My favorite poems are many, but the ones given here especially those written out in their entirety are my top choices. The lines given in bold are lines I often quote in my writings, and which have profound meaning for me. Enjoy the article below by Emily Temple.
The 32 Most Iconic Poems in the English Language
- By Emily Temple
When the anniversary of the publication of Robert Frost’s iconic poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” came around, it 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.
- 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.
The Road Not Taken
By Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
By Robert Frost
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound’s the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.
Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” from The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1923, © 1969 by Henry Holt and Company, Inc., renewed 1951, by Robert Frost. Reprinted with the permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Real Cool”
This blew my mind in high school, and I wasn’t the only one.
Bishop’s much loved and much discussed ode to loss, 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
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.”
Because I could not stop for Death – (479)
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves – And Immortality.
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill – For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground – The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –
Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –
Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by R.W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)
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.
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.”
Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
This one takes the cake for the sheer number of “thirteen ways of looking at x” knockoffs that I’ve seen. But please see also: “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.”
With On the Road, the most enduring piece of literature from the mythologized Beat Generation, and of the two, the better one. Even the least literate of your friends would probably recognize the line “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness . . .”
Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise“
So iconic, it was a Google Doodle.
Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”
I mean, have you seen Interstellar? (Or Dangerous Minds or Independence Day?)
Do not go gentle into that good night
Dylan Thomas – 1914-1953
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right, Because their words had forked no lightning they Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan”
Or Citizen Kane? (See also: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”)
Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias“ . . . or Breaking Bad?
We had some votes for “Annabel Lee,” on account of its earworminess, but among the many appearances and references of Poe in pop culture, “The Raven” is certainly the most common.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore— While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door— Only this and nothing more.”
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December; And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore— For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore— Nameless here for evermore.
And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;— This it is and nothing more.”
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping, And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door, That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;— Darkness there and nothing more.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”— Merely this and nothing more.
Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning, Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice; Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore— Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;— ’Tis the wind and nothing more!”
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door— Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door— Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”
But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered— Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before— On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”
Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore— What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er, But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er, She shall press, ah, nevermore!
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!— Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted— On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore— Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting— “Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!” Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor; And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor Shall be lifted—nevermore!
Louise Glück, “Mock Orange“
One of those poems passed hand to hand between undergraduates who will grow up to become writers.
Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask“
Dunbar’s most famous poem, and arguably his best, which biographer Paul Revell described as “a moving cry from the heart of suffering. The poem anticipates, and presents in terms of passionate personal regret, the psychological analysis of the fact of blackness in Frantz Fanon’s Peau Noire, Masques Blancs, with a penetrating insight into the reality of the black man’s plight in America.”
e.e. cummings, “i carry your heart with me“ As quoted at many, many weddings.
All else aside, the fact that it starts with hating poetry has made it a favorite among schoolchildren of all ages. See also: “The Fish.”
According to someone in the Literary Hub office who would know, this poem is all over sports stadiums and locker rooms. Serena Williams is into it, which is proof enough for me.
Rudyard Kipling – 1865-1936
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too; If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same; If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run— Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
This poem is in the public domain.
Gertrude Stein, “Sacred Emily“
Because a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
Tyger, tyger, burning bright . . . Blake famously wrote music to go along with his poems—the originals have been lost, but this verse has been widely interpreted by musicians as well as repeated to many sleepy children.
Robert Burns, “To a Mouse“
To a Mouse
By Robert Burns
On Turning her up in her Nest, with the Plough, November 1785.
Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie, O, what a panic’s in thy breastie! Thou need na start awa sae hasty, Wi’ bickerin brattle! I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee Wi’ murd’ring pattle!
I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle, At me, thy poor, earth-born companion, An’ fellow-mortal!
I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve; What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave ’S a sma’ request: I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave, An’ never miss ’t!
Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane, O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s winds ensuin,
Baith snell an’ keen!
Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste,
An’ weary Winter comin fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell, Till crash! the cruel coulter past Out thro’ thy cell.
That wee-bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the Winter’s sleety dribble, An’ cranreuch cauld!
But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane, In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy!
Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me! The present only toucheth thee: But Och! I backward cast my e’e, On prospects drear! An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
As (further) immortalized by John Steinbeck.
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
The most famous poem from Whitman’s celebrated Leaves of Grass, and selected by Jay Parini as the best American poem of all time. “Whitman reinvents American poetry in this peerless selfperformance,” Parini writes, “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.””
Philip Larkin, “This Be The Verse“
We know, we know, it’s all your parents’ fault.
William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 18” (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”)
Like Dickinson, we could have put several of Shakespeare’s sonnets in this slot. Most people only recognize the first couplets anyway.
A uniquely American poem, written in 1978, that should be outdated by now, but still is not.
Frank O’Hara, “Meditations in an Emergency“ Courtesy Don Draper, circa season 2.
John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields“
Probably the most iconic—and most quoted—poem from WWI. Particularly popular in Canada, where McCrae is from.
Lewis Carroll, “Jabberwocky“
Still the most iconic nonsense poem ever written.
W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming“
Otherwise known as “the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English.” Just ask our hero Joan Didion. Joan knows what’s up.
One more thing. The above list is too white and male and old, because our literary iconography is still too white and male and old. So, here are some other poems that we here at the Literary Hub office also consider iconic, though they are perhaps not as widely
anthologized/quoted/referenced/used to amp up the corny drama in films as some of the above (yet).
Adrienne Rich, “Diving into the Wreck”
One of my very favorites from Rich’s rich (sorry) oeuvre. I read it in college and have been quoting it ever since.
Patricia Lockwood, “Rape Joke“
The poem that officially broke the internet in 2013.
Lucille Clifton, “Homage to My Hips“
She’s just . . . so . . . damn . . . sexy. See also: “To a Dark Moses” and “won’t you celebrate with me,” because Clifton is the greatest.
This happens to be my own personal favorite Brock-Broido poem, though almost any would do here.
Sappho, “The Anactoria Poem” (tr. Jim Powell)
I’m breaking my rule about the poems being written in English to include Sappho, whose work is uniquely appealing for being almost lost to us. The Anactoria poem is her most famous, though I have to say I also have a major soft spot for this fragment, translated by Anne Carson:
And when I say “soft spot” I mean it sends me into ecstatic fits.
The greatest wedding poem that no one ever reads at their wedding.
Mark Leidner, “Romantic Comedies“
For those who enjoy snorting their coffee while reading poetry.
Muriel Rukeyser, “The Book of the Dead“
A long, legendary poem, written in 1938, about the illness of a group of miners in Gauley
Bridge, West Virginia. “Coming hot on the heels of modernist long poem masterpieces like Eliot’s “The Wasteland” or Stein’s “Tender Buttons,” the poem’s deliberate lucidity isn’t just an aesthetic choice—it’s a political one,” Colleen Abel wrote in Ploughshares. “Rukeyser, from the beginning of “Book of the Dead,” seeks the reader’s participation in the journey to Gauley Bridge. The reader is implicated from the first section, “The Road,” in which Rukeyser calls outward to her audience: “These are roads you take when you think of your country.” The disaster Rukeyser is about to explore is a part of “our country” and the reader will have no choice but to confront it.”
Carolyn Forché, “The Colonel“
What you have heard is true. This poem is unforgettable.
Rita Dove, “After Reading Mickey in the Night Kitchen for the Third Time Before Bed“
Again, a thousand poems by Rita Dove would do; this is the one that sticks in my brain.
Nikki Giovanni, “Ego Tripping“
I mean, “I am so hip even my errors are correct” should probably be your mantra. Watch Giovanni perform her poem here.
Terrance Hayes, “The Golden Shovel“
Hayes’s homage to Gwendolyn Brooks is a masterpiece in its own right.
Emily Temple is the managing editor at Lit Hub. Her first novel, The Lightness, was published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in June 2020. You can buy it here.