If you haven’t thought of poetry since your eleventh grade English class (or possibly the last time you watched The Dead Poets Society), we aren’t surprised. It can be daunting to consider the wealth of sonnets, couplets, and free verse out there.
So where should you start? This list will help you wade through modern poetry by pairing new poems to discover with your last poetry touchtone — you know, that poem you were kind of into in high school. Use these recommendations to discover even more poems so your poetry path spills over into May. After all, poetry might be the perfect art form to think through things that seem so hard to put into words.
If you liked “This is Just to Say” By William Carlos Williams:
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
Try “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams” by Kenneth Koch:
I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.
We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.
I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.
Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy, and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!
Possibly the internet’s favorite poem, Williams’ plum apology has been memed to death, and with good reason — its simple but compelling rhythm and its “sorry not sorry” vibe is sure to inspire anger in anyone who has been handed such an apology before, which means it’s still relevant years after Williams’ icebox betrayal. With “Variations on a Theme” Koch takes the non-apology to a very dark place that you’ll be thinking about long after you finish his poem.
If you liked “There is no Frigate like a Book” by Emily Dickinson:
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –
Try “Out of Touch Screen” by Noah Eli Gordon
Sometimes starting with a title
Infuses the work
With an insurmountable dread
How is one to fulfill such a promise
To make good on the pact
That art in the end allows
For a kind of connectivity
Life otherwise lacks
Or lacks in those more
Since mixing the ingredients
To say a batch of cookies
Is in its own right a sort
Of connectivity if done together
If my hand touching flour touches
Your hand touching the same flour
Dickinson’s ode to the power of reading is full of taut, spare sentences that feel heavy with truth; no wonder it ended up covering the notebooks of future English majors everywhere. Gordon’s poem, not quite as short but moving just as fast, explores not the promise of reading but the process of writing, and all the possibilities that are held in all stages of a poem.
If you liked “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks:
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
Try “Because it looked hotter that way” by Camille T. Dungy:
we let our hair down. It wasn’t so much that we
worried about what people thought or about keeping it real
but that we knew this was our moment. We knew we’d blow our
sooner or later. Probably sooner. Probably even before we
got too far our of Westmont High and had kids of our own who
home wearing clothes we didn’t think belonged in school.
Like Mrs. C. whose nearly unrecognizable pretty senior photo we
passed every day on the way to Gym, we’d get old. Or like Mr.
who told us all the time how it’s never too late
to throw a Hail Mary like he did his junior year and how we
could win everything for the team and hear the band strike
up a tune so the cheer squad could sing our name, too. Straight
out of a Hallmark movie, Mr. Lurk’s hero turned teacher story.
had heard it a million times. Sometimes he’d ask us to sing
with him, T-O-N-Y-L-U-R-K Tony Tony Lurk Lurk Lurk. Sin
ironia, con sentimiento, por favor, and then we
would get back to our Spanish lessons, opening our thin
textbooks, until the bell rang and we went on to the cotton gin
in History. Really, this had nothing to do with being cool. We
only wanted to have a moment to ourselves, a moment before
Band and after Gym when we could look in the mirror and like it.
and Tiffany and Janet all told me I looked pretty. We
took turns saying nice things, though we might just as likely say,
and go to hell. Beauty or hell. No difference. The bell would ring
With thanks to “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks
“We Real Cool” sticks in our minds for two main reasons: the fact that it deftly tells the story of adolescents; and the final line, “we die soon,” overshadows all the images of youthful exploration that comes before it. Dungy’s poem is in direct conversation with Brooks (she even thanks the poet at the end of her poem), plucking her “gin” and “June” and putting them in the context of a more modern scene of adolescence, a different kind of style and rhythm exploring the same teenage experience.
If you liked “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Try “Immigrant Can’t Write Poetry” by Wang Ping:
“Oh no, not with your syntax,” said H.V. to her daughter-in-law, a Chinese writing poetry in English
She walk to table
She walks to a table
She walk to table now
She is walking to a table now
What difference it make
What difference does it make
In Nature, no completeness
No sentence really complete thought
Language, our birthright & curse
Pay no mind to immigrant syntax
Poetry, born as beast
Move best when free, undressed
Lazarus’ poem is famous for gracing the bottom of the Statue of Liberty, and capturing both the majesty of the monument and its promise of welcome to anyone and everyone hoping to make America their home. Ping’s poem, growing and retracting with each line, is an exploration of feeling at home in the English language, challenging it, and most importantly, as we can see from the poem’s epigraph, challenging those who say you “can’t.”
If you liked “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley:
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.
Try “Hundreds of Purple Octopus Moms Are Super Weird, and They’re Doomed” by January Gill O’Neil:
I’d like to be under the sea
In an octopus’ garden in the shade.
The article called it “a spectacle.” More like a garden than a
hundreds of purple octopuses protecting clusters of eggs
while clinging to lava rocks off the Costa Rican coast.
I study the watery images: thousands of lavender tentacles
wrapped around their broods. Did you know there’s a female
on record as guarding her clutch for 53 months? That’s four-and-a-
of sitting, waiting, dreaming of the day her babies hatch and float
I want to tell my son this. He sits on the couch next to me
clutching his phone,
setting up a hangout with friends. The teenage shell is hard to
Today, my heart sits with the brooding octomoms: not eating,
always on call,
always defensive, living in stasis in waters too warm to sustain
No guarantees they will live beyond the hatching. Not a
but a miracle any of us survive.
Henley’s poem, often first experienced in high school through the classic YA novel Annie on My Mind, is a rallying cry of resilience, its famous final lines “I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul” seem impossible to read without lifting your head a little higher, with a feeling that you can achieve anything you set your mind to. O’Neil’s poem isn’t as neat and spare as Henley’s, it’s more sprawling, and tinged further with despair, and yet still, in the end, you’ll find hope or at least reason to hope.
If you liked “Harlem” by Langston Hughes:
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?
Try “What it Must Have Felt Like” By Ada Limón
Palm-sized and fledgling, a beak
protruding from the sleeve, I
have kept my birds muted
for so long, I fear they’ve grown
accustom to a grim quietude.
What chaos could ensue
should a wing get loose?
Come overdue burst, come
flock, swarm, talon, and claw.
Scatter the coop’s roost, free
the cygnet and its shadow. Crack
and scratch at the state’s cage,
cut through cloud and branch,
no matter the dumb hourglass’s
white sand yawning grain by grain.
What cannot be contained
cannot be contained.
Whether you were first introduced to this classic Hughes meditation on dreams through a unit on poetry or in drama class as you considered A Raisin in the Sun, it’s hard to forget its opening question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Limón’s lines have a similar pulsing longing throughout them, painting a picture not of a dream deferred, but a voice silenced suddenly finding a way to speak.