Poetry

The Best Poems of All Time

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How do you decide the best poems of all time? Are they the ones most quoted? The ones that have had the greatest influence on poetry and popular culture? Are they the ones that capture a moment in time, the struggle of a people, or the evolution (or devolution) of society? Do they even need to rhyme?

The answer to most of these questions is yes. And no. And even maybe. They need to be monumental in some way, sparking the flames of revolution and imagination, possibly at the same time. And ultimately, since this is my list, there’s subjectivity to it.

There are some ground rules to this list. Any poet only gets one poem on this list. This makes for some difficult decisions picking which poem to include from many great poets. This also isn’t just a giant list of classic poems from dead white guys. They made some great poets and one day I will be one, but there is so much amazing poetry from people of all genders and races and eras that deserve inclusion on any list. So they’re definitely on this one.

At least one of those questions has a definite answer: the greatest poems of all time do not need to rhyme, but they’re certainly welcome to.

The Best Poems of the 17th Century

Cover of Paradise Lost by John Milton

Paradise Lost” by John Milton

This is the first epic poem in English, inspiring countless movies, songs, other poems, and books like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.

Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;

Read the rest here.

The Best Poems of the 18th Century

Auld Lang Syne” by Robert Burns

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And auld lang syne!

Read the rest here.

the painted cover of Songs of Innocence and Experience

The Tyger” by William Blake

Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 

In the forests of the night; 

What immortal hand or eye, 

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Read the rest here.

The Best Poems of the 19th Century

Because I could not stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

Read the rest here.

How Do I Love Thee?” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of being and ideal grace.

Read the rest here.

a vintage cover of Through the Looking Glass

Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

      The frumious Bandersnatch!

Read the rest here.

Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Read the rest here.

Rubáiyát” by Omar Khayyám

Technically Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was published by Edward Fitzgerald when he translated Khayyám’s poems in 1859, but Khayyám actually wrote them in the 12th century. It’s a full book of quatrains that is still in print today.

Leaves of Grass Original Edition by Walt Whitman

Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman

This is the most famous part of Whitman’s most famous work, his book-length Leaves of Grass.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Read the rest here.

The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

   Theirs not to make reply,

   Theirs not to reason why,

   Theirs but to do and die.

   Into the valley of Death

   Rode the six hundred.

Read the rest here.

The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus

If this sounds familiar, it’s because part of it is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Read the rest here.

cover of Edgar Allan Poe Complete Poems

The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe

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.”

Read the rest here.

We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

       We wear the mask.

Read the rest here.

The Best Poems of the 20th Century

Daddy” by Silvia Plath

Bit my pretty red heart in two.

I was ten when they buried you.   

At twenty I tried to die

And get back, back, back to you.

Read the rest here.

Cover of Dylan Thomas Caedmon Collection audiobook

Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” by Dylan Thomas

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.

Read the rest here.

Heritage” by Mae V. Cowdery

Here is the first poem from my favorite era, producing many of the best poems of all time: The Harlem Renaissance.

Our dark fathers gave us

The gift of shedding sorrow

In a song.

Read the rest in Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes.

“homage to my hips” by Lucille Clifton

these hips have never been enslaved,   

they go where they want to go

they do what they want to do.

Read the rest here.

Howl” by Allen Ginsberg

This poem that kicked off the Beat Generation is recognizable by its very first line:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,

starving hysterical naked,

Read the rest here.

cover of Love Poems by Pablo Neruda

If You Forget Me” by Pablo Neruda

if each day a flower

climbs up to your lips to seek me,

ah my love, ah my own,

in me all that fire is repeated,

Read the rest here.

Middle Passage” by Robert Hayden

Would have the drums talk war and send   

his warriors to burn the sleeping villages   

and kill the sick and old and lead the young   

in coffles to our factories.

Read the rest here.

Mock Orange” by Louise Glück

It is not the moon, I tell you.

It is these flowers

lighting the yard.

Read the rest here.

cover of The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore

Poetry” by Marianne Moore

I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.

   Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers that there is in

   it after all, a place for the genuine.

Read the rest here.

Power” by Audre Lorde

The difference between poetry and rhetoric

is being ready to kill

yourself

instead of your children.

Read the rest here.

Sacred Emily” by Gertrude Stein

Color mahogany.

Color mahogany center.

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.

Loveliness extreme.

Extra gaiters.

Loveliness extreme.

Read the rest here.

the cover of The Complete Poetry by Maya Angelou

Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Read the rest here.

The Black Finger” by Angelina Weld Grimke

Why, beautiful still finger, are you black?

And why are you pointing upwards?

Read the rest here.

The Heart of a Woman” by Georgia Douglas Johnson

The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,

As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,

Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam

In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.

Read the rest here.

the cover of The Collection Poems of Langston Hughes

The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes

I’ve known rivers:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Read the rest here.

The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

Sometimes, what makes one of the best poems of all time is being quoted on inspirational posters everywhere.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Read the rest here.

The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

Read the rest here.

Cover of The Wasteland and Other Poems

The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot

  April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Read the rest here.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” by Sara Teasdale

(War Time)

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,

And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

Read the rest here.

We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks

            We real cool. We   

            Left school. We

            Lurk late.

Read the rest here.

The Best Poems of the 21st Century

cover of Over the Moon by Imtiaz Dharker

A Century Later” by Imtiaz Dharker

The school-bell is a call to battle,

every step to class, a step into the firing-line.

Here is the target, fine skin at the temple,

cheek still rounded from being fifteen.

Read the rest here.

Ego Tripping” by Nikki Giovani

My oldest daughter is nefertiti

    the tears from my birth pains

    created the nile

I am a beautiful woman

Read the rest here.

“The Golden Shovel” by Terrance Hayes

Terrance Hayes invented an entire form with a big nod to We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks. Just look at those end words!

When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we

cruise at twilight until we find the place the real

men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.

His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we

Read the rest here.

the cover of Incendiary Art by Patricia Smith

Hip-Hop Ghazal” by Patricia Smith

Combine the old poetic form of the ghazal with modern hip-hop. That’s how you create one of the best poems of all time.

Gotta love us brown girls, munching on fat, swinging blue hips,

decked out in shells and splashes, Lawdie, bringing them woo hips.

Read the rest here.

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by Kristina Louisa Carr

A tiny brown triangle on the finger tip

Promises to explore distant lands on a trip

Lying back slowly to relax and be easy

Drinking clear fluids not to feel queasy

Read the rest here.

Rape Joke” by Patricia Lockwood

This is the poem that made Patricia Lockwood internet famous for a minute back in 2013. It’s also excellent.

The rape joke is that you were 19 years old.

The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend.

The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee.

Read the rest here.

The Hill We Climb cover

The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman

Amanda Gorman read this poem at President Joe Biden’s inauguration and launched herself into the zeitgeist. It’s a brilliant poem from a brilliant poet.

But in all the bridges we’ve made,

that is the promise to glade,

the hill we climb.


Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list. From top to bottom, though, it’s filled with many of the best poems of all time. Whether you’re new to poetry or an old hand, these should all be on your reading list.