Shakespeare once wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Centuries later, Dorothy Parker took the bard’s immortal words and applied them to undergarments in Vogue, writing, “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.” As these two esteemed poets once pointed out, less can be more, which is why this National Poetry Month we’ve decided to collect some of our favorite short poems. Death, love, tourism — we’ve still got all the hard-hitting themes, and, we hope, a solid repertoire for you to pull from when the need for a poem arises. And if you have your own “short but great” favorite, we hope you’ll add in the comments, because isn’t poetry more fun when you get to share it with others?
A wonderfully concise takedown of Henry James, i.e. overthinking it. We recommend listening to the above clip, where Gunn discusses a piece of “literary criticism” graffitied below the poem on a New York City bus when it was included in MTA’s Poetry in Motion program.
“Jamesian,” Thom Gunn
Their relationship consisted In discussing if it existed.
Don’t be fooled by the first two lines in this one. To quote (500) Days of Summer, “You should know upfront, this is not a love story.”
“You Fit Into Me,” Margaret Atwood
you fit into me like a hook into an eye
a fish hook an open eye
Perhaps not as gruesome as Atwood’s image of a fish hook gouging an eyeball, Parker’s take on love here might be more vinegary because it feels like absolute truth.
“Unfortunate Coincidence,” Dorothy Parker
By the time you swear you’re his, Shivering and sighing, And he vows his passion is Infinite, undying — Lady, make a note of this: One of you is lying.
Often referred to as the “anthem of a generation,” this poem was published by the queen of Greenwich Village during its “Golden Age of Bohemianism,” or the time when hipsterdom had that elusive core.
“First Fig,” Edna St. Vincent Millay
My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— It gives a lovely light.
As the story goes, Ryōkan once caught a thief in his hut and offered him his robe. That said, reading the poetry of this Buddhist monk and Zen master will make you feel like a materialistic jerk, but we promise, the guilt soon dissolves into an overwhelming sense of calm.
1079. Written after thieves had broken into his hut, Monk Ryōkan (translated by Steven D. Carter)
At least the robbers left this one thing behind — moon in my window.
One of the greatest literary celebrities in antiquity provides evidence that death does, in fact, suck.
“We know this much,” Sappho (translated by Mary Barnard)
Death is an evil; we have the gods’ word for it; they too would die if death were a good thing
In contrast to Sappho, this one offers a more positive spin on death: at the end, what else is there really left to see?
“Tourists,” D.H. Lawrence
There is nothing to look at any more, everything has been seen to death.
Leave it to Frost to make something so difficult sound so beautiful. (Also, Revenge fans, is this not perfect material for an Emily Thorne voiceover?)
“Devotion,” Robert Frost
The heart can think of no devotion Greater than being shore to the ocean — Holding the curve of one position, Counting an endless repetition.
While Frost contrasts ocean and shore to demonstrate the inexorable march of time, Angelou uses the fluidity of romance to mark its passage.
“Passing Time,” Maya Angelou
Your skin like dawn Mine like musk
One paints the beginning of a certain end.
The other, the end of a sure beginning.
And we couldn’t resist:
From “Maya Angelous’: I Know Why the Caged Bird Laughs!” as performed by Maya Rudolph
I am the rock I am the river I am the one who put a pie under the butt of Morgan Freeman.
This poem by little-known surrealist poet Pete Winslow proves a great mnemonic device for anyone who has ever had difficulty keeping their metric feet straight (in case that one 16th-century lit course is eluding you, a trochee is one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed).
“Form,” Pete Winslow
Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater Is trochaic tetrameter.
Another poem about poetry, this one goes in the bonus category because it was originally much longer. You can read about the author’s five decade revision process — conjectured to be a practical joke of sorts on her critics and admirers — here).
“Poetry,” Marianne Moore (as published in The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore , 1967)
I, too, dislike it. Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it, after all, a place for the genuine.