroyer who funded his way through Princeton and Yale working as a night janitor for minimum wage.

However, absent a background including the South China Sea, Mr. Orr strikes PG as a light-weight rich kid, a dabbler in this and that.

Hence, PG’s assessment that the author of the “most misread poem in America” quip doesn’t know what he’s talking about and that The Lit Hub editor was foolish to include it in the OP.

But PG could be entirely wrong.

5 thoughts on “The 32 Most Iconic Poems in the English Language”

  1. Well, I read the,piece on it being misread and I think only his final concession that we’re not all reading it wrong is right. I don’t see the poem as about rationalization or individualism. It’s about choosing and living with a choice that can never be undone. Might have beens.

    But as said, poetry is meant to mean many things. Even his rationalization interpretation is valid. Readers take away different things from the same art and that’s good.

    I had a friend once who tried to hem readers into having the takeaways she wanted and it was harmful to her storytelling. Let readers get the wrong impression. It’s not really on the author to control reader response to fiction or poetry.

    • Quite so, the interpretation of anything is very dependent on the auditor. (However, there is some “poetry” that, if I meet someone that got anything out of it, I will slowly edge away from them.)

    • The OP does an extremely poor job, because it’s tossing off bon mots, in explaining the problem here. We can definitely argue over “the definitive, right” interpretation of a moderately complex poem ad nauseum. There are some readings, however, that are flat wrong and that should be called out; the common, requires-severe-wrenching-from-context reading of “Good fences make good neighbors” as advocacy of isolationism, of rigid boundaries, is clearly wrong. Just how much of the context of the poem, or of its linguistic assumptions, or of the outside world peeking in, or of the burgeoning use of irony in English-language poetry at the time it was written, needs to be formally brought in to justify “that’s wrong” is rather beside the point. It’s the difference between arguing over how many decimal places of a Sterling approximation are correct, for a particular application, versus “the answer is clearly a simple a times b because those two numbers appear somewhere, so ‘integral’ doesn’t matter.” The latter is just… wrong.

      And notice that this explanation of one tiny example from one OP example is considerably longer than the OP’s treatment† of something that’s just not that hard.

      † I’m never going to accept either “electronic equivalent of column-inch restrictions” or “but the audience has a limited attention span and I might lose them!” as valid explanations for conclusory arguments from purported authority.

  2. This shark wonders just how the OP managed to miss so many non-American poems; it’s almost as if the OP’s author realized, about halfway through creating the list, that not everything “in English” is “from ‘murika,” and then backed and filled a little bit so the bias wasn’t so obvious.

    This shark will also swim off shaking his head at only one entry from Shakespeare… before considering that most of Shakespeare’s plays are “poetry,” and any list of “iconic poems in the English language” that omits Hamlet’s soliloquy, or Henry’s exortation before Agincourt, because it’s in a play and not a chapbook is Not Doing Things Right. Especially since the OP doesn’t say that’s what it’s doing.

    • I think that the plays could be considered “book length” – and therefore excludable by the OP’s criteria.

      But I also think that it would be difficult to find a college grad (and some high school grads) that escaped English Lit without being forced to memorize at least one sonnet. (I managed to scrape by with “Shall I compare thee to a summers day, etc.” – which was at least a third of my class.

Comments are closed.