The most influential poetry collections of all time
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First of all, poetry is incredibly subjective. That’s sort of his whole problem. It would be easy to take only what is considered classic poetry that has inspired generations of poets, but that is limited. If I were only looking at collections included in an “Introduction to Poetry” program, I would overlook newer collections that have only recently achieved influential status.
So because the range of “most influential” is so wide, I wanted to create a few settings.
These collections in particular are often referenced as a source of inspiration by other poets and artists. They also have a large readership and are often (but not always) part of the poetry curriculum*. This list includes both social media poets who published later collections and poets who have been in the canon for decades. It is important to remember that we cannot limit “influence” to a specific time.
There are so many poets who could have been on this list, and I hope you keep an open mind as you read. We can all be influenced by different poetry, so I encourage you to think about what collections you would add to this list.
*I refer specifically to poetry programs in the United States. The poetic canon varies enormously between countries and regions.
Milk and honey from Rupi Kaur
milk and honey is responsible for bringing almost an entire generation of young women to poetry. Short, relatable poems combined with simple ink drawings make the book accessible to young people reading poetry for the first time. The collection focuses on the struggles and beauty of youth and womanhood. These poems have been shared millions of times on social media, bringing attention to poetry of all kinds in a whole new era.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets by William Shakespeare, edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones
Studied in English classes at nearly every level, there’s a reason the Bard is still popular to this day. Shakespeare is responsible for inspiring centuries of theater artists and writers, and is one of the most referenced poets of all time. The format of a sonnet makes it easy to teach and reproduce, while the complex themes leave ample room for poetic interpretation. With poems covering everything from love and hate to nature and creativity, it’s no wonder these sonnets are so beloved.
The Waste Land and other poems by TS Eliot
With some of the most frequently referenced lines of poetry, there is no doubt that “The Waste Land”, in particular, was a hugely important poem of its time. The other poems in this collection are no exception. TS Eliot gave voice to a generation of soldiers returning from the First World War. His work is dripping with grief and devastation, giving insight into the terrors the soldiers had to endure. This collection has inspired poets and other artists over the past 100 years.
And I still get up from Maya Angelou
A collection about joy, perseverance and the human spirit, the incredible work of Maya Angelou has already gone down in history. Cut into 32 small poems, this work has inspired poets since its publication. He has been referenced in everything from sports commercials to protests. Maya Angelou’s work gave voice to the people and this collection has found its place among the greatest works of all time.
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
A seminal work in the development of the American poetic canon and of American literature in general, Blades of grass is a flagship collection. Featuring poems about small town America, working class people, and the divide between city and country life, Walt Whitman captured the hearts of the American people. It is an overflowing collection of love for a people and a nation that has inspired generations of poets.
The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath, edited by Ted Hughes
With a sharp and precise mind, Sylvia Plath’s influence extended to almost every creative facet. Her text is dark and raw and reflects the burdens that many women faced in her time and to this day. Although she is perhaps best known for her novel The Bell Jar, her poetry is taught at universities around the world. This collection is a boundless reflection on the life of a woman who really goes straight to the jugular.
The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde by Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde was one of the most prolific activists and poets of the 1960s. With over nine published collections containing over 300 poems, she was a force to be reckoned with. Even today, his work is still taught and heralded as the voice of a generation of black Americans. This collection is brilliant, moving and leaves the reader better than when they started.
New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver is one of the most beloved poets of the past two decades. So much so that his death in 2019 made international news. There are two volumes in this collection showcasing the wide range of his work, which was heavily influenced by nature – especially animals – and inspired so many people to find the beauty all around them. Mary Oliver is a poet who will not soon be forgotten by artists around the world.
Emily Dickinson: The Complete Poems edited by Thomas H. Johnson
Heralded as one of the most prolific American poets of the 19th century, the work of Emily Dickinson has been printed, reproduced and quoted by poets for generations. His poems are taught in schools and referenced in pop culture. This collection in particular presents his entire published collection. While his work is sometimes deceptively simple, his raw and beautiful language is a marvel to read.
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad
A prominent writer of the 1920s, Langston Hughes gave voice to many black artists during the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote about the beauty, culture, and perseverance of his experience as a black man in America and was highly regarded by his contemporaries. The lyrical nature of his work is reminiscent of the music of the time, and many cite his poems as inspiration for the art they create to this day.
Like I said earlier, there are so many more collections that could be on this list, but if you’re a poetry lover looking for more collections to read, this is a great place to start. For more poetry, check out some of the greatest poems of all time and some must-have queer poetry collections.