in Fun, Writing

Poems for People Who Don’t Like Poetry?

When I was younger, I wanted to be a poet. In high school, I wrote poetry all the time. Some of it was actually okay — in a sophomoric kind of way. Most of the time, it was about what you’d expect from a nerdy high-school boy. Still, I managed to get some poems published, and even saw a few paychecks because of it.

I haven’t written much poetry since college, though. The impulse vanished. About once every couple of years, I’ll dash something off, but mostly I’m non-poetic. Here’s a little bit that I wrote on September 11, 2001. I like it.

In the twilight
the colors bleed and fade —
what once was red, or blue, or green,
is now black. Or white.

The approaching darkness
casts long shadows, cloaking
all that once danced in light,
consuming warmth, producing fright.

Though I don’t write much myself anymore, I appreciate good poetry. Here are a few of my favorites:

When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measles-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Summer Storm
by Dana Gioia

We stood on the rented patio
While the party went on inside.
You knew the groom from college.
I was a friend of the bride.

We hugged the brownstone wall behind us
To keep our dress clothes dry
And watched the sudden summer storm
Floodlit against the sky.

The rain was like a waterfall
Of brilliant beaded light,
Cool and silent as the stars
The storm hid from the night.

To my surprise, you took my arm —
A gesture you didn’t explain —
And we spoke in whispers, as if we two
Might imitate the rain.

Then suddenly the storm receded
As swiftly as it came.
The doors behind us opened up.
The hostess called your name.

I watched you merge into the group,
Aloof and yet polite.
We didn’t speak another word
Except to say goodnight.

Why does that evening’s memory
Return with this night’s storm —
A party twenty years ago,
Its disappointments warm?

There are so many might have beens,
What ifs that won’t stay buried,
Other cities, other jobs,
Strangers we might have married.

And memory insists on pining
For places it never went,
As if life would be happier
Just by being different.

The Sunlight on the Garden
by Louis MacNeice

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold;
When all is told,
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth comples, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.

I’m particularly impressed by folks who make good use of meter, rhythm, and rhyme. It’s harder to work within these contraints than outside of them. Besides, I don’t find much difference between modern free verse and flowery essays. (I’ll readily admit this could be a shortcoming on my part.)

When Kim and I started dating fifteen months ago, I mentioned my fondness for poetry. “I’m not sure I like poetry,” she said. “A lot of times, I just don’t get it. Plus, I don’t like being told what things mean.”

“Some of it’s good,” I told her.

“You should share it with me,” she said. But I never did.

Last weekend, I found some time to read her a handful of poems. She liked a few, but others simply reinforced her opinion. “I don’t get it,” she said after a couple of opaque poems. From her perspective, it was as if the poets didn’t want to be understood, an observation I find interesting (and, quite possibly, accurate).

So, I’m coming to you for advice. Can you recommend some poems for people who don’t like poetry? Did you used to be a poetry hater? Are you still? What poems changed your mind? What poets do you appreciate? How does somebody who finds poetry frustrating learn to love it?

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  1. Billy Collins, anything curated by Garrison Keillor, David Whyte, Hafiz. Also, it’s really ok to not like a poem – even if someone else does. 🙂

  2. I like “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams. I also like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot but then again I took a couple courses on Eliot. Honestly I liked taking courses on poetry because it’s like learning a secret language (any literature course is like this really, if you think there aren’t just as many allusions in most fictional works you as there are in poetry, you’re kidding yourself). But then again, I have three degrees in English so I suppose I am predisposed to enjoy it.

    As far as forms go, I really really like sonnets. They just seem so perfect and contained.

  3. Oooh, I also like ee cummings. “Anyone lived in a pretty how town” is a lot of fun, and “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond” is hauntingly beautiful.

    I also like Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” and Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice.”

  4. Ooh I like those first two a lot. I think Mary Oliver is a great choice – especially if you can find audio of her reading her work – terrific. I find William Stafford really accessible.

  5. I completely agree with ismay above.

    Wislawa Szymborska is a stunning poet, and won a well-deserved Nobel Prize for literature. Not obscure at all, and her observations are devastating.

  6. I use poetry frequently with my leadership coaching clients. One of the best collections I’ve found is this one:

    Risking Everything, 110 Poems of Love & Revelation. Here’s the amazon link:

    In general, many people have found David Whyte and Mary Oliver to be most “accessible” – along with Naomi Shihab Nye, Robert Hass, and Carolyn Forche. That’s why I like offering people collections, so they can find the authors they most resonate with and then go read more by those poets. I would also recommend going to some local poetry readings when the “famous” poets visit, because that often brings another layer (and personality) to the writing.

    Good luck!
    == niki

  7. Before he was famous for his raspy voice, Leonard Cohen became famous for his books of poetry. I’ve read a lot of poetry over the years, and I don’t think I’ve ever come across collections that are better than his. I know it’s not *sexy* in the literary world to say Cohen’s your favourite, but he’s definitely mine. “Stranger Music” is a pretty decent compilation of his stuff. “Prayer For Messiah” and “Wheels, Fireclouds” are two of my favourites. You’ve explained to her that some poems really have no meaning, right? It’s the way the words sound beautiful together that evokes an image in the mind of the reader. Everyone will imagine something different. I’m not too keen on rhymes–clever uses of assonance/consonance are my favourite parts of poetry.
    A small collection, including “Wheels, Fireclouds”

  8. Pablo Neruda’s love sonnets were the first poems I ever really loved. And they’re easy to get because they’re about love!
    Bonus: you can get the Spanish editions and practice your translating 🙂

  9. As Beth said above, Billy Collins is a poet I can understand. Here is one of my favorites by him called “Introduction To Poetry” – a fitting one for Kim to read.

    I ask them to take a poem
    and hold it up to the light
    like a color slide

    or press an ear against its hive.

    I say drop a mouse into a poem
    and watch him probe his way out,

    or walk inside the poem’s room
    and feel the walls for a light switch.

    I want them to waterski
    across the surface of a poem
    waving at the author’s name on the shore.

    But all they want to do
    is tie the poem to a chair with rope
    and torture a confession out of it.

    They begin beating it with a hose
    to find out what it really means.

    Billy Collins

  10. bob dylan – tambourine man
    kris kristofferson – me and bobby mcgee
    leonard lipton – puff the magic dragon
    wow, my parents would be proud.

  11. +1 on Leonard Cohen.

    Also: Hafiz. (I think “The Subject Tonight is Love” should be on everyone’s required-reading list!)

    But off the track I’d seriously recommend Robert Service. These are non-poety poems in a way, storytelling with humor and adventure.

    I don’t read a lot of poetry and I almost never write any, b/c to me *generally* speaking I think poetry is about expressing emotions and I’d rather read, and write, that in the format of fiction.

    I did write some sonnets for my husband during our engagement. 🙂

  12. Try some classic poems that tell stories like Ozymandias, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, or The Mending Wall. The imagery and flow of language are amazing and the authors’ intents are generally clear. Also, if there is a woman out there who isn’t impressed with She Walks in Beauty like the Night, I haven’t met her yet.

  13. Haha, I sort of feel the same way about poetry as Kim. I don’t like it very much. I feel like, as an author, if you want to tell me something, then just freaking tell me, don’t wrap up your explanation in five hundred words of camouflage. The poem “The Sunlight on the Garden” feels like this to me. I just think, “Ok, well I read it, and it didn’t say anything.”

    I feel pretty much the same way about “art” too, for types of art that come with “artist’s statements” and such.

  14. I’m an old English major. I don’t much like poetry. Go figure. Here are a couple of exceptions:

    The Highway Man by Alfred Noyes:
    Romance and adventure

    To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell
    Sex, seduction and very funny

    For a whole ‘nother frame of reference….

    Be warned, this is a bit erotic:
    My pal Fran is her coach. Yeah. I didn’t know poets had coachs either.

    And if you’re thinking, like I did, “Ah, poetry’s not my thing,” get past it. Click on the link. Trust me.

    If you like that one, you’ll find a couple more here:

  15. I have been reading Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body all summer and am finding it amazing. I keep having to stop and think about it. It’s very accessible, and if you like long narrative poems, give it a shot.

  16. Thanks for sharing these poems. I absolutely love the ones by Mary Oliver and Dana Gioia. By the way, I’m one of those people who usually doesn’t get poetry. I’ll have to check out some of the other poets mentioned here.

  17. I’ll second (or third) Billy Collins. I’m Aspergerish, not much for poetry, maybe metaphor-challenged. And I’ve listened to a lot of poets reading their work, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), a very young Nikki Giovanni, others. Some I “got” or appreciated, others I didn’t, and poetry often leaves me feeling that I’m missing something. Not so Billy Collins, maybe because of the way he plays with ideas as well as words, definitely because of his humor. I recommend The Lanyard, The Revenant, and The Trouble With Poetry (in his book of the same name). You can hear him online reading at the Aspen Institute,