The Best Of African American Poetry

Throughout history, centuries of oppression against African Americans have inspired some of the greatest poems of all time. These poems perfectly capture the emotions of those who were enslaved, ripped from their homes, or simply not provided with the same freedoms and privileges as everyone else. 

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Sympathy has been read by hundreds of millions since it was written, and you probably recognize the final line even if you’re not familiar with the entire poem: “I know why the caged bird sings!” The phrase was made famous by Maya Angelou, who was inspired to write Caged Bird.

Angelou didn’t simply write about what it was like to enslaved literally, but figuratively as well, and through stark contrasted with what it was like to be free — or to yearn for freedom. She described a “bird that stalks / down his narrow cage / can seldom see through / his bars of rage.” You might also recognize those lines, even if you don’t recognize the entire poem. Although her poetry uses imagery to show us the effects of slavery, most of it is figurative in the sense of generalization.

Phillis Wheatley wrote On Being Brought from Africa to America, a poem that still resonates with people today. She was born and died in the latter half of the 18th century, and is famous for not only her beautiful poems, but because she was one of the first African Americans to publish such a book of poetry — and while she was still very young at that. Perhaps more astoundingly, she was given her freedom shortly after its publication.

Langston Hughes wrote I, Too during the Harlem Renaissance in the early 1900s. His poetry bears in mind the struggles of African Americans growing up and surviving in the United States, and reminds readers that it was never easy. This is especially recognizable when he describes the impact of segregation.

Is Robert Frost The Most Influential Poet Of All Time?

Robert Frost was a popular English poet before his death at the age of 88 in 1963, and he has perhaps grown even more popular as time has worn on. Many of those poems were written from a New England setting, which could be why he began to gain notoriety among Americans before his death. He is one of the few poets who gained fame before death, winning four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry while he was still alive. He was also granted the Congressional Gold Medal. 

One poem that you’ve probably quoted before is “The Road Not Taken.” Here it is:

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.

In the mood for something even simpler but just as memorable? Humans are obsessed with end of the world scenarios, which could be why “Fire and Ice” resonates with so many of us. Here it is:

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

Like the work of most popular poets, his was probably the result of emotional pain and suffering throughout life. He father died from tuberculosis when he was a young boy, leaving the family with almost nothing. He was a young adult when his mother died of cancer. His sister died from mental illness after Frost placed her in a mental hospital in 1920. 

Later, he had to do the same with his own daughter. And in fact, only two of his six children survived him. His wife died in 1938, long before he did. Perhaps it is no surprise that he and his family were all suffering from clinical depression.

Reading “The Waste Land” By T.S. Eliot

If you enjoy poetry, you’ll already have read this great — and frustrating — poem by T.S. Eliot. The poem is a thematic telling of those who lost much during World War I, with speakers sharing grief and exploring the concept of death in a chaotic, traumatic world. It begins before the war, when life was simpler. From there, it delves deeply into the darkness of the human experience during and after the war.

Here’s a sample of the first chapter:

   I. The Burial of the Dead

  April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee

With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,

And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,

And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.

And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,

My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,

And I was frightened. He said, Marie,

Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.

In the mountains, there you feel free.

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

  What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water. Only

There is shadow under this red rock,

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

And I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

                   Frisch weht der Wind

                      Der Heimat zu

                      Mein Irisch Kind,

                      Wo weilest du?

“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;

“They called me the hyacinth girl.”

—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,

Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not

Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither

Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,

Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Oed’ und leer das Meer.

The Greatest Poetry Of William Ernest Henley: Who Was He?

William Ernest Henley was an English poet, known for having only one leg. He was born in 1849. He married and had a child (who died at the tender age of five) between writing poems that would one day rocket his name to fame — but not before he died of tuberculosis when he was only 53. He passed away while resting at home in Woking, Surrey. He is perhaps best known for his poem “Invictus,” which follows:

Out of the night that covers me,

      Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

      For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

      I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

      Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

      How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

      I am the captain of my soul.

Henley was sick all his life, having come down with tuberculosis when he was only 12 years old. That bout with the disease forced surgeons to amputate his leg in 1868, the same year his father passed away. The disease left him in great pain almost all of his young life. 

Robert Louis Stevenson admitted once in a letter that his character “Long John Silver” was inspired by his friendship with Henley. He wrote Henley directly after publishing Treasure Island ni 1883: “I will now made a confession: It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver … the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.”

And his departed daughter Margaret actually inspired a famous character as well. J.M. Barrie chose the name “Wendy” in Peter Pan for precisely this reason.

But what kind of a man was Henley? Stevenson’s grandson described him thusly: “…a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he wept one off one’s feet.”

His brother recounted that Henley was in severe pain in the periods just before his tuberculosis abscesses were drained — but directly afterward he was known for his boundless energy.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that such a wonderful poet was victim to such a difficult life. That’s what they say about all writers, of course.

Still Relevant Today: “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”

Dylan Thomas probably didn’t realize the poem he’d written would have such universal and long-lasting appeal — but here we are in 2019, and the lines are as relevant as they’ve ever been. Then again, whereas it might always be interpreted to mean those who are at death’s door should always fight the urge to give in and go to their graves quietly, it can also be taken another way.

No matter the obstacle in front of you; no matter how bleak; no matter how unbreakable, unstoppable, or insurmountable it seems: do not remain complacent. Fight the good fight no matter what.

Here is the poem in its entirety:


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.


Today, there’s an irony to those verses when you take them at face value. The “wise people” aren’t necessarily our elders. These days the wise people are the youth — the ones truly fighting for our future based on facts and empirical knowledge rather than the fruitless struggle of keeping the status quo the same. Then again, depending on your view of society, there are many who see the current president as the wisest leader of all (but we won’t comment on that).

Of course the artists among us will always continue toward the path of knowledge and reality over falseness and darkness. Words will continue to create powerful changes in our world even though, sooner or later, more might be required. What does the world hold in store for us? It’s anyone’s guess!

The Best Underrated Poets

Not everyone can get into poetry, and that’s okay. Sometimes a concrete narrative you don’t have to interpret is easier on the mind, and sometimes a visual narrative is easiest of all. Then there are those who turn to the interactively visual narratives of video games. All of these represent different artforms, and yet even today poetry seems the most underrated. Who are the most underrated modern-day poets? Here are just a few who deserve a more in-depth look!

Michael Hettich’s work is an inspiration. It’s a nice change of pace for those who prefer the narrative approach to storytelling, and it’s easy to read. You’ll find yourself thrown back in time with poems like First Day of Class or And We Were Nearly Children. These works are simple yet subtle, and that’s what we like.

Ars Poetica, written by Archibald Macleish, represents quite the opposite. It’s short and sweet, but it’ll put your mind to work. It’s not necessarily about inherent meaning; what it means to you will be different from what it means to anyone else. We each have our own unique memories and this poem is a great way to stir them up.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind–”

Give it a try!

Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is another deserving title on our list. He speaks to his audience directly, spurring fantastically colorful imagery, sounds, and smells in our imaginations. Not only will this poem elicit many outdoor memories, but it can coerce some dark thoughts as well.

An excerpt:

“I mean tons — of cowshit
And stood ankle deep in swales of maggots
Swirling the spent beer grains
The brewery man was good enough to dump off…”

Karen Head studied at the School of Literature, Media, and Communication of Georgia Tech but her imagination might have you believing she’s a product of Harvard. She writes about mature topics, as this excerpt from Listen O daughters turn turn shows:

“You don’t need your daddy to string you up in a barn to beat the sin out of you because the sin swirls like a spring tornado from the moment you gasp into this world…”

It’s true, this list is by no means comprehensive. One person’s underrated is another’s overrated, because we all have our own opinions. Who would you like to see added to the list?

Who Is R.M. Broderick?

If you’re a fan of poetry, you may have heard the name R.M. Broderick at one point or another. You may have a few questions about this poet. Who is he? Why is his poetry significant? Here are a few things you should know about R.M. Broderick.

Broderick Is A Modern Poet

When people hear about Broderick, they often assume that he’s a poet of the past. However, Broderick is actually a modern poet. He’s alive today and is still producing poetry.

A lot of people prefer modern poetry to the poetry of the past. They like the simpler, more direct lines that appear in newer poems. If this is true of you, you’ll definitely enjoy reading Broderick’s poetry.

It’s okay if you’re not a fan of older poetry. There are newer poets like Broderick producing new styles of poetry. His poems might be right in line with your tastes.

Many Of His Poems Are About Love

A lot of Broderick’s poems are focused on the subject of love. If you enjoy poetry that’s romantic in nature, you’ll definitely enjoy reading some of these poems.

Poems that are about love and romance tend to withstand the test of time. Love is an emotion that people are always going to experience. If you like poems about love, you should check out some of Broderick’s poems.

If romantic poems aren’t really your thing, Broderick’s poems are still something you’ll want to take a look at. Even though he writes about love, he writes about other subjects as well.

He Writes Poetry That People Can Relate To

Broderick’s poems aren’t obscure and difficult to relate to. He writes about subjects that anyone can relate to. If you’re put off by a lot of the poetry that you read, you may find that Broderick’s poetry appeals to you.

At the end of the day, the best poetry is all about the human experience. Whether poems are about love or other subjects, you’ll appreciate poems that relate to various aspects of life. You may find that the poems of R.M. Broderick will provide you with inspiration when you need it the most. Broderick’s Instagram comments are filled with testimonials from readers he has helped get through tough times.

If you’re interested in R.M Broderick, you’ll want to take the time to learn more about his poetry. You may want to follow him on Instagram or read his book, Tales of a Time Traveler. See if his poetry resonates with you.

Celebrating Black Poetry During Black History Month

Although we’ve already talked about Maya Angelou before, there are several other inspirational and great African-American poets that should be celebrated not only during Black History Month but at any time because there poetry is amazing regardless. But what I love about black poetry is that you can feel the essence and soul that these writers put into their work as they reflect upon the African-American experience. We can feel their pain, their sorrow, their joy and whatever emotion they are willing to share in their piece.

Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African American ever to win a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her second collection of poems entitled Annie Allen.  She was also the first black woman to be appointed Poet Laureate of the United States. Her most famous piece, is “We Real Cool” found below:

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

The Harlem Renaissance is one of the most celebrated times in Black Culture. Jazz musicians like Luis Armstrong and Duke Ellington paved the way for African American musicians, while writers like Langston Hughes broke new ground for African American writers. His most famous poem entitled Harlem (see below) was an inspiration for other black writers. For example, African American playwright  Lorraine Hansberry titled her play A Raisin In The Sun about a black family in Chicago during the time of segregation.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Audre Lorde describes her self as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” During the Civil Rights movement, her poetry reflected the turbulent times. The Brown Menace (below) especially rings true as police brutality, white supremacy and other issues still persist til this day.

Call me

your deepest urge

toward survival

call me

and my brothers and sisters

in the sharp smell of your refusal

call me

roach and presumptuous

nightmare on your white pillow

your itch to destroy

the indestructible

part of yourself.

Call me your own determination

in the most detestable shape

you can become

friend of your image

within me

I am you

in your most deeply cherished nightmare

scuttling through the painted cracks

you create to admit me

into your kitchens

into your fearful midnights

into your values at noon

in your most secret places

with hate

you learn to honor me

by imitation

as I alter–

although your greedy preoccupations

through your kitchen wars

and your poisonous refusal–

to survive.

To survive.

Survive.

Dylan Thomas – A Brief Biography

Dylan Marlais Thomas was born October 27, 1914 in Swansea, South Wales. And it seemed, from the outset of his life, he was destined for the field of literature. His father, an English literature professor, was known to recite Shakespeare to him as a young boy. This relatively simple act seemed to trigger what would soon become a great love for literature and – specifically – poetry. Thomas became particularly fond of the works of D.H. Lawrence, indulging himself in all of the English novelist’s poetry, and he went on to excel in English while neglecting all of his other studies. It wasn’t very long afterward at the age of 16 that Thomas would leave school altogether to pursue an early career in writing as a junior reporter for the South Wales Daily Post. And it wasn’t much longer after that, Thomas had lost his love of journalism and left his job to dedicate himself fully to his poetry, at the age of 18 years old.

It was within the period of his late teenage years that Thomas seemed to be the most prolific. Roughly half of his accomplished works are accounted between leaving school at 16 and moving to London around the age of 20, shortly after publishing “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” in 1933, which was featured in the New English Weekly. It was this first international publication that would spark interest in him, calling him to the attention of several editors of English literary magazines before moving to London shortly thereafter. His first collection of work would later be featured standalone in December of 1934 as “18 Poems.” Several other collections would soon follow, including “Twenty Five Poems” in 1936 and “The Map of Love” in 1939. Thomas’ work and perspective were also unique in that he generally broke away from contemporary tendencies to write about social or intellectual issues such as T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, preferring to concentrate his efforts more toward lyrical works and reflecting a mood akin to works of the Romantic period.

Unfortunately, as much as Thomas succeeded in the literary world, the other pieces of his life couldn’t seem to fall into place. During the height of his success as a writer, he wed a dancer named Caitlin Macnamara, and they went on to have three children. However, much speculation would later come about the fidelity of their marriage, even suspicions that both he and Macnamara may have been involved in affairs apart from each other. Thomas also struggled financially at a time where he succumbed greatly to alcohol abuse. He took work for the BBC during World War II as a film scriptwriter, in which he contributed to over a hundred radio broadcasts, one of which would later inspire his radio play “Under Milk Wood,” written in 1953. Thomas even supplemented this income with reading tours – reading tours that were more often characterized as “flamboyant performances – which would eventually see him on his way to the likes of Italy, where he would be inspired to write his most famous poem, “Do no go gentle into that good night,” as well as the United States, where he would tour four times in his life. It was unfortunately there, in New York City, on his last tour that Thomas would meet an unfortunate and untimely demise. Having collapsed at the Chelsea Hotel, Thomas passed away only a few days later at St. Vincent’s Hospital on November 9, 1953. It was discovered Thomas had died of pneumonia, swelling of the brain, and a fatty liver.

Despite the issues surrounding many aspects of his life, Dylan Thomas was most remembered for his contribution to the literary world, both for his work and for the performances of his works, reviving with vigor such traditions as lyricism and reinventing the Romantic poet during his time in America, where he was renowned for being “flamboyantly theatrical” and reading his poetry “with tremendous depth of feeling and a singing Welsh lilt.”

The Frosting of Frost’s Fork

Robert Frost is a true American poetic legend.

His style, his mind-portraits with his words are all masterpieces that are celebrated for generations. But there may be one of his most-famous poems that have been turned into an unfortunate cliché

We have all gotten various greeting cards or “motivational” or “inspirational” notes that refer to the “road less traveled.” That phrase comes from Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” but a reading of the poem in its full context reveals that the phrase is misused constantly.

The basis of “The Road Not Taken” isn’t about being a trailblazer or doing something in an unorthodox way. If one actually reads the poem, the theme isn’t on the road that is truly less traveled – which in the poem doesn’t actually exist – but it is instead about the “fork in the road” that is a metaphor for any of life’s choices and decisions we make almost every day.

The truth of the matter is that the title gets misrepresented. We can read that clearly there is no road that is actually less traveled between the two that the narrator is considering. They are both virtually untraveled. The poem is not about blazing trails, it’s about the road our choice takes us down. It is untraveled because that “fork” is the decision that we have yet to make, and so no one else can go down either road because this is a decision that only we have individually.

You see, when we come to a decision, even if 100 other people faced the exact same decision, their “forks” are in a different context of their individual lives. Even if we have the same options, the course of our life will be different than those other 100 people. The untraveled road signifies where we will be going based on our decision. It’s essentially free will combining with what the “plan” will be for us. And our “plan” will be different than those 100 other people who may have had the same decision because all of our lives are individual and we all come to that decision, that “fork,” from different places.

With what is revealed about this poem is that it’s about future potential regret for the road not taken, and about the future and how we might see our lives based on the decision that we are yet to take. On the one hand, there is an expectation of one of two things – either we will remember our past inaccurately, or we will undergo some “revisionism” or hypocrisy about the decision.

On the other hand, the poem is about wondering “what if.” If we take one road, we will wonder at some point down that path whether we should have taken the other road – is the road not taken better than the one we chose? And as we make this choice only once, we are never able to go back and re-visit the fork again, which is also a lamentation in the poem.

Robert Frost is accomplished at painting a picture of nature that explores our psyche and makes us contemplate the beauty and the starkness of the decisions we make and possible consequences. Reading Frost is a fascinating psychological journey.