Beginners Guide to Poetry

When you think of poetry, what comes to mind? Are you transported back to a high school English class in which you were forced to read a Shakespearean sonnet that, to this day, you do not understand? What about that haiku you were forced to write in elementary school? Well, if you have yet to hear the good news, there is so much more to poetry than the average school curriculum delivers. I, a self-proclaimed poetry addict, have compiled a list of poems that, given the variety, is bound to catch your interest if you have even the smallest inkling to jump into the world of poetry. I hope that at least one of these poems provides a drop of emotional nourishment to whatever drought plagues your mind, body, and soul.

If you’re feeling lonely

“Wild Geese”

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.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

If you’re in love but can’t find the words

“Litany”

By Billy Collins

You are the bread and the knife,

The crystal goblet and the wine...

-Jacques Crickillon

 

You are the bread and the knife,

the crystal goblet and the wine.

You are the dew on the morning grass

and the burning wheel of the sun.

You are the white apron of the baker,

and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

 

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,

the plums on the counter,

or the house of cards.

And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.

There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

 

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,

maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,

but you are not even close

to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

 

And a quick look in the mirror will show

that you are neither the boots in the corner

nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

 

It might interest you to know,

speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,

that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

 

I also happen to be the shooting star,

the evening paper blowing down an alley

and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

 

I am also the moon in the trees

and the blind woman's tea cup.

But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.

You are still the bread and the knife.

You will always be the bread and the knife,

not to mention the crystal goblet and--somehow--the wine.

 

“Bright Star, would I were steadfast as thou art”

By John Keats

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—

Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night

And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priestlike task

Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask

Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—

No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,

Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,

To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

 

If you feel lost in the natural world

“Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front

By Wendell Berry

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,

vacation with pay. Want more

of everything ready-made. Be afraid

to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.

Not even your future will be a mystery

any more. Your mind will be punched in a card

and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something

they will call you. When they want you

to die for profit they will let you know.

 

So, friends, every day do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace

the flag. Hope to live in that free

republic for which it stands.

Give your approval to all you cannot

understand. Praise ignorance, for what man

has not encountered he has not destroyed.

 

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested

when they have rotted into the mold.

Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

 

Put your faith in the two inches of humus

that will build under the trees

every thousand years.

Listen to carrion – put your ear

close, and hear the faint chattering

of the songs that are to come.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts.

So long as women do not go cheap

for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy

a woman satisfied to bear a child?

Will this disturb the sleep

of a woman near to giving birth?

 

Go with your love to the fields.

Lie down in the shade. Rest your head

in her lap. Swear allegiance

to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,

lose it. Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn’t go. Be like the fox

who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.

 

“A Summer’s Day”

By Mary Oliver

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

 

If you’re seeking confidence

“Phenomenal Women”

By Maya Angelou

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size  

But when I start to tell them,

They think I’m telling lies.

I say,

It’s in the reach of my arms,

The span of my hips,  

The stride of my step,  

The curl of my lips.  

I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,  

That’s me.

 

I walk into a room

Just as cool as you please,  

And to a man,

The fellows stand or

Fall down on their knees.  

Then they swarm around me,

A hive of honey bees.  

I say,

It’s the fire in my eyes,  

And the flash of my teeth,  

The swing in my waist,  

And the joy in my feet.  

I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

 

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

 

Men themselves have wondered  

What they see in me.

They try so much

But they can’t touch

My inner mystery.

When I try to show them,  

They say they still can’t see.  

I say,

It’s in the arch of my back,  

The sun of my smile,

The ride of my breasts,

The grace of my style.

I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

 

Now you understand

Just why my head’s not bowed.  

I don’t shout or jump about

Or have to talk real loud.  

When you see me passing,

It ought to make you proud.

I say,

It’s in the click of my heels,  

The bend of my hair,  

the palm of my hand,  

The need for my care.  

’Cause I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

 

“They shut me up in Prose”

By Emily Dickinson

They shut me up in Prose –

As when a little Girl

They put me in the Closet –

Because they liked me “still”   –

 

Still! Could themself have peeped –

And seen my Brain – go round –

They might as wise have lodged a Bird

For Treason – in the Pound –

 

Himself has but to will

And easy as a Star

Look down opon Captivity –

And laugh – No more have I –

 

If you miss home-cooking

“Butter”

By Elizabeth Alexander

My mother loves butter more than I do,

more than anyone. She pulls chunks off

the stick and eats it plain, explaining

cream spun around into butter! Growing up

we ate turkey cutlets sauteed in lemon

and butter, butter and cheese on green noodles,

butter melting in small pools in the hearts

of Yorkshire puddings, butter better

than gravy staining white rice yellow,

butter glazing corn in slipping squares,

butter the lava in white volcanoes

of hominy grits, butter softening

in a white bowl to be creamed with white

sugar, butter disappearing into

whipped sweet potatoes, with pineapple,

butter melted and curdy to pour

over pancakes, butter licked off the plate

with warm Alaga syrup. When I picture

the good old days I am grinning greasy

with my brother, having watched the tiger

chase his tail and turn to butter. We are

Mumbo and Jumbo’s children despite  

historical revision, despite

our parent’s efforts, glowing from the inside

out, one hundred megawatts of butter.