April is National Poetry Month, which celebrates the importance of poets and poetry. Today’s post comes from Thomas Richardson, an archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri.
The United States has a rich literary history with some of the most prolific poets of the 19th and 20th centuries. Their writings have fundamentally changed genres and introduced new ones as well. American poets write about nature, society, the human condition, religion, and many other topics that encapsulate the human experience.
Four poets who profoundly affected American literature were Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, and Maya Angelou. Their works demonstrate a great command of the English language, social critiques of contemporary issues, express both romanticism and realism, and broke new ground in poetic structures and syntax. Their works have garnered both praise and controversy—sometimes for their content and for the poet’s personality
Walt Whitman, born in New York in 1819, worked for various newspapers, and in 1855 he published his first collection of poems, Leaves of Grass. His signature style was unconventional at the time, rejecting things like form structure. Controversy followed shortly after as many criticized its potentially sexual nature. Book sales were poor, but a ringing endorsement from Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged Whitman to continue writing.
During the U.S. Civil War, Whitman volunteered in Army hospitals to care for sick and wounded Union soldiers. During his routine duties he read to patients. He used this time to work on another collection of poems, entitled Drum-Taps. Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Whitman wrote “O Captain! My Captain!” eulogizing the President and lamenting his loss. He was an avid supporter of Lincoln and the Union cause and is sometimes referred to as the “poet of democracy.”
Whitman died in 1892 following years of poor health, leaving behind a legacy of poetic accomplishments that future writers like Ezra Pound, Langston Hughes, Jack Kerouac, Bram Stoker, and Oscar Wilde would cite as inspiration.
In the same vein as Walt Whitman, Robert Frost’s poetic inspiration came from rural life and examined complex contemporary issues. His works were celebrated in their time, and he was a prolific writer and teacher. Born in California in 1874, he and his family moved to New England when he was 11 years old and would spend the rest of his life in the region.
While briefly residing in England, Frost published his first book of poems—A Boy’s Will—and during World War I embarked on a lifelong career of writing, editing, and lecturing. He taught English classes at nearby Amherst College and in 1916 registered for the draft, but he was not selected based on his age and marriage status.
Frost also worked at Middlebury College, where he taught seasonal English classes for over 40 years. Simultaneously he continued to write poetry, producing notable works such as “The Road Not Taken,” “The Gift Outright,” and “In the Clearing.?
Frost had exquisite gifts and focused much of his work on the human condition. His poetic style shifted between traditional European form and American free verse, creating new styles and for many, almost a new, hybrid form entirely.
Critics have noted that while Frost had a very folksy tone, he also delved into darker territory, alluding to issues such as depression, loneliness, and isolation. These themes were prevalent in Frost’s personal life. He lost both parents early in life, a sister died in a mental hospital, and his wife died of heart failure and breast cancer 25 years before his death. Only two of their six children outlived them both.
Frost received numerous accolades and awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry on a record four occasions and a Congressional Gold Medal. At age 86, he recited perfectly from memory “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s Presidential inauguration. He died in 1963 following surgery complications.
Breaking from much of social conventions and adopting the avant garde, writer and artist Gertrude Stein was another prominent figure in the literary world. She also generated a large amount of controversy in her lifetime while also paving the way for many artists labeling themselves the “Lost Generation.”
Stein was born in 1874 to a wealthy Pennsylvania family and spent her childhood reading works by Robert Burns, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare. She graduated from Radcliffe College (the all-women’s institution annex at Harvard) and studied with noted psychologist William James. She enrolled in Johns Hopkins School of Medicine but became frustrated with the gender discrimination and criticized many of the male-dominated policies in higher education at the time. In 1902, she accompanied her brother Leo Stein to France in the hopes of an art career.
Within weeks of arriving in France, Stein decided to settle in Paris permanently. She became enamored with the artistic world and embarked on a bohemian lifestyle. She and her brothers operated a salon at 27 Rue De Fleurus that hosted a number of symposiums that featured poets and artists, including Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Henri Matisse, and Jane Peterson. Together they constituted what Stein coined the “Lost Generation,” a term used to describe those without direction and striving to create a new identity of their own outside established social conventions.
Stein’s literary style was largely experimental. She used a technique called “stream of consciousness” to write extended narratives and poems. This expression was novel because it sought to demonstrate how creative minds work. She wrote extensively about her education and experiences in Paris, and she became a celebrity in the U.S. in the 1930s. Many of her contemporaries noted much of her work focused on sexuality, lesbian relationships, and coming-out stories. She also generated controversy with her criticisms of President Franklin Roosevelt and support of the Vichy government in World War II. She died in 1946 following a long battle with stomach cancer.
Maya Angelou’s impact on American poetry and literature has been profound, to say the least. Between the volumes of poems, essays, books, and other written works, her global travels and civil rights activism made her an influential figure. Subjects on race, gender, sex, and civil rights are prevalent in Angelou’s work, paving ways for breaking new ground and sparking controversial topics.
Angelou was born in St. Louis in 1928, and within a couple years her family moved to southern Arkansas. She suffered numerous abuses, and by the age of nine, she developed an intense passion for books and poetry. Her teacher Mrs. Flowers inspired her to read Shakespeare, Poe, Georgia Johnson, and James Johnson.
Angelou moved to California as a teenager and became the first Black woman to operate a cable car in San Francisco during World War II. In the late 1950s, she moved to New York and joined the Harlem Writers Guild and connected with the Civil Rights Movement. After working a variety of jobs such as a dancer and actress, she moved to Egypt and then Ghana to expand her writing career more, and by 1969, she published her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Angelou’s work has been considered by many to be a defense of Black culture in the United States. Her creative work with television shows, essays, and poetry have highlighted African American history, racial prejudices, and celebrated African heritage.
At the first Clinton inauguration, she famously recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” becoming the second poet to read at the event after Robert Frost. Two years later, she delivered her second public poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.
She continued writing autobiographies and delivered dozens of public lectures a year. Her writing inspired an exponential rise in black feminist biographies and memoirs documenting the African American experience. Many of Angelou’s books and poems have been staples in schools and libraries, but many have also advocated for their removal due to explicit content.
Despite these removals, works like “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” are still routinely cited as an influential work of American literature. In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her writing accomplishments. Angelou died in 2014 following years of poor health.
These four poets are just a snapshot of the poetic accomplishments within American literature. They blazed paths for new audiences, genres, prose, and themes that embodied theirs and the American experience.