36 Life Changing Poems Everyone Should Read
"Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it."
1. "MCMXIV" by Philip Larkin
"That poem by Larkin (and some others) taught me how direct and economical you can be with language, and about how modernity isn't so great."
2. "If" by Rudyard Kipling
"When I was growing up, my dad had a beautiful calligraphy copy of the poem on his bedroom wall, given to him by his father. Before we could read, he would read it to us, and once we began reading he encouraged us to practice by reading it aloud to him at night. The second stanza is the first part of anything I ever memorized. Dad not only had us read from it, but would ask us what we thought it meant. It's got such a beautiful message of how to deal with life and those around you, how to temper yourself but not lose your joy. When I was a kid, my dad would change the last line for me and my sister to 'and what's more, you'll be a woman my daughter' and that just meant the world to me because yes, you can do all these things that a century ago made you a 'man' but you can own them as a woman."
3. "Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note" by Amiri Baraka
"Really incredible poem. For me, it's a perfect metaphor for feeling stuck in life, and learning how to push past that feeling. Everyone, at some point in their life, has felt this sort of sourceless sense of existential dread that comes along with routine. This poem captures that feeling, and reminds the reader to find joy and redemption in small moments."
4. "Annabel Lee" by Edgar Allan Poe
"This 'Poetry Alive!' group came to our middle school, and they did this awesome reading of 'Annabel Lee' by Edgar Allan Poe. We'd read it in class but I didn't really understand it fully until I heard it read out loud, and it was just so morbidly strange and sad. It was the first time I took genuine interest in a poem — I'd always thought they were dry and difficult to relate to before that. I used it to audition for my first play in high school."
5. "I Remember" by Anne Sexton
"Newly into my twenties, this poem was a perfect picture of how even simple, fleeting love could be really powerful and beautiful — and worth remembering."
6. "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou
"The first time I read this poem I was still a young girl, trying to figure out who I was and frankly what the hell was happening to my body. Maya Angelou made me feel like who I was becoming — a woman — was something very special, ancient, and wonderful. I physically remember breathing out and sitting up just a little bit taller because of her words."
7. "Out, Out" by Robert Frost
"A Frost poem changed my life. It is called 'Out, Out' and it is about a farm boy who accidentally cuts his hand off with a buzz saw and dies. It reminds us of the extraordinarily short duration of life and the related denial we must impose upon ourselves to avoid all-consuming despair."
8. "Lady Lazarus" by Sylvia Plath
"They made us read Plath in high school and I immediately became obsessed with her. This particular poem I read when I was going through a rough, dark, teenage time and it felt like someone got how I was feeling."
9. "The Tollund Man" by Seamus Heaney
"It concerns the unhappy and savage roots of man and how we are all ultimately violent and alone."
10. "A Pity. We Were Such a Good Invention" by Yehuda Amichai
"I love this poem by the Israeli writer Yehuda Amichai, which spoke to me immediately because I often dated people my parents disapproved of and I like to blame them for all of my problems."
11. "The Healing Improvisation of Hair" by Jay Wright
"Jay Wright's poem is the first poem that I read with hair in its title. It was 2009, and the context of the moment is this: How the hell do I write about hair, my hair? I was a MFA student, working in the jazz library on campus, and at the time I wanted the first section of my thesis to be about hair, symbolism for so much especially personal power. "The Healing Improvisation of Hair" came into my inbox like a voice from a burning bush. It was a powerful encounter on levels beyond language. I was blessed and bothered by this poem. Blessed by its beauty and bothered by the same as with any saving grace."
12. "Changing Everything" by Jane Hirshfield
"After a breakup, I found this poem that I still have up on my wall. Every time I read it it reminds me that the decisions that change my life the most were not always the ones that looked the most significant to anyone else."
13. "What I Am" By Terrance Hayes
"This poem came into my life when I was having my most difficult time in college. I was black as hell in the middle of the whitest winter in the whitest state I know, Wisconsin. I was feeling so othered, like being a black man was the strangest thing on the planet, but it was the only truth I knew. This poem made me feel normal in its everydayness. In this poem, I was reminded that I am not an oddity, that life is as complicated as it is lovely, and just because the world around me may not know what I am, that doesn't mean that I am not whole."
14. "Where the Sidewalk Ends" by Shel Silverstein
"This was probably the first poem to make me think deeply about poetry (when I was a child of course!). Shel Silverstein does this amazing thing where he takes everyday objects and makes them seemingly magical. I loved this poem because it gave me a new perspective about the simple sidewalks outside my house and made me want to write my own stories."
15. "Since feeling is first" by e. e. cummings
"I discovered e.e. cummings as a lovestruck college freshman in a Poetry 101 course, coming off a high school fixation on suicidal lady poets. He perfectly captures the way I felt at the time, lying outside in the grass in a small Midwestern town 2,500 miles from home under an impossibly blue sky, drinking in all the beauty and the new ideas around me as fast as possible."
16. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot
"As an angry teenager, I felt 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' by T.S. Eliot even more than I felt Smith songs."
17. "Une Charogne (A Carcass)" by Baudelaire
"I read it for the first time when I was a teenager and I was amazed by how Baudelaire managed to write so beautifully about something so gross. The end always breaks my heart."
18. "Clancy of the Overflow" by Banjo Paterson
"When I was in the ninth grade, my English teacher made us each memorize and recite a poem. She gave my friend and I this poem and I hated it. I was irritated that it was seemingly twice as long as the poems given to others and annoyed that it was wasn't modern in the slightest (it's about a sheep shearer for God's sake.) Needless to say, my negative attitude didn't help the exercise and it took my friend and I quite a bit longer than everyone else to memorize. Credit to my English teacher — she stuck with us and forced us (and the whole class at this point) to recite what we could recall every morning. I hated her for it. Time passed and we eventually pulled it off, albeit with a dirty taste toward Banjo Paterson in our mouths. I left the school at the end of that year. A few years ago, the very same English teacher that forced 'Clancy of the Overflow' onto me died of breast cancer. I never knew she had it, or that she was dealing with it whilst she taught. I can't think of the poem or any of its themes without thinking of her and her persistence with us. Even though she didn't really have a big role in my life, she and the poem changed my life in so many ways."
19. "Suicide's Note" by Langston Hughes
"Langston Hughes took arguably the darkest time in his life and made it sound beautiful, all without romanticizing the act of suicide itself. Just the thought of willfully surrendering your body to the river and accepting the fate of water under your heels is devastating. This was enough to make me think about my future - fearfully growing old and gray - which leaves me positively paralyzed. That's why I love it. 'The calm, / Cool face of the river / Asked me for a kiss.'"
20. "The Guest House" by Jelaluddin Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
"I heard this poem at the end of a yoga class a couple years ago. I had just moved to New York, on a whim, after a failed six-year relationship and dealing with a lot of sadness and thought, Fuck, now what? My uncle was also losing his battle to cancer and my family and I were dealing with the inevitable. This poem helped me through that time and still continues to resonate in my life today. I hope it brings peace to some else out there."
21. "New Year's Prayer" by Jeff Buckley
"I'm not usually one for poetry, but this one struck me as soon as I heard it. It feels utterly personal, like it's being whispered in your ear, but is globally applicable at the same time: It speaks of not having inhibitions about being entirely yourself."
22. "'Hope' is the thing with feathers" by Emily Dickinson
"It's just so pretty and simple and inspiring. I also hate it when people look down on poetry that rhymes, and I think this is a perfect example of something that sounds gorgeous while also meaning so much."
23. "If thou of fortune be bereft" by John Greenleaf Whittier
"'If thou of fortune be bereft, / and of thyne earthly store hath left / two loaves; sell one, / and with the dole, buy hyacinths to feed the soul.' This was carved into the stone on the library at my college. Still the only poem I can recite by heart and just a wonderful sentiment."
24. "The Journey" by Mary Oliver
"My yoga instructor read this in class years ago: 'One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began.'"
25. "Vincent" by Tim Burton
"After I heard that poem and watched the short stop-motion, it changed my life forever. I knew at that moment I wanted to make stop-motion and that I was hooked on the horror genre."
26. "Pale Fire" by Vladimir Nabokov
"I think it's incredible how he perfectly captures the enchantment of looking at a beautiful scene outside of your window. I've always thought it was so magical when you can suddenly see both your reflection and the view outside and the way that he put it — 'And then the gradual and dual blue / as night unites the viewer and the view' — is so beautiful and it takes this ordinary experience and transforms it into something extraordinary."
27. "The Windhover" by Gerard Manley Hopkins
"This poem, read correctly, is deeply, intensely sensorial and almost overwhelming. The basic message is wonder and joy at the beauty of nature and the universe. I first heard it read in college and it reminds me often to appreciate the gorgeousness all around us. Hopkins meant it as a religious poem, but it really is much more than that. 'Gash gold-vermillion' gives me chills."
28. "Both Sides, Now" by Joni Mitchell
"These lyrics came to me during my last year of middle school. My Aunt Donna sent me a YouTube video of Joni performing it on The Johnny Cash Show back in the late '60s — and with that innocent YouTube share, my life changed. I realized I wasn't the only person who lived behind illusions and felt confused about my identity. Joni Mitchell taught me with her incredible words to be brave and to never compromise my own happiness to satisfy others ('Well something's lost, but something's gained / In living every day')."
29. "Sunflower Sutra" by Allen Ginsberg
"'Sunflower Sutra' by the almost always naked Allen Ginsberg speaks to me because I sometimes forget how beautiful it is to be alive: 'We're not our skin of grime, we're not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we're golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset.'"
30. "Faint Music" by Robert Hass
"I think I read it when I was 18 and heartbroken because I was usually heartbroken when I was 18. Hass renders the environment of the Bay Area, where I'm from, so correctly. The idea of a Golden Gate Bridge attempted suicide that's interrupted by a meditation on how silly the word 'seafood' is and sleep I just love. I still often think of the line about the underpants, the 'russet in the crotch that made him sick with rage and grief.'"
31. "In the Desert" by Stephen Crane
"I was never one for poetry, really. Even novels that are too poetic tend to turn me off, but I really like Stephen Crane's poetry. I still don't know what to make of this poem, which I think is from 1895, but it always stuck with me. I had to recite it in high school, and everyone laughed because they thought it was funny."
32. "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" by Jane Taylor
"I think now that I'm older, I find a lot of symbolism in that song/rhyme. I'm a constant believer that there are greater, unexplainable powers responsible for the things that we do, and the things that are done to us, in life. 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star' speaks volumes to that. Stars aren't always visible, and even at nighttime, when they are, people don't always take the time to notice them. It's a lot like when good and bad things happen to us in life. We don't always take the time to notice, but really exciting or really detrimental situations show us that things always happen for a reason: Just like the stars, you need to take the time to notice them."
33. "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe
"When I read 'The Raven' in eighth grade, the horrific cadence, darkly alluring imagery, and, especially, the complex rhyme scheme struck me like a nightmare from some odd, subconscious Baltimore. Such blunt rhyming might get scoffed at now, but Poe's 19th-century classic convinced 12-year-old me that the '90s rap CDs I hid from my folks could have literary merit, as well."
34. "Tonight at Noon" by Adrian Henri
"I first read this poem when I was a child, before I understood what unrequited love feels like. Later I found out, and I realized that nothing quite captures the absurd trauma of it like this unpretentious poem."
35. "Mid-Term Break" by Seamus Heaney
"It's a semi-autobiographical, formally perfect little poem about when his 4-year-old brother was struck by a car and killed. The poem's speaker is, as Heaney was, utterly shocked by these events; the whole thing is observations of other peoples' emotions. But then that last little couplet, the horror of it."
36. "Self Portrait at 28" by David Berman
"The first time I read this poem I was in my early twenties and I was figuring out what was important to me, or more accurately trying to distract myself from figuring out what was important to me with beer and boys and bands. I was obsessed with the Silver Jews, the band Berman wrote and sang for, and when one of my co-workers gave me his book of poems, I devoured it over and over again. This one was (and is) my favorite, and it crystallized so many things for me and made me want to write beautiful things. Every year approaching the 28 of his title it felt more and more relevant and true, and somehow has only continued to do so even as I've grown past the age that he was when he wrote this down."