From the sonnets of William Shakespeare to the writings of Walt Whitman and the rejuvenating words of Amanda Gorman, poetry is indelibly writ into the fabric of not only popular culture, but the practice of storytelling itself. Poetry exists to communicate thoughts, feelings, hopes, and the depths of human experience otherwise rendered ineffable when pressed to conform to the shape of any other medium. National Poetry Month, established by the Academy of American Poets in April 1996, was created for the express purpose of reminding us of that fact.
Here at Polygon, we love the arts — not just the latest that television, games, and film have to offer, but any artform which brings us closer to understanding the lives and experiences of others and ourselves. So, in celebration of the 25th anniversary of National Poetry Month, we’ve come together to curate a list of a few of our favorite poems. Join us as we appreciate the poems that have shaped us. We encourage you to share some of your favorite poems in the comments, and why they’ve meant so much to you.
[Ed. note: All poems are excerpted, with links to opportunities to read the full pieces.]
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock” (1915)
By T.S. Eliot
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
I first read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”’ at the impressionable age of 17. I was going through a late teenage existential crisis, and questioning what the point of life was. (What was an academic kid reaching the end of her high school career capable of doing afterward if not school?) Eliot’s poem came up in English class when we were reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (another work that I then integrated into my personality). The interrogation of existentialism, the vivid imagery of isolation, and the melancholy of disillusionment spoke to me.
I wrote “Do I dare disturb the universe?” on every imaginable surface possible, made it my social media bio for years to come, and fantasized about getting it tattooed on my forearm. I thought about measuring life in coffee spoons, sentient fog twisting through buildings, and the sound of mermaids singing. I still deeply love the visceral imagery of this poem and the way it desperately tries to make sense of life. —Petrana Radulovic
“Humanity i love you” (1959)
By E. E. Cummings
Humanity i love you because you
are perpetually putting the secret of
life in your pants and forgetting
it’s there and sitting down
and because you are
forever making poems in the lap
of death Humanity
i hate you
E. E. Cummings is probably best known as the poet who sprinkles commas and parenthesis all over his poems — easy to mimic, harder to appreciate. For fans, his most moving and enduring work tends to be love poems; I came across “since feeling is first” late in high school and was hooked. It was the first Cummings work that convinced me to read him as a serious poet, not just a turned-out pocket of punctuation.
Although love is, in its way, still at the center of “Humanity i love you,” it’s not the airy, all-encompassing love as in classics like “[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in].” I wanted to talk about it because I find I often struggle with humanity in the same way Cummings does in this piece. The chorus of “i love you” can be read as sarcastic, but I see it more like the sighs of a troubled parent standing over their child’s misdeeds. The flipping at the end to the more despairing “i hate you” marks the tension between being a hapless, helpless participant in humanity and still being unable to accept its many failures.
Cummings dances with some big, broad concepts — capitalism, nationalism, anti-intellectualism — but grounds them with extremely concrete images. Souls dangle from watch chains, and your beautiful, hard-earned knowledge of the world is locked away in a pawn shop. Of all the images in all the poetry I’ve read, few have stuck in my mind as clearly as “you/are perpetually putting the secret of/life in your pants and forgetting/it’s there and sitting down/on it.” Weirdly, I think of it whenever I see people going along with anti-science rhetoric or a capitalist-driven “solution” to some modern issue or a new fad diet or a piece of technology that’s going to change how we think about, well, whatever activity can be exploited for profit. I love, and will forever love, humanity because it is “forever making poems in the lap/of death,” but some days it’s harder than others. —Jenna Stoeber
“Antidotes to Fear of Death” (2001)
by Rebecca Elson
And sometime it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:
To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.
During high school, I became mildly obsessed with Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and the history of the two phonograph records attached to the side of the Voyager spacecraft. That’s when I first learned about the “overview effect,” the cognitive shift in awareness reported by astronauts who manage to break away from the gravity of Earth’s orbit and witness the fragility and wonder of our planet compared to the incalculably vast expanse of the universe. As a teenager staring down the imminent future of college and young adulthood, I felt a cognitive shift of my own as the innumerable possibilities and challenges of navigating life after compulsory education began to dawn on me. Reading Rebecca Elson’s “Antidotes to Fear of Death” always brings me back to that frame of mind, while also prompting me to meaningfully take stock of both my own mortality and of those I hold dearest to my heart.
Written some years before the late astronomer-poet’s passing in 1999 from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Elson’s poem brings into stark view the enormity of the universe and our relative place in it — right down to the very atoms of our bodies. It’s a universe where everyone and everything that exists now has been and will always be here, whether perceptible to the human eye or unconstrained by human form. It’s a celebration of life that makes peace with inevitability of mortality, assuring the reader that no matter what the immutable fate of death might bring, something of us will always survive ... whether in this life or the next. —Toussaint Egan
By A.R. Ammons
choose the right: there the rocks
cascade less frequently, the grade more gradual:
treat yourself gently: the ascent thins both
mind and blood and you must
keep still a dense reserve
I first encountered A.R. Ammons in high school, back when I was growing up as a bookish nerd-jock in the affluent Western suburbs of Chicago. If memory serves, it was some time after being first exposed to Holden Caulfield and organized football, but before I fell hard for Ernest Hemingway and quit the baseball team to join the drama club.
I remember finding Ammons’ work in a book of collected poems buried on a shelf at the public library, just as it was transitioning from analog to digital card catalogs. There was still that little slip of paper inside the front cover, listing the names of everyone who had ever checked it out — only three or four people, at the time, dating back all the way to the late 1970s. I added my own name and date to the list. The book smelled old, but the binding still felt crisp and new.
Ammons has been called “the great American poet of daily chores,” but I think that sells his work short. There is a peacefulness to the mundane that resonates from his work. The structure of his poems embraces monotony in an almost meditative way, all the while leaving room for wonder and joy in the simplest of things. My favorite piece of his is titled “Visit,” and I kept a copy of it taped inside my English binder well into college. Reading through it today reminds me of my grandfather’s giddy face when we visited him at his cottage in rural Wisconsin. We would sit there together, in the early morning hours, and watch the wild turkey stroll through his back yard. There wasn’t much to talk about, but we had plenty to share. —Charlie Hall
“The Palace” (1902)
By Rudyard Kipling
Yet I despised not nor gloried; yet, as we wrenched them apart,
I read in the razed foundations the heart of that builder’s heart.
As he had risen and pleaded, so did I understand
The form of the dream he had followed in the face of the thing he had planned.
Apart from the classic “If” and the poems in The Jungle Book (which are spectacular and really expand and illuminate the book’s various short stories), I didn’t know much about Rudyard Kipling’s poetry until I started getting into singer-songwriter Leslie Fish, who’s put dozens of them to music over the course of three albums. (She calls the results “Kipples.”) Kipling was so damned prolific that it can be hard to know where to start, but her tunes, which range from bouncy to dirge-y, help establish the widely varying cadences, rhythms, and tones of his poems, which run the gamut from rowdy singalong beer-hall songs to rich, gorgeous memoirs about life in a thousand different professions.
That’s how I ran across “The Palace” — not one of my favorite tunes of hers, but certainly my favorite of Kipling’s poems once I heard her sing it. It’s a teaching-song about mortality, very much in the spirit of Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” with an observer seeing how a past builder overreached and then succumbed to the ravages of time. But where Ozymandias, king of kings, seemingly didn’t live to see his empire crumble, the older unnamed king of “The Palace” came to understand the futility of pride, and sought immortality by reaching out to an unknown successor in the future with this oblique message: “After me cometh a Builder. Tell him I too have known.”
The subtlety of that just kills me. It isn’t a flat-out moral dictate, it’s an invitation to self-reflection, and a message that can only be taken in and understood by someone capable of humility. There’s a sense of despair and surrender about this poem, where two men, understanding each other across an unknown gulf of time, decide that it’s better to just give in to “the darkness” rather than vainly trying to build. But both of them decide there’s still a way to achieve their own immortality, by communicating with the future. The line about “the form of the dream he had followed in the face of the thing he had planned” is one of my favorite things ever written. Surely we can all relate to that idea: big plans, small follow-through. —Tasha Robinson
By Leopold Staff
I built on the sand
And it tumbled down,
I built on a rock
And it tumbled down.
Now when I build, I shall begin
With the smoke from the chimney.
Last summer, I saw a building burn down for the first time. And then I saw another. It taught me that everything that seems permanent and stable, is actually much more precarious than it appears to be. No matter the foundation, there is a chance that what you build will tumble down. In Minneapolis, the flames offered a message of hope. The instability of life, although jarring, allowed many community members to imagine what a new life could look like.
Leopold Staff’s message in “Foundations” is not one of hope. He wrote this poem right after World War II when confronting the absolute devastation of the ruins of Poland. To him and many, the process of rebuilding a leveled city seems untenable. What does a poet write about in that situation? The only house you can build is an imaginary one. So, he leaves us with the image of a child drawing a picture of a house, who starts by drawing the smoke rising from a chimney. —Ana Diaz
By Gerald W. Barrax
I lurched to
and turned in time
to see the brothers
four and six
side by side
in each other’s ruin
looking up in perfect trust
at their mother.
Indecisive and cowardly, I let her get away.
I forget when I first read this poem, but it was around the time I Googled an old professor’s name and discovered he was an acclaimed poet, nominee for the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, for a collection published around the time I was an undergraduate.
This poem, the first one I read by Gerald W. Barrax (whom I knew only as an instructor of English 266: American Literature, Civil War to Present) always lingered with me. A grocery list that begins it always seemed a kind of receipt for the moment. The comedy’s in the specifics, right? Well, so is the poetry, at least Barrax’s is, and the perfect recall of what was in his shopping cart at the Winn-Dixie lets me know his capacity for perception, memory and awareness.
Awareness. I got a B in Barrax’s class during my callow, sophomore fall of 1992, my first semester living in my fraternity house. The only moment I really remember is the look he gave me when he handed back my final exam. I was in his office, happy to collect the blue book for a course I’d been half-aware of, but somehow managed a B. Yet, when I got home and leafed through my final, I saw the essay marked up, graded C, with annotations calling bullshit on whatever I was trying to get away with. It both confused and shamed me. How did I get a B in a course after doing lazy and inferior work in the exam?
The following spring of 1993, Barrax, North Carolina State University’s first Black instructor, was nominated for a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Leaning against the Sun, published in 1992. (“Jeopardy” was published two years later.) I still feel like I have no license to say he was my teacher, since I wasted whatever opportunity I had, to grow and change in the presence of someone so rare and accomplished.
“Jeopardy,” too, is a confession of hindsight, regret, and mortification. It’s the embarrassment of rising to the occasion only after it has passed, of trying to passively ignore or avoid the moment in the first place, of feeling no moral right to comment on it, except to yourself. Whenever I read it I remember the author’s wan look of disappointment. Barrax’s rectitude was revered among his faculty peers. Such things come not from setting a high standard for others, but realizing all the times you failed to meet it. —Owen Good
“The Glove and the Lions” (1836)
By Leigh Hunt
She dropped her glove, to prove his love, then looked at him and smiled;
He bowed, and in a moment leaped among the lions wild:
The leap was quick, return was quick, he has regained his place,
Then threw the glove, but not with love, right in the lady’s face.
“By God!” said Francis, “rightly done!” and he rose from where he sat:
“No love,” quoth he, “but vanity, sets love a task like that.”
Most of my favorite poems are also short stories. I don’t know what that says about me, that I’m drawn more to tidy start-to-finish narratives in poetry than I am to airy evocations of emotion. But maybe that taste was influenced by one of the first poems I ever remember encountering in school: Leigh Hunt’s “The Glove and the Lions,” a grim tale of courtly love with a twist ending to rival anything M. Night Shyamalan ever put on film.
The imagery in this story-poem is particularly vivid, with bloody foam “whisking through the air,” and the endless implications of a woman with “sharp bright eyes, which always seemed the same.” But the poem is also brutally efficient: setting, twist, and moral, in four dense stanzas. Hunt makes it look easy, but those playful mid-line rhymes take some craft, and so does the overall light tone in a story that’s life-or-death for one of the participants, and the death of love for two of them. Its macabre vision of an older world where people watched animals slaughter each other for fun was gripping to me as a kid, but even today, the message still resonates, about not playing selfish games with people you supposedly care about. —TR
“To Nature” (1836)
By Samuel Taylor Coleridge
So let it be; and if the wide world rings
In mock of this belief, it brings
Nor fear, nor grief, nor vain perplexity.
So will I build my altar in the fields,
And the blue sky my fretted dome shall be,
I wouldn’t have discovered one of my favorite poems, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “To Nature,” were it not for a video game. A few years back I was playing through Horizon: Zero Dawn and riding through the so-called Gatelands of the Carja Sundom region, hunting down the horse-like mechs known as Striders to collect parts for God knows what sort of weapon or armor upgrade, when I came across this weird looking metal flower perched atop a cliff. I opened up my menu to take a gander at what I’d picked up, and what I read in the description immediately gave me pause. It was the lines of a poem I had never heard before, arranged as if they were a command line function of some futuristic computer program. “It may indeed be fantasy when I / Essay to draw from all created things / Deep, heartfelt, inward joy that closely clings;” It was the type of bold, declarative type of poetry that lit a fire inside of me when I was younger and first inspired me to pursue a career animated by a love of the written word.
As someone who was mocked by peers (and even some of my teachers) for expressing enthusiasm for art and movies and stories, I felt a strong and abiding kinship with the speaker of the poem, particularly its middle section (seen above). Coleridge’s poem takes his passion for nature and transforms it into a paean of reverential ecstasy, declaring his love for the simple, innumerable, and all too ephemeral splendors of the physical world and to hell with anyone or anything that would attempt to make him feel small or insignificant for that love. I wish I could send this poem back in time to my younger self, if only to reassure him that he was not alone and that his own loves, curiosities, and passions would bear fruit in their own time. —TE
“The Orange” (1993)
By Wendy Cope
The rest of the day was quite easy.
I did all the jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I’m glad I exist.
“The Orange” brought me peace in my 20s. I spent a lot of my adolescence trying to be “deep” and “interesting,” sometimes at the expense of being truly happy. Not to get too much into my personal life, but a big journey of my new adulthood has been rediscovering what it means to be happy, to be myself, to actually enjoy life.
“The Orange” gave me an answer to my existential questions: ordinary things matter. Shopping. Finishing a to-do list. Sharing an orange with friends. I reread this poem a few weeks ago, when the anniversary of the pandemic crept up and I was feeling particularly burned out. I cried. The simplicity of the last line — “I love you. I’m glad I exist.” — disarms me every time I read it, like a kick to the gut. But I think my favorite line comes in the second stanza: “This is peace and contentment. It’s new.” It implies that the author didn’t always feel like this, that she too had a journey to reach this point. I love this poem so much, I want to write it down on a piece of paper and crumple it up and devour it. —PR
“Wild Geese” (2004)
By Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes, |
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
When I was 19 years old, I took a class on anxiety that changed my life for the better. At the end of the class, the teacher passed around copies of this poem to everyone and we read it together. Mary Oliver’s plainspoken message shocked me back then and it still does now. The poem’s first line, “You do not have to be good,” seemed impossible to fathom at the time, as someone who had tortured themselves for years in attempts to twist my brain and body into a shape I thought other people would like. But, as Mary Oliver puts it, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.”
After offering these alarmingly simple directives to the reader, “Wild Geese” zooms way out, expanding its focus to the beauty of the natural world. But this is not a poem about the vast, unknowable overwhelm of the universe. Instead, “Wild Geese” invites you along on this journey, reminding you that you also have “your place in the family of things,” a place that we should all remember every time we hear wild geese call out as they trek across the sky. —Maddy Myers
“La Belle Dame sans Merci” (1819)
By John Keats
I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cry’d—‘La Belle Dame sans MerciHath
thee in thrall!’
I saw their starv’d lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
Poetry eluded me for years. As a choir geek and general overthinker, I couldn’t wrap my mind around lyrics without music, or observations without firm narrative. I was intimidated by the structure and rhythm. I felt like I couldn’t read them in the “right” way, know when to pause or not, nor could anyone else who had to memorize poems in 6th grade. And no one in my orbit, in school or otherwise, saw poetry as an art. They could be broken down, analyzed, contextualized by history, chiseled into the brain, but never devoured. For a long time, I figured I was “not a poetry person.”
It all clicked for me when I saw Jane Campion’s extraordinary (and tragically under-seen) film Bright Star. In chronicling the distant romance between English poet John Keats and his muse, Fanny Brawne, Campion found ways to construct scenes through the lens of the poet’s eye, and made plenty of room for stars Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish to recite romantic ballads. I had never seen a film comment so directly on the power of a lyric. “A poem needs understanding through the senses,” Whishaw says in Bright Star, quoting one of Keats’ actual letters. “The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore, but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept the mystery.”
Negative capability FTW! Whishaw’s whispered recitation of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” a poem confronting burning love and impending death, cracked open my brain. I felt equally blessed that the soundtrack for Bright Star included the poetry readings. In the last 10 years, I’ve probably listened to the actor’s rendition of the Keats poem, I don’t know, a million times?
The spoken “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” opened the door for my love of poetry. I realized I needed to stop reading Shakespeare and go watch Shakespeare. I understood the fire of Maya Angelou after hearing her deliver “Still I Rise.” The New Yorker’s Poetry Podcast, which asks authors to read their works in the way they heard them in their heads, became a gateway. What a joy. Poems indulge the eyes, the ears, the nose, the mouth, the heart, and the mind, and it’s easy to forget that when reading them in a book. —Matt Patches
“Eye Mask” (1992)
By Denise Levertov
more of the night before I open
eyes and heart
to illumination. I must still
grow in the dark like a root
not ready, not ready at all.
When will I be ready to grow? When will my time to flourish come? These are just a few questions that Levertov’s “Eye Mask” prompted me to ask. The poem, when taken literally, is very relatable. It’s a poem about not being ready for the light of day. It reminds of me of lying in bed each morning before work. I’ve never been one to jump out of bed, and confront the day. The challenge has made the poem feel like it was “for me.” It captures the sort of timidity I feel with each coming day.
In a deeper sense, I’ve always been drawn to the poem because it speaks to the nervousness that comes with any life transition, even positive ones. Sometimes it can actually be scary to open your eyes and heart to “illumination” and a warmer, more fulfilling life. However, I read it holding a hope that, ready or not, that growth will inevitably come. —Ana Diaz
“[anyone lived in a pretty how town]” (1940)
By E. E. Cummings
Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more
I marvel daily at the way we can conjure up sounds in our heads, as if by magic. Read a book that describes the clinks and crunches of a meal, recall what a loved one’s voice sounds like, or indulge in a song echoing somewhere in the cerebellum — you can hear it all. This is one of the things I love most about writing, the way it is heard and yet not; the way it is sound and motion and smell and color and also void. This is the music of the E.E. Cummings poem anyone lived in a pretty how town.
It’s pretty straightforward as far as poems go, a love story about two people named anyone and no one told from beginning to end, but Cummings’ playful diction places sounds and feelings over grammatical clarity. This gives us stanzas like these, which I feel just as vividly today as I did when I first read them, even as the words are kind of nonsense when considered closely.
I love just about everything about this poem: the way it reads as childish and impishly dares you to dismiss it, the way it begs to be read aloud and ring in the ear; the sense of attention it gives to people falling deeply in love as their little town bustles around them, oblivious to their sad little romance. There’s a rhythm and musicality to this work — its construction of four-line stanzas in a consistent meter is deliberately song-like — in a way that’s liberating to read when you’re just starting to write. Words are worthless if they don’t make you feel, and any rule that gets in the way of that is one that might as well be thrown out.
The poem’s author also serves as an object lesson on the limits of this approach, as Cummings used racial slurs in a few of his poems that defenders (including Roger Ebert) argue are not racist works. Perhaps that is true, but the words are there, and difficult to defend — few writers are thoughtless even in their rebellion, but they still must bear the responsibility that comes with their ambition to provoke the reader to feeling. My liberation must not come at the cost of another's pain.
This is worth contemplating in concert with this poem: You don’t need E.E. Cummings to teach you this freedom. You can learn this from rappers, from children’s book authors, from novelists, songwriters, and yes, other poets. Any of them will do. One day I was reading a book, and a silly little poem showed me I had so much more to offer. I wish the same for you. —Joshua Rivera