15 Poems That Could Change Your Life

15 Poems That Could Change Your Life

Happy National Poetry Month! If you’re looking to celebrate by reading a few poems but don’t know where to start, we’re here to help. We’ve asked a variety of poets (from the 2015 United States Poet Laureate to a Walt Whitman Award winner to a National Book Award finalist) to share a poem that changed their lives. If you’re ready to have your mind blown, check out the poems they’ve recommended.

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“In the Trance” by Brenda Hillman

“In the Trance” is a poem I can return to again and again—it pulses between utter clarity and deep strangeness, touching on both the ancient and the future, stringing together politics and love and eternity. —Nick Flynn, author of My Feelings

Julie Fogliano_credit Enid Esmond

“somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond” by e.e. cummings

When I was in high school, I was madly in love with a boy who was madly in love with someone else. He sent her a copy of the e.e. cummings poem, “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond,”  and so generously told me about it. I couldn’t decide if I was more jealous of the girl (for being the recipient of such a poem) or e.e. cummings for writing it. I decided being jealous of a brilliant writer would be way more productive than pining for a boy who sent beautiful poems to other girls. —Julie Fogliano, author of When Green Becomes Tomatoes

Tyler Knott Gregson All the Words credit Sarah Linden

“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman

Without a shadow of a doubt, one poem stands out taller than the rest for not only making me fall in love with poetry, but for solidifying that it truly was ok for my mind to work a bit differently than some of the people I was surrounded by. Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” has always been that poem for me, and I found it at a time when I had never felt more disconnected from my life, my education, and the monotony that sitting in a classroom in Montana, instead of being outside actually learning, brought on. I read it, and I related in a way that planted a seed in me that made me want to write something, anything, that someone else could find themselves in. I have always written for myself, as a way to vent out things that felt trapped inside, but for the first time I was able to see poetry as a vehicle to help other people vent things that might be stuck in them as well. What a gift Whitman is, and for me, what a gift this poem has always been. —Tyler Knott Gregson, author of All the Words are Yours

christine_heppermann credit Eric Hinsdale

“Making Love to Myself” by James L. White

It may seem like I chose this poem just for the shock value of the title, but it’s truly one of the most beautiful, most brilliant evocations of longing I’ve ever read. Sure, it’s sexual, but what sticks with me are the less titillating images, such as the impulse to get up and make coffee for someone no longer there: “almost thinking you’re here again, almost seeing / your work jacket on the chair.” And that last stanza! It knocks me out every time. —Christine Heppermann, author of Ask Me How I Got Here

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Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejía / Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejía” by Federico García Lorca

The word “llanto” is a deep, piercing, active term in Spanish. A black shawl word. This poem moved me, took me, cast me deep into the night as a teen. Its slashes of image-work, its brutal and magical beats, and its scenic movements provided everything a young, art-hungry poet in San Francisco could ever wish for. —Juan Felipe Herrera, author of Notes on the Assemblage

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“Mississippi Suite” by Sterling Plumpp

Through the work of Sterling Plumpp I learned about the synthesis between music, poetry, and the political. —Tyehimba Jess, author of Olio

KimaJones

“The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith” by Gwendolyn Brooks

I read Gwendolyn Brooks whenever I feel like my work—fiction or poetry— is spiraling away from me. Sometimes I lose the language or the rhythm or the point of the piece I’m working on. Gwendolyn always fortifies me and brings me back to my smallest self where I am not thinking about how the poem is working, I’m merely enjoying the experience of reading. Through this poem I learned the beauty of a long line (done correctly), exclamation points (done correctly), the em dash (done correctly), the comma (done correctly), the line break (done correctly), and how to talk about culture without it feeling didactic. “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith” is a master class.  —Kima Jones, poetry featured in PANK and 30 x Lace

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“On Marriage” by Kahlil Gibran

This piece revolutionized my idea of partnership. Growing up in the west we’re fed a certain idea of what love looks like, but Kahlil’s poem for me was how it could be, how it should be, how it could work in a healthy, progressive, permanent, honest, real way. It was higher level thinking, not just a fairytale take on relationships. —Rupi Kaur, author of milk and honey

Deborah Landau

“The Sleepers” by Walt Whitman

This poem has always been important to me because of its capaciousness and music, its love of both darkness and light. I thought of it often while writing the insomniac nocturnal poems of my second book. It works as a kind of antidote for existential dread, and I return to these lines—especially during fraught and anxious times:

“(It seems to me that every thing in the light and air ought to be
happy,
Whoever is not in his coffin and the dark grave let him know he
has enough.)” Deborah Landau, author of The Uses of the Body

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“A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts” by Wallace Stevens

I love the sheer possibility that this poem argues is available within and for all of us. I say “possibility,” but maybe I mean “potential energy,” or maybe I just mean to refer to the imagination: some suggestion that, under certain circumstances, at certain moments at the “end of the day,” in the dark, we can imagine a world in which, despite very real or material or even mortal difficulty, that entire world can be “for you.” The poem makes me feel dream-strong. —Rickey Laurentiis, author of Boy with Thorn

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“Beverly Hills, Chicago” by Gwendolyn Brooks

A poem I love is “Beverly Hills, Chicago” by Gwendolyn Brooks. It was the first poem I read that was really about a place I actually knew. It articulated a powerful notion of the inferiority I felt as a young person growing up in the shadow of a more affluent neighborhood not that far away from my home. —Nate Marshall, author of Wild Hundreds

Sjohnna McCray

“You Can Have It” by Philip Levine

When I was an undergraduate, I had a hard time connecting with the poetry I was studying. I was young and my working class reality wasn’t present in my new academic and artistic world. This poem changed that for me. I saw my father and all the weary people that I loved in Levine’s poem. It kept me company all through college. —Sjohnna McCray, author of Rapture

Hoa Nguyen

“Buffalo Bill’s” by e.e. cummings

In my sophomore year of high school, a visiting poet recited this poem to our English class and I was immediately struck by the quick-change energy of it: declarative, sonically charged, and colloquial. Later, upon examining the text on the page, I admired its deft use of typography and the field of the page—and how, in its brevity, it manages to express disgust toward this folk hero and his peddling of American settler colonialism. —Hoa Nguyen, author of Violet Energy Ingots

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“Cherrylog Road” by James Dickey

This was the first poem I ever read that was set in a world I knew: the red clay hills of north Georgia, where both Dickey and I grew up. I was astonished not just by the vivid language of the poem, but especially its grit. Here was poetry made not of pompous allusions and arrogant profundities, but Fords “smothered in kudzu,” a motorcycle “parked like the soul of the junkyard,” and a farm girl who comes to a secret tryst “with a wrench in her hand.” “Cherrylog Road” taught me that home can be a worthy subject, if we can somehow see it with clear eyes. And the poem’s joyful, anarchic ending made me feel, like Dickey, “Wild to be wreckage forever.” —Patrick Phillips, author of Elegy for a Broken Machine

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“i thank You God for most this amazing” by e.e. cummings

When I was sixteen, I hand-wrote this sonnet from memory onto the pages of my sketchbook and tucked it into the hands of people who told me they didn’t like poetry, or who loved poetry, or who seemed like they needed a window into the world of the sensual, the ecstatic, the hyper-present. It felt, to me, like proof of something ineffable and utterly necessary. I was religious then, but the notions of doubt and faith in the poem, to me, rely entirely on the physical world, and still feel as true as they ever did. —Mary Austin Speaker, author of The Bridge

Kelly Gallucci
Far too busy rereading the Harry Potter series, Kelly finds that her greatest literary sin is that she neglected to read classics like The Shining and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. In between overseeing the editorial content for Bookish, holding interviews with authors like Isaac Marion and Lauren Beukes, and creating book recommendations for Kanye West—Kelly’s trying to catch up on the books she missed out on. She just finished The Great Gatsby and might be in love with Fitzg. Kelly received her B.A. in English Writing from Marist College and her M.A. in Screenwriting from National University of Ireland, Galway.

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