Columns > Published on April 22nd, 2014

9 Poems That Will Change Your Mind About Poetry

There are a great many people who say they hate poetry—and I can't blame them. After all, I had the same educational experience you had. When we were young, they taught us that poetry was "stuff that rhymes." Then, during some high school English class, a teacher decided it was time we learned "classic poetry," and we spent months counting off iambs in Shakespearean sonnets and trudging through T.S. Eliot's "Wasteland."
​Poetry is neither so grand nor so distant as we often make it out to be. Poetry is versatile, powerful, and—believe it or not!—fun.

Students are pressured to like poetry—not because they might actually enjoy it—but because it's classic. And smart people are supposed to like the classics. As a result, a strain of juvenile elitism develops that gives even more reason to dislike poetry. I've been to far too many open mics and poetry readings where people read with somber, contemplative voices, and the enjoyment clearly happens somewhere outside of the reading itself: Those who attend have the chance to pat themselves on the back and say, "I'm so smart and classy! Because I. Like. Poetry."

This isn't just frustrating to me: It's astonishing. It's like showing up for a lobster dinner and watching as everyone at the table cracks open their portion, throws away the meat, and gorges themselves on the fractured carapace. What is there to do but let your jaw slacken and your eyes open wide, trying to decide whether screaming "You're doing it wrong!" might be considered poor etiquette?

My point is just this: Poetry is neither so grand nor so distant as our lackluster education often makes it out to be. Poetry is versatile, powerful, and—believe it or not!—fun. So in celebration of National Poetry Month, I've put together a list of nine of my favorite poems in the hopes that I can show you there's a type of poetry for everyone. Let's begin.

"What Teachers Make" by Taylor Mali

When this poem went viral on YouTube, it fueled a new wave of performance poetry. It's a great example of non-elitist poetry: everyday language and relatable experiences combined to make a poem that electrifies and entertains its audience.

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Haiku by Issa

For Issa, each poem is a punch line. Sure, it's older work, but try to think of it as "steampunk poetry":

New Year's Day—
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

Don't worry, spiders,
I keep house

Or this one, which was entered into a haiku contest that asked for poems about the changing season:

Writing shit about new snow
for the rich                                     
is not art.                            

While there are many translations, the Robert Hass versions (like those transcribed above) do a great job at capturing the emotional heart of Issa's work.

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"Love Song" by Ted Hughes

The poem (read in the video above by its author, Ted Hughes) does a great job of capturing my experience of love, anyway. It's an even funnier poem if you know about the rocky (and ultimately disastrous) relationship between Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

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"Letters from a Man in Solitary" by Nazim Hikmet

This poem will require a bit of time, but it's worth it. It was written by Nazim Hikmet during his extended time in solitary confinement. While there's powerful imagery throughout, the most resonant comes toward the end:

Sunday today.
Today they took me out in the sun for the first time.
And I just stood there, struck for the first time in my life
     by how far away the sky is,
       how blue
       and how wide.

You can check out the full text here.

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"Touchscreen" by Marshall Davis Jones

This is one of the best examples of an energetic slam poem, and it speaks to one of my major preoccupations: The sense that I'm drowning in a world overflowing with technology but lacking in substance. If you like Marshall's work, you can connect with his Facebook page.

Holy Sonnet XIV by John Donne

Ill admit that John Donne isn't everyone's cuppa, and the sonnet form can be a bit daunting—but try not to run away just yet. Here's my intro to John Donne: He was a lady's man who wrote sexy poems about the ladies, and then he became a preacher, and started writing sexy poems about God. Like this one ...


Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

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"Why I Won't Be Buying Rogaine" by Scott Poole

Scott Poole's work manages to combine beautiful language with humor and emotionally charged themes to make some of the best contemporary poetry I've encountered outside of the slam scene. If you want to learn more about Poole's work, you can find his Facebook page here.

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"Punishment" by Seamus Heaney

This poem is one of my favorites, especially when you understand the full context. Here's a snippet to whet your appetite.

I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front.

It blows her nipples
to amber beads,
it shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.

You can find the full text and some contextual details here.

"Lazarus of Bethany" by Jesse Parent

I've had the privilege to connect with Salt Lake City poet Jesse Parent on a few occasions. Now, he's getting a bit famous. His poem "To the Boys Who May One Day Date My Daughter" recently went viral—but I'm a bigger fan of his Bible retellings. He's re-worked Judas, and he even wrote a poem written as a letter to the cross, but my favorite is probably his re-telling of the story of Lazarus:

You can connect with Jesse's Facebook page here.

Hopefully this selection has shown you that poetry is still alive and well, and the stuff you disliked in high school probably isn't representative of today's poetic landscape. Saying you don't like some poetry is more than fine—but saying you don't like poetry at all is just as silly as saying you don't like books.

About the author

Rob is a writer and educator. He is intensely ADD, obsessive about his passions, and enjoys a good gin and tonic. Check out his website for multiple web fiction projects, author interviews, and various resources for writers.

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