Help me pick out poems to share at work for National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month, and for a fun project at work I need to pick out about 10 poems to share with colleagues throughout the month.

Help!!! Even though I volunteered for this, the fact of the matter is that I’m pretty much a novice at poetry.

So…any suggestions? Here’s what I need:

[li]The poems must be in the public domain.[/li][li]They can’t be too long - e.g. I’m not going to reproduce and send out the entire Rime of the Ancient Mariner, though an excerpt might work.[/li][li]The poems - OBVIOUSLY - must be safe for work. :)[/li][li]Accessibility is, I think, key - at least for the majority of the poems. I’d like suggestions that the average reader can more or less “get” on the first read through, even if subsequent readings reveal deeper pleasures.[/li][li]I’d prefer not to use anything that’s TOO obvious or well-known - the kind of thing everyone already half-remembers from high school, such as The Raven or Browning’s Sonnet 43 (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”) It doesn’t have to be obscure; just not a “Top Ten Greatest Hit.” In classical music terms, no Pachelbel’s canon or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.[/li][li]A diversity of moods and tones would be good - something romantic, something funny, something profound, something scary…[/li][/ul]

Any ideas?

Will you be reciting them, or just pointing them out saying, “This is cool”?

The latter - sending them out in a company-wide e-mail throughout the month.

First one that comes to mind:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

-AE Housman

Speaking of Houseman, I’ve always liked several of his. The shortest I can think of is :

With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a light-foot lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping
The light-foot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.

This is a poem justifiably famous for its sounds and inherent musicality.

Not The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but, by the same author: Kubla Khan. (No, he’s not the author, it’s the name of the poem by the same author.)
50 something lines. Awesome poem.

A short one by Emily Dickinson:

Each that we lose takes part of us;
A crescent still abides,
Which like the moon, some turbid night,
Is summoned by the tides.

I find this incredibly compelling, possibly because of the loved ones I’ve lost over the years.

She wrote another about her love (a person) acting as a lighthouse or beacon, saving her from death or being lost on a stormy sea, that an old friend of mine used at her wedding. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the title, and I haven’t had the time to look through all of her poems (there are hundreds of them!), so maybe someone else here will know it.

I’ve always liked this one as well, by Tennyson, but it’s long:

The part that moves me most is

*For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;

Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;

Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging thro’ the thunder-storm;

Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.

And of course, there’s my all-time favorite:

Scary poems:

Dulce et Decorum Est - Wilfred Owen (a poem about WW1)

Emily Dickinson:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through -
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum -
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb -
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here -
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down -
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then -
T.S. Eliot, from The Waste Land:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Alastair Reid, a poet from Scotland (who died last September :(), wrote a poem about broadening one’s horizons and being willing to take risks that I loved enough to memorize many years ago. It is called

may have killed the cat; more likely
the cat was just unlucky, or else curious
to see what death was like, having no cause
to go on licking paws, or fathering
litter on litter of kittens, predictably.

Nevertheless, to be curious
is dangerous enough. To distrust
what is always said, what seems,
to ask odd questions, interfere in dreams,
leave home, smell rats, have hunches
does not endear him to those doggy circles
where well-smelt baskets, suitable wives, good lunches
are the order of things, and where prevails
much wagging of incurious heads and tails.
Face it. Curiosity
will not cause him to die -
only lack of it will.
Never to want to see
the other side of the hill
or that improbable country
where living is an idyll
(although a probable hell)
would kill us all.
Only the curious
have, if they live, a tale
worth telling at all.

Dog says he loves too much, is irresponsible,
is changeable, marries too many wives,
deserts his children, chills all dinner tables
with tales of his nine lives.
Well, he is lucky. Let him be
nine-lived and contradictory,
curious enough to change, prepared to pay
the cat price, which is to die
and die again and again,
each time with no less pain.
A cat minority of one
is all that can be counted on
to tell the truth. And what he has to tell
on each return from hell
is this : that dying is what the living do,
that dying is what the loving do,
and that dead dogs are those that do not know
that hell is where, to live, they have to go.
Note : I see that this version which I memorized many years ago is slightly different than those I found online. In those, it appears that the personal pronouns (he, him) have been replaced with the generic “cats”, “us”. I find that I prefer this version, which I have held close to my self for some time. If this causes you to want to scratch my eyes out, I apologize in advance.

Here I sit

All broken hearted…

To tie in some current events, “Richard,”, by Carol Ann Duffy.


My bones, scripted in light, upon cold soil,
a human braille. My skull, scarred by a crown,
emptied of history. Describe my soul
as incense, votive, vanishing; your own
the same. Grant me the carving of my name.

These relics, bless. Imagine you re-tie
a broken string and on it thread a cross,
the symbol severed from me when I died.
The end of time – an unknown, unfelt loss –
unless the Resurrection of the Dead …

or I once dreamed of this, your future breath
in prayer for me, lost long, forever found;
or sensed you from the backstage of my death,
as kings glimpse shadows on a battleground.

Some Shel Silverstein for nostalgia’s sake would bring a smile.

I just read Mark Jarman’s Ground Swell aloud to a group. It’s very good, and also accessible to the poetry novice.

I clipped this little poem out of the Sunday paper, it’s by Robert Hedin, a Minnesota poet.

My Mother’s Hats

She kept them high on the top shelf.
In boxes big as drums-
Bright crescent- shaped boats
With little fishnets dangling down-
And wore them with her best dress
To teas, coffee parties, department stores.
What a lovely catch, my father used to say,
Watching her sail off into the afternoon waters.

I’m loving all of these - thanks so much, everyone! Some of the more recent suggestions (e.g. Shel Silverstein) wouldn’t work because I have to be careful of copyright infringement*, but they’re fun reminders nonetheless.

Any other suggestions?

*Actually, is this true? Would copyright apply to mass internal work e-mails…?

I’ll give you another adjective to describe a poem- controversial! But poetry is such a powerful and surprise method of insult, people won’t see it coming.

Ambrose Bierce’s “Christian Poem”

I dreamed I stood upon a hill, and, lo!
The godly multitudes walked to and fro
Beneath, in Sabbath garments fitly clad,
With pious mien, appropriately sad,
While all the church bells made a solemn din –
A fire-alarm to those who lived in sin.
Then saw I gazing thoughtfully below,
With tranquil face, upon that holy show
A tall, spare figure in a robe of white,
Whose eyes diffused a melancholy light.
‘God keep you, stranger,’ I exclaimed. ‘You are
No doubt (your habit shows it) from afar;
And yet I entertain the hope that you,
Like these good people, are a Christian too.’
He raised his eyes and with a look so stern
It made me with a thousand blushes burn
Replied – his manner with disdain was spiced:
‘What! I a Christian? No, indeed! I’m Christ.’

If you are perverse enough to try to get stuff under the radar, one of the most erotic poems I know comes from Edna St. Vincent Millay. But it’s nothing that ought to result in an email from HR:

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber, nor a roof against the rain.
Nor yet a floating spar for men who sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again.
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It may well be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain, and longing for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or to trade the memory of this night for food.
It may well be. I do not think I would.

Appropriately, this is called “Love is Not All (Sonnet XXX)”

If you would be interested in a sad poem, there is this one…

The Power of the Dog

There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.

Buy a pup and your money will buy
Love unflinching that cannot lie–
Perfect passsion and worship fed
By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.
Nevertheless it is hardly fair
To risk your heart to a dog to tear.

When the fourteen years which Nature permits
Are closing in asthma, or tumour, or fits,
And the vet’s unspoken prescription runs
To lethal chambers or loaded guns,
Then you will find–it’s your own affair–
But … you’ve given your heart to a dog to tear.
When the body that lived at your single will,
With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!)
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone–wherever it goes–for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear.
We’ve sorrow enough in the natural way,
When it comes to burying Christian clay.
Our loves are not given, but only lent,
At compound interest of cent per cent.
Though it is not always the case, I believe,
That the longer we’ve kept 'em, the more do we grieve:
For, when debts are payable, right or wrong,
A short-term loan is as bad as a long–
So why in–Heaven (before we are there)
Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?
Rudyard Kipling

Premature posting. I was also going to add another romantic favorite, from Sandra Cisneros:

*You Called Me Corazón

That was enough
for me to forgive you.
To spirit a tiger
from its cell.

Called me corazón
in that instant before
I let go the phone
back to its cradle.

You voice small.
Heat of your eyes,
how I would’ve placed
my mouth on each.

Said corazón
and the word blazed
like a branch of jacaranda.*

That one’s not in the public domain yet, though.

Getting away from the romance, and as a nice example of how poetry is not just a croon to the moon in June, you could throw in one of Don Marquis’ archy and mehitabel poems.

Too cynical to be a true love poem, but nevertheless IMO a great poem, and one which provides one of the most famous lyrics of English literature:

*Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was grey:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I have forgot much, Cynara!* gone with the wind,
*Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind,
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.*

“Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae” Ernest Dowson
Dowson sadly drank himself to death (1900) at the age of 33. Here is another of his immortals:

THEY are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long the
days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream

“Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam”

Wilfred Owen is my favorite poet.

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Strange Meeting

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand fears that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”