Today is National Poetry Day, and we gently suggest that you celebrate by reading a poem or two. Not sure which poem to go for? Well, for those that skipped freshman English, or were too busy staring at the girl in the second row, or even those who’ve read everything under the sun but could use a refresher, we’ve put together a list of ten poems we think everyone needs to read, at least at some point in their lives. Obviously, we believe everyone should read more than ten poems, and there are many poets we love who we did not include on this list — including many modern poets not yet fully established in the canon, but hey, Poe didn’t make the cut either. Some poems we chose for historical significance, some for the skill of the writer, and some for the pure pleasure of their text, but all of these are important for a poetic education. Click through to see ten (of the many) poems we think everyone needs to read, and let us know which ones you’d choose in the comments.
“This is Just to Say,” William Carlos Williams
We love this poem for its sheer deliciousness. It reads like a piece of the most beautifully written found poetry — a note taped to the icebox door. Succinct, simple, and yet juicy, the limited lines profess a narrative far beyond what actually exists on the page.
I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox
and which you were probably saving for breakfast
Forgive me they were delicious so sweet and so cold
“He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do,” Philip Levine
If for nothing else, you should read Philip Levine for the simple fact that he was just anointed our newest Poet Laureate. A champion of the working man, whom Edward Hirsch called “A large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland,” we love the tender vitality of this piece.
If you said “Nice day,” he would look up at the three clouds riding overhead, nod at each, and go back to doing what- ever he was doing or not doing. If you asked for a smoke or a light, he’d hand you whatever he found in his pockets: a jackknife, a hankie — usually unsoiled — a dollar bill, a subway token. Once he gave me half the sandwich he was eating at the little outdoor restaurant on La Guardia Place. I remember a single sparrow was perched on the back of his chair, and when he held out a piece of bread on his open palm, the bird snatched it up and went back to its place without even a thank you, one hard eye staring at my bad eye as though I were next. That was in May of ’97, spring had come late, but the sun warmed both of us for hours while silence prevailed, if you can call the blaring of taxi horns and the trucks fighting for parking and the kids on skates streaming past silence. My friend Frankie was such a comfort to me that year, the year of the crisis. He would turn up his great dark head just going gray until his eyes met mine, and that was all I needed to go on talking nonsense as he sat patiently waiting me out, the bird staring over his shoulder. “Silence is silver,” my Zaydee had said, getting it wrong and right, just as he said “Water is thicker than blood,” thinking this made him a real American. Frankie was already American, being half German, half Indian. Fact is, silence is the perfect water: unlike rain it falls from no clouds to wash our minds, to ease our tired eyes, to give heart to the thin blades of grass fighting through the concrete for even air dirtied by our endless stream of words.
“We Real Cool,” Gwendolyn Brooks
We read this poem three separate years in high school. And we read it in college. Twice. So clearly some people who get paid to decide on what poems the youth should read think this is a good one. Not that we mind — we love this musical classic by Gwendolyn Brooks, which starts off playful and then, without warning, cuts to the bone.
THE POOL PLAYERS. SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.
We real cool. We Left school. We
Lurk late. We Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We Die soon.
“since feeling is first,” e.e. cummings
e.e. cummings, much adored by students of poetry for his unorthodox typographical style and modernist tendencies, was also a romantic. We love this poem for being weird and so pretty all at once.
since feeling is first who pays any attention to the syntax of things will never wholly kiss you; wholly to be a fool while Spring is in the world
my blood approves, and kisses are a better fate than wisdom lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry —the best gesture of my brain is less than your eyelids’ flutter which says
we are for each other: then laugh, leaning back in my arms for life’s not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis
“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats
This 1919 poem might have been about the atmosphere in post-war Europe, but the sentiments expressed in it feel just as valid in the world of today. Plus, it inspired several important works of literature that followed, from Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart to Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
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, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand; A shape with lion body and the head of a man, A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
“Howl,” Allen Ginsberg
This poem is arguably the best to come out of the very prolific Beat Generation, which makes it important in and of itself. It’s also raw, rough and incredibly dynamic, often touted as a poem for people who don’t think they like poetry. But if you like this poem, you like some good poetry.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz, who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated, who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war, who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull, who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall, who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York, who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls, incomparable blind; streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the motionless world of Time between, Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind, who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo, who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford’s floated out and sat through the stale beer after noon in desolate Fugazzi’s, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox, who talked continuously seventy hours from park to pad to bar to Bellevue to museum to the Brooklyn Bridge, lost battalion of platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops off fire escapes off windowsills off Empire State out of the moon, yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars, whole intellects disgorged in total recall for seven days and nights with brilliant eyes, meat for the Synagogue cast on the pavement, who vanished into nowhere Zen New Jersey leaving a trail of ambiguous picture postcards of Atlantic City Hall, suffering Eastern sweats and Tangerian bone-grind-ings and migraines of China under junk-with-drawal in Newark’s bleak furnished room, who wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts, who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward lonesome farms in grand-father night, who studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kabbalah because the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas, who loned it through the streets of Idaho seeking visionary indian angels who were visionary indian angels, who thought they were only mad when Baltimore gleamed in supernatural ecstasy, who jumped in limousines with the Chinaman of Oklahoma on the impulse of winter midnight street light smalltown rain, who lounged hungry and lonesome through Houston seeking jazz or sex or soup, and followed the brilliant Spaniard to converse about America and Eternity, a hopeless task, and so took ship to Africa, who disappeared into the volcanoes of Mexico leaving behind nothing but the shadow of dungarees and the lava and ash of poetry scattered in fireplace Chicago, who reappeared on the West Coast investigating the F.B.I. in beards and shorts with big pacifist eyes sexy in their dark skin passing out incomprehensible leaflets, who burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism, who distributed Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square weeping and undressing while the sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down, and wailed down Wall, and the Staten Island ferry also wailed, who broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked and trembling before the machinery of other skeletons, who bit detectives in the neck and shrieked with delight in policecars for committing no crime but their own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication, who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts, who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy, who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love, who balled in the morning in the evenings in rose gardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may, who hiccuped endlessly trying to giggle but wound up with a sob behind a partition in a Turkish Bath when the blond & naked angel came to pierce them with a sword, who lost their loveboys to the three old shrews of fate the one eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar the one eyed shrew that winks out of the womb and the one eyed shrew that does nothing but sit on her ass and snip the intellectual golden threads of the craftsman’s loom, who copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer a sweetheart a package of cigarettes a candle and fell off the bed, and continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt and come eluding the last gyzym of consciousness, who sweetened the snatches of a million girls trembling in the sunset, and were red eyed in the morning but prepared to sweeten the snatch of the sun rise, flashing buttocks under barns and naked in the lake, who went out whoring through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars, N.C., secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver-joy to the memory of his innumerable lays of girls in empty lots & diner backyards, moviehouses’ rickety rows, on mountaintops in caves or with gaunt waitresses in familiar roadside lonely petticoat upliftings & especially secret gas-station solipsisms of johns, & hometown alleys too, who faded out in vast sordid movies, were shifted in dreams, woke on a sudden Manhattan, and picked themselves up out of basements hung over with heartless Tokay and horrors of Third Avenue iron dreams & stumbled to unemployment offices, who walked all night with their shoes full of blood on the snowbank docks waiting for a door in the East River to open to a room full of steamheat and opium, who created great suicidal dramas on the apartment cliff-banks of the Hudson under the wartime blue floodlight of the moon & their heads shall be crowned with laurel in oblivion, who ate the lamb stew of the imagination or digested the crab at the muddy bottom of the rivers of Bowery, who wept at the romance of the streets with their pushcarts full of onions and bad music, who sat in boxes breathing in the darkness under the bridge, and rose up to build harpsichords in their lofts, who coughed on the sixth floor of Harlem crowned with flame under the tubercular sky surrounded by orange crates of theology, who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish, who cooked rotten animals lung heart feet tail borsht & tortillas dreaming of the pure vegetable kingdom, who plunged themselves under meat trucks looking for an egg, who threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot for Eternity outside of Time, & alarm clocks fell on their heads every day for the next decade, who cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully, gave up and were forced to open antique stores where they thought they were growing old and cried, who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality, who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alley ways & firetrucks, not even one free beer, who sang out of their windows in despair, fell out of the subway window, jumped in the filthy Passaic, leaped on negroes, cried all over the street, danced on broken wineglasses barefoot smashed phonograph records of nostalgic European 1930s German jazz finished the whiskey and threw up groaning into the bloody toilet, moans in their ears and the blast of colossal steam whistles, who barreled down the highways of the past journeying to each other’s hotrod-Golgotha jail-solitude watch or Birmingham jazz incarnation, who drove crosscountry seventytwo hours to find out if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out Eternity, who journeyed to Denver, who died in Denver, who came back to Denver & waited in vain, who watched over Denver & brooded & loned in Denver and finally went away to find out the Time, & now Denver is lonesome for her heroes, who fell on their knees in hopeless cathedrals praying for each other’s salvation and light and breasts, until the soul illuminated its hair for a second, who crashed through their minds in jail waiting for impossible criminals with golden heads and the charm of reality in their hearts who sang sweet blues to Alcatraz, who retired to Mexico to cultivate a habit, or Rocky Mount to tender Buddha or Tangiers to boys or Southern Pacific to the black locomotive or Harvard to Narcissus to Woodlawn to the daisychain or grave, who demanded sanity trials accusing the radio of hyp notism & were left with their insanity & their hands & a hung jury, who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism and subsequently presented themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse with shaven heads and harlequin speech of suicide, demanding instantaneous lobotomy, and who were given instead the concrete void of insulin Metrazol electricity hydrotherapy psychotherapy occupational therapy pingpong & amnesia, who in humorless protest overturned only one symbolic pingpong table, resting briefly in catatonia, returning years later truly bald except for a wig of blood, and tears and fingers, to the visible mad man doom of the wards of the madtowns of the East, Pilgrim State’s Rockland’s and Greystone’s foetid halls, bickering with the echoes of the soul, rocking and rolling in the midnight solitude-bench dolmen-realms of love, dream of life a nightmare, bodies turned to stone as heavy as the moon, with mother finally ******, and the last fantastic book flung out of the tenement window, and the last door closed at 4. A.M. and the last telephone slammed at the wall in reply and the last furnished room emptied down to the last piece of mental furniture, a yellow paper rose twisted on a wire hanger in the closet, and even that imaginary, nothing but a hopeful little bit of hallucination ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time and who therefore ran through the icy streets obsessed with a sudden flash of the alchemy of the use of the ellipse the catalog the meter & the vibrating plane, who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed, and trapped the archangel of the soul between 2 visual images and joined the elemental verbs and set the noun and dash of consciousness together jumping with sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head, the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown, yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death, and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years. [full text here]
“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” Wallace Stevens
This is a traditional teaching poem in many ways, austere and haiku-esque, but it’s also a very satisfying exercise in perception.
I Among twenty snowy mountains, The only moving thing Was the eye of the blackbird.
II I was of three minds, Like a tree In which there are three blackbirds.
III The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds. It was a small part of the pantomime.
IV A man and a woman Are one. A man and a woman and a blackbird Are one.
V I do not know which to prefer, The beauty of inflections Or the beauty of innuendoes, The blackbird whistling Or just after.
VI Icicles filled the long window With barbaric glass. The shadow of the blackbird Crossed it, to and fro. The mood Traced in the shadow An indecipherable cause.
VII O thin men of Haddam, Why do you imagine golden birds? Do you not see how the blackbird Walks around the feet Of the women about you?
VIII I know noble accents And lucid, inescapable rhythms; But I know, too, That the blackbird is involved In what I know.
IX When the blackbird flew out of sight, It marked the edge Of one of many circles.
X At the sight of blackbirds Flying in a green light, Even the bawds of euphony Would cry out sharply.
XI He rode over Connecticut In a glass coach. Once, a fear pierced him, In that he mistook The shadow of his equipage For blackbirds.
XII The river is moving. The blackbird must be flying.
XIII It was evening all afternoon. It was snowing And it was going to snow. The blackbird sat In the cedar-limbs.
“Daddy,” Sylvia Plath
This is one of those poems that feels good on the tongue, both the language and the content visceral and deeply affecting. Plus, Plath is one of the greatest American lady poets, so it never hurts to read anything by her.
You do not do, you do not do Any more, black shoe In which I have lived like a foot For thirty years, poor and white, Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
Daddy, I have had to kill you. You died before I had time– Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, Ghastly statue with one gray toe Big as a Frisco seal
And a head in the freakish Atlantic Where it pours bean green over blue In the waters off beautiful Nauset. I used to pray to recover you. Ach, du.
In the German tongue, in the Polish town Scraped flat by the roller Of wars, wars, wars. But the name of the town is common. My Polack friend
Says there are a dozen or two. So I never could tell where you Put your foot, your root, I never could talk to you. The tongue stuck in my jaw.
It stuck in a barb wire snare. Ich, ich, ich, ich, I could hardly speak. I thought every German was you. And the language obscene
An engine, an engine Chuffing me off like a Jew. A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen. I began to talk like a Jew. I think I may well be a Jew.
The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna Are not very pure or true. With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack I may be a bit of a Jew.
I have always been scared of you, With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo. And your neat mustache And your Aryan eye, bright blue. Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You–
Not God but a swastika So black no sky could squeak through. Every woman adores a Fascist, The boot in the face, the brute Brute heart of a brute like you.
You stand at the blackboard, daddy, In the picture I have of you, A cleft in your chin instead of your foot But no less a devil for that, no not Any less the black man who
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. I thought even the bones would do.
But they pulled me out of the sack, And they stuck me together with glue. And then I knew what to do. I made a model of you, A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw. And I said I do, I do. So daddy, I’m finally through. The black telephone’s off at the root, The voices just can’t worm through.
If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two– The vampire who said he was you And drank my blood for a year, Seven years, if you want to know. Daddy, you can lie back now.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart And the villagers never liked you. They are dancing and stamping on you. They always knew it was you. Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
“If You Forget Me,” Pablo Neruda
This is one of our favorites of the Chilean poet’s works, a beautiful and sad ode to a lover. This particular work is much less surreal than many of his poems, but we love it. And let’s face it, not many people have been crowned by Gabriel Garcia Marquez as “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language.”
I want you to know one thing.
You know how this is: if I look at the crystal moon, at the red branch of the slow autumn at my window, if I touch near the fire the impalpable ash or the wrinkled body of the log, everything carries me to you, as if everything that exists, aromas, light, metals, were little boats that sail toward those isles of yours that wait for me.
Well, now, if little by little you stop loving me I shall stop loving you little by little.
If suddenly you forget me do not look for me, for I shall already have forgotten you.
If you think it long and mad, the wind of banners that passes through my life, and you decide to leave me at the shore of the heart where I have roots, remember that on that day, at that hour, I shall lift my arms and my roots will set off to seek another land.
But if each day, each hour, you feel that you are destined for me with implacable sweetness, 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, in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten, my love feeds on your love, beloved, and as long as you live it will be in your arms without leaving mine.
“Still I Rise,” Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou is one of the country’s most renowned African American poets and civil rights activists, whose poetry has given voice to many young women’s struggles. This bold, proud poem is one of our favorites.
You may write me down in history With your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you? Why are you beset with gloom? ‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns, With the certainty of tides, Just like hopes springing high, Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken? Bowed head and lowered eyes? Shoulders falling down like teardrops. Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you? Don’t you take it awful hard ‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines Diggin’ in my own back yard.
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.
Does my sexiness upset you? Does it come as a surprise That I dance like I’ve got diamonds At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame I rise Up from a past that’s rooted in pain I rise I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide, Welling and swelling I bear in the tide. Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear I rise Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise I rise I rise.