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The 10 best American poems
The list could go on and on, but these are the poems that seem to have left the deepest mark on US literature and Jay Parini

For whatever reason, I woke up today with a list of the 10 greatest American poems in my head that had been accumulating through the night. Every list is subjective, and of course the use of "greatest" even more so - but these are not just "favorite" poems. I've been thinking about American poetry - and teaching it to university students - for nearly 40 years, and these are the 10 poems that, in my own reading life, have seemed the most durable; poems that shifted the course of poetry in the United States, as well as poems that I look forward to teaching every year because they represent something indelible. The list could go on and on, of course. I deeply regret leaving off Roethke's "The Lost Son", Adrienne Rich's "Diving into the Wreck" and "The Asphodel, that Greeny Flower" by William Carlos Williams. But I guess I just sneaked them onto the list, didn't I?

1. "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman

Whitman reinvents American poetry in this peerless self-performance, 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."

2. "The Idea of Order at Key West" by Wallace Stevens

Stevens's sumptuous, glittering language takes blank verse and reinvents it. This poem raises to a sublime level what Stevens once called a war "between the mind and sky." The poem celebrates the "blessed rage for order" at the heart of all creative work.

3. "Because I could not stop for death" by Emily Dickinson

A perfect poem, and one of Dickinson's most compressed and chilling attempts to come to terms with mortality. Once read, it stays in the head forever, in part because of the ballad stanza, so weirdly fresh in her capable hands.

4. "Directive" by Robert Frost

This surprising late poem concentrates Frost's lifetime of thinking and working as a poet. "Drink and be whole beyond confusion," he says at the end, mapping out the inner life of any reader. It is blank verse cast in Frost's trademark craggy voice, and it might be considered a local response to Eliot's more cosmopolitan "The Waste Land."

5. "Middle Passage" by Robert Hayden

Hayden was an African American poet who managed, in this brief epic, to bring the slave trade into lyrical focus with a polyphony of voices. The fierce drive for liberty has rarely been so beautifully framed or embodied. It's a haunting poem that operates in complex ways.

6. "The Dry Salvages" by TS Eliot

This is the "American quartet", and it's uneven; but it brings into a single major poem many of Eliot's concerns, rooting his vision in the American landscape, especially the St. Louis of his boyhood and the area off the north shore of Boston. The fifth section contains Eliot's most sublime moments of religious contemplation as he thinks about "hints and guesses", which is all we ever get: "and the rest / Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action".

7. "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop

This villanelle brings to a height the craft and ironic tone of a poet of casual grace. It's a poem about losses, small and big, and it's stunning in the way its power accumulates, stanza by stanza. This is a poem to memorise and repeat in the wee hours of the night.

8. "To My Dear and Loving Husband" by Ann Bradstreet

I can't think of another poem that so beautifully captures the deep love of a wife for her husband. The clarity and force of the poem overwhelm me whenever I re-read it, which I do quite often.

9. "Memories of West Street and Lepke" by Robert Lowell

It's hard to pick among the half-dozen best of Lowell's poems from his groundbreaking volume, Life Studies (1959), but I find myself reading this one over and again, always drawn to the personal voice, at once shaky and firm – the firmness arising from the confident free verse, with its searing portrait of the convict, Czar Lepke, "flabby, bald, lobotomized" who hangs "in his air / of lost connections".

10. "And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name" by John Ashbery

"You can't say it that way anymore," Ashbery declares, ushering into American poetry a fresh way of seeing and saying the world, celebrating "The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind". Ashbery's diarylike poems, collecting American life like flies on sticky paper, draw me to them, irritating me, inspiring me, never more perfectly than in this poem, which plays off a famous phrase from Horace that compares poetry and painting.

The Guardian