Beware the Poetry Month, my son
March 11, 2015 4:50 PM   Subscribe

What are the best short poems (<1 minute to read aloud) for middle school kids (grades 6-8/ages ~11-14)?

I have the only slightly divided attention of 600 middle school kids for one minute a week (via our morning news show). Normally I do a booktalk, but for Poetry Month I want to share a poem. I love poetry, but my tastes run a bit too adult (like, this is my favorite poem, but for many obvious reasons won't work in this context). What are some good, brief poems that

a) work well read out loud
b) are short (I really only have one minute) - or can be easily excerpted
c) are both appropriate for and appealing to a middle school audience
d) ideally, a poem that appears in a kid-appropriate anthology OR collection of the author's works (so I could order it for display/checkout) - this is the least important criterion, though it'll be fun if it works (for example, I'm going to do "This Is Just to Say" the first week, along with this collection of poems for kids)

Thanks, poetry lovers of Metafilter!
posted by goodbyewaffles to Media & Arts (36 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
​I grew up in Illinois so there's that, but I remember first reading Carl Sandburg's Chicago in middle school.​
posted by jabes at 4:57 PM on March 11, 2015

Keats, The Wandering Aengus, for beautiful metaphor, and an OK mystical, romantic theme for the older middle schoolers. Some of Shakespeare's sonnets.
posted by Oyéah at 5:03 PM on March 11, 2015

I remember Emily Dickinson's "I'm Nobody! Who Are You?" very fondly from that age.
posted by argonauta at 5:19 PM on March 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

There are probably so many possibilities by Billy Collins!

On preview, I was just about to post argonauta's poem suggestion too. Wow. Jinx. Another good Dickinson poem could be A Bird came down the Walk.

One of my other favorites is Yeats. I like The Fascination of What's Difficult. Another classic is When You Are Old. I think a person of any age could appreciate it.

Blackberry Eating by Galway Kinnell is another.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 5:29 PM on March 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

The short poems that appear in the NYC MTA's Poetry in Motion series. (Link goes to 2012-2014 archives, but there are previous installments to mine; one I remember clearly is Luck, by Langston Hughes, from maybe 1994 or 1995...)
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:36 PM on March 11, 2015

Honestly, you could read a Shel Silverstein poem a day, drawing from both A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends (and Falling Up, I guess, though imho that's not as strong) and never run out of options.
posted by ActionPopulated at 5:45 PM on March 11, 2015 [12 favorites]

We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks.
posted by Soda-Da at 5:58 PM on March 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

Stevie Smith, Can It Be
Anything from T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats
Hilaire Beloc poems from Cautionary Tales for Children, my fav is Matilda, Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death
Maya Angelou, Still I Rise (depending on your okayness with a bit of sexy)
Cobb Would have Caught it, Robert Fitzgerald
Ogden Nash, Just Keep Quiet and Nobody will Notice
posted by warriorqueen at 6:27 PM on March 11, 2015

Actually, musing over the ages again maybe Ogden Nash The Termite

If you want to skew a bit more towards younger/playful, Jack Pretlusky is great, or Dennis Lee (I like Goofus)
posted by warriorqueen at 6:35 PM on March 11, 2015

Maybe some Russell Edson?

There's always Pound!
posted by mermaidcafe at 6:46 PM on March 11, 2015

"Darkling Elves", by Jack Prelutsky, which I read in middle school, always stuck with me. It'd be especially great read allowed, lots of internal rhyme and great rhythm. It takes about 35 seconds to read. It's also specifically a children's poem, found in a book called "Even more poems to trouble your sleep" or something like that.
posted by FirstMateKate at 7:04 PM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I just attempted to teach poetry to four classes of 7th graders. Shel Silverstein was the only author from our collection they were remotely interested in. It was "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout..."

Developmentally, many kids that age just aren't ready to think abstractly about literature. The idea that a poem was "about something" that wasn't directly expressed in the poem (but expressed through sound or form) was tough for many students to really grasp. So my best advice would be to stick with poems that are humorous, memorable and direct.
posted by gnutron at 7:12 PM on March 11, 2015

Nth Billy Collins. My first thought was Another Reason I Don't Keep a Gun in the House. =) There's a whole bunch, many appropriate, on PoemHunter.
posted by jrobin276 at 7:23 PM on March 11, 2015

I love love loved reading from Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices as a kid - my older sister bought it for me and I'm still kicking myself for having misplaced it somewhere...
posted by stray at 7:33 PM on March 11, 2015

I've always found interesting things in Rattlebag, a school anthology designed by Hughes and Heaney
posted by PinkMoose at 7:37 PM on March 11, 2015

Leave Me Alone was my sister's favorite when she was about 14. It's still available in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children
posted by stefanie at 7:42 PM on March 11, 2015

You want Hal Sirowitz. I'm not sure any of his books are still in print, but he's got some primo material for reading to middle schoolers. From his masterpiece Mother Said:

Deformed Finger
Don't stick your finger in the ketchup bottle,
Mother said. It might get stuck, &
then you'll have to wait for your father
to get home to pull it out. He
won't be happy to find a dirty fingernail
squirming in the ketchup that he's going to use
on his hamburger. He'll yank it out so hard
that for the rest of your life you won't
be able to wear a ring on that finger.
And if you ever get a girlfriend, &
you hold hands, she's bound to ask you
why one of your fingers is deformed,
& you'll be obligated to tell her how
you didn't listen to your mother, &
insisted on playing with the ketchup bottle,
& she'll get to thinking, he probably won't
listen to me either, & she'll push your hand away.
posted by apparently at 7:42 PM on March 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

Auden's The More Loving One and while we're on the subject, Choose Something Like a Star, by Frost
posted by she's not there at 7:53 PM on March 11, 2015

My favorite poem in 6th grade was Jabberwocky. Might run slightly over a minute, though. But so many great words that aren't actual words!

ETA: I just noticed your post title, ha!
posted by phunniemee at 7:53 PM on March 11, 2015

Eating Poetry by Mark Strand.

Fall Wind by William Stafford.

Afternoon on a Hill by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

in Just- spring by E. E. Cummings.

Who Has seen the Wind? by Christina Rossetti.

You're not really teaching these kids poetry, just doing the wonderful work of exposing them to it. So I wouldn't work too hard finding poems they will automatically be interested in. Poetry is supposed to sit with you and work on you over time, and if these kids hear some non-Seuss-and-Silverstien poetic voices early on they might feel more comfortable with poetry in the future. Also, please take this opportunity to amplify minority and women's voices!
posted by rabbitbookworm at 8:07 PM on March 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

-Robert Frost
posted by Daily Alice at 8:27 PM on March 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

A little science, a little poetry: The Blood-Hungry Spleen and Other Poems About Our Parts.
posted by mogget at 9:07 PM on March 11, 2015

Clancy of the Overflow. They'll love the jarring grammar misstep of the second stanza's final line. Any number of other Banjo Patterson poems are also great for reading aloud.

Kipling is often spectacular for reading aloud as well. Try Tommy with the right Cockney accent and dripping with sarcasm in the appropriate spots. I would've eaten that up in middle school. (In one minute? Might be tight.)

To a Child Dancing in the Wind is depressing but very captivating. I'm guessing that middle school is is too young for Leda and the Swan ?
posted by wjm at 2:06 AM on March 12, 2015

Robert Service's 'The Cremation of Sam McGee' and 'The Shooting of Dan McGrew' might run over your time limit, but they're fun and entertaining, and Service's poetry usually has strong built-in scansion.
posted by easily confused at 2:12 AM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

When I taught poetry to middle schoolers we started with the imagists - my kids especially loved William Carlos Williams. Also had a lot of success with Billy Collins, as mentioned above.
posted by SeedStitch at 6:16 AM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Many poems by Frost, Sandburg and cummings are short but highly worthy of discussion. That said, here are the two shortest poems by great poets I know:
I wish the rent
Was heaven sent.

— Langston Hughes

Green arsenic smeared on an egg-white cloth,
Crushed strawberries! Come, let us feast our eyes.

— "L'Art", Ezra Pound

Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee
And I'll forgive Thy great big one on me.

― Robert Frost
posted by ubiquity at 6:16 AM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nthing almost anything by Billy Collins. The Lanyard or Flock come to mind right away, but there are so many good, relatively short poems by him. I particularly recommend him for middle schoolers because his language is relatively simple and modern, he is often very funny, and he can be subversive in a way that I think middle schoolers like.
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:33 AM on March 12, 2015

So nobody's mentioned William Carlos Williams? "This is Just to Say" is the classic, but looking over at poemhunter,, I'm seeing a few good short ones.

But actually, I came to mention Zachary Schomburg's "Scary No Scary."

One night, when
you return to your childhood
home after

a lifetime away,
you'll find it
abandoned. Its

paint will be
completely weathered.

It will have
a significant westward lean.

There will be
a hole in its roof
that bats fly
out of.

The old man
hunched over
at the front door
will be prepared
to give you a tour,
but first he'll ask
Scary, or no scary?

You should say
No scary.

posted by Gilbert at 7:01 AM on March 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

real poem (happiness)

by Rachel Zucker

We’re all fucked up because in English
the phrase “to make someone happy”
suggests that’s possible.
posted by Juliet Banana at 8:06 AM on March 12, 2015

Peaches by Kate Barnes

Philological by John Updike

My Father by Yehuda Amichai

Daybreak by Galway Kinnell

Also, Richard Wright wrote haiku! A large number are on this link. Here's a favorite:
Just enough of snow
To make you look carefully
At familiar streets.


Frog by Paul Engle

I carry your name secretly in
my mind, like a small boy hiding
a live frog in his pocket,
hoping someone will jump with
the shock of finding it there.

Finally, given the title of your question, I remember getting a kick out of Jabberwocky at that age, because of the idea of made up words sounding like they had meaning.
posted by gudrun at 9:30 AM on March 12, 2015

Ogden Nash.
posted by maryr at 11:17 AM on March 12, 2015

Speaking of words that aren't actually words, A Very Descript Man might be fun if you think they have the vocabulary for it.

posted by maryr at 11:28 AM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Poems of magic and spells was my all time favorite as a kid if you can find it. It might be a special order but the poemscdeliver on the title. If you were my neighbor I would let you borrow it!
posted by bluesky43 at 8:14 PM on March 12, 2015

Hot and Cold by Roald Dahl

A woman who my mother knows
Came in and took off all her clothes.

Said I, not being very old,
'By golly gosh, you must be cold!'

'No, no!' she cried. 'Indeed I'm not!
I'm feeling devilishly hot!'
posted by guy72277 at 7:05 AM on March 13, 2015

Coming back to add one more:

At Last
by Christa Reinig

at last no one decided
and no one knocked
and no one jumped up
and no one opened
and there stood no one
and no one entered
and no one said: welcome
and no one answered: at last
posted by gudrun at 7:16 AM on March 23, 2015

"There Will Come Soft Rains" by Sara Teasdale
(notably featured in a Ray Bradbury short story by the same name, which you could tie in if you were so inclined)

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:28 AM on March 23, 2015

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