Poetry to Memorize
March 15, 2018 11:03 AM   Subscribe

I'm recovering from trauma. Last night, after a day full of obsessively ruminating on my trauma, I finally got the thoughts to go away by reciting poetry to myself. Yay! But I only know a couple poems by heart. I'd like to have more arrows in my quiver. Please recommend me some poems to memorize, and if you can, either link to the poem or copy it here. Think approximately the length of "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost. Poems written by people of color, LGBT people, and women especially encouraged!
posted by ocherdraco to Media & Arts (42 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
One of my favs, which is pretty popular, is Good Bones by Maggie Smith.
posted by knownassociate at 11:10 AM on March 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

A Supermarket in California - Allen Ginsberg
posted by griphus at 11:16 AM on March 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
posted by belladonna at 11:24 AM on March 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

One Art, by Elizabeth Bishop.
posted by woodvine at 11:26 AM on March 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

This Is Just To Say, by William Carlos Williams.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 11:29 AM on March 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Adrienne Rich... everything from Dream of a Common Language, especially all the poems excerpted here.
posted by Emera Gratia at 11:29 AM on March 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Lucille Clifton, won't you celebrate with me

W.H. Auden, Musee des Beaux Arts is one that helped me a lot when I was dealing with a really dark time. Wishing you strength and healing.
posted by torridly at 11:29 AM on March 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy.

My favorite poem about the solace of art in hard times is Lapis Lazuli by William Butler Yeats.
posted by FencingGal at 11:33 AM on March 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

I do have a poem, I promise, but I also have other places to search:

Anything from this book would work; it is designed for exactly this situation.

The Poetry Foundation has an app with a gabillion poems in it, and it lets you search for the kind of mood you're in (there's a list of emotions and a list of "life stuff", and you mix and match to tell the app whether you're feeling "Happy about Love" or "conflicted about work" or "hopeful about children" or whatever, and it will show you just those poems).

finally: I have two poems by Yeats memorized; one is a love poem, one is a rant about "why am I compelled to work on something that makes me crazy". ....That rant will be especially amusing if you've ever worked in theater (you'll see why towards the end; I kept a copy of that in my stage managers' backpack at all times, and when I saw an actor who looked like they were having a bad day I'd wait for a break and then say "c'mere, you may enjoy this...." and they always were cheered up).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:50 AM on March 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Hook, by James Wright

The Garden by Moonlight, by Amy Lowell
posted by holborne at 11:57 AM on March 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Lucille Clifton, blessing the boats
Jane Kenyon, Let Evening Come
Longer but you can just pick sections: Walt Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

I also think it's good to have some silly/singsong poems on hand too, and strong rhythm & rhyme do make memorization easier. So here's Shel Silverstein's Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout and Ogden Nash's Custard the Dragon, both of which are great fun to say aloud (or under your breath).
posted by miles per flower at 11:59 AM on March 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

I use sonnets for this purpose, because they are short enough to memorize quickly and the rhyme scheme helps keep them in memory.

Shakespeare's sonnet 29

(bisexual!) Edna St. Vincent Millay's Love Is Not All
posted by Jeanne at 12:15 PM on March 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Doesn't meet your demographics, but I've been memorizing (slowly, as my memory is awful in my 40s) Shelley's Ozymandias as a thing to do while I'm in a boring weekly thing I'm required to attend. It's good for memorizing because it's metrically very regular (I guess it's a sonnet, actually) and might be useful in hard times because impermanence is a theme of the poem. Oh also I'm looking on Wikipedia and it appears Shelley was invested in things like social justice, FWIW. Still a white guy, however.
posted by Smearcase at 12:44 PM on March 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
posted by rollick at 12:45 PM on March 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

For ringing obsessive madness that you will not be able to get out of your head for the rest of your life, Edgar Allen Poe's The Bells or Annabel Lee. The rhymes and repetition make these easy to memorize and rewarding to declaim.
posted by JonJacky at 12:53 PM on March 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Stevie Smith's* My Soul is my current fave for reciting from memory — short, delicious to pronounce, and utterly devastating.

*A woman, FWIW, though her name's ambiguous.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:23 PM on March 15, 2018

Affirmation by Assata Shakur
posted by spindrifter at 1:24 PM on March 15, 2018

You mught like the lesbian Uruguayan poet Christina Peri Rossi. There isn't a huge amount in English translation, but her book of erotic poems has been translated, and I found a few extracts here.

Or there's Maya Angelou's Come, and be my baby
posted by kelper at 2:27 PM on March 15, 2018

Life is Fine by Langston Hughes

a bit longer but I do enjoy it - Kubla Khan by Coleridge
posted by Julnyes at 2:44 PM on March 15, 2018

I'm surprised I'm the first to chime in with this, but the mother of all gay poetry, Sappho, has several short poems that would work as a mantra. (and many, many more)
posted by FirstMateKate at 2:52 PM on March 15, 2018

I really love Frida Khalo to Marty McConnell by Marty McConnell. She has other good work too if that one’s too much.

I also like Roger Reeves quite a bit; his book King Me is excellent and some of his poems are online here.
posted by stellaluna at 4:05 PM on March 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Bantams in Pine Woods by Wallace Stevens
posted by Morpeth at 5:55 PM on March 15, 2018

"From Blossoms" by Li-Young Lee has given me a lot of comfort. And seconding "Love Is Not All".
posted by goodbyewaffles at 6:26 PM on March 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

It's quite dark but I find myself periodically thinking of Stephen Crane's "In the Desert". More optimistic is the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton's "Like You". Both really give me solace and have stuck with me for more than half my life. Seconding "This is Just to Say."
posted by perrouno at 7:38 PM on March 15, 2018


Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952
posted by ZabeLeeZoo at 8:47 PM on March 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

Doesn't meet your preferences, but my go to is Kubla Khan by Coleridge. As found here.

I had (oh, I miss it), a copy of poetry and some music from the old TV show Beauty and the Beast This and I loved listening to Ron Perlman read aloud some the classic bits of poetry from the show. It served your purpose for me as a mind calming exercise. I really should replace my copy! Or find it!
posted by Northbysomewhatcrazy at 9:34 PM on March 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Anne Sexton, Courage.

Marge Piercy, What It Costs is darker but has nevertheless comforted me.

And, though he is perhaps the antithesis of what you asked for, there is still something about Hamlet's famous soliloquy that, once you get past the oft-quoted opening, is really quite profound.
posted by Athanassiel at 10:52 PM on March 15, 2018

William Butler Yeats, "Song Of the Wandering Aengus" Which as also been set to music several times, I find lyrics easier to memorize.

Look up Muriel Rukeyser, I love her "Rotten Lake Elegy" but it is long. She is a feminist from the 30s-60s.
posted by mermayd at 4:59 AM on March 16, 2018

I discovered a short poem by Patricia Smith a couple of weeks ago, and the joy of it stuck with me for a couple of days. It's fun and sassy and a pleasure to read aloud. Probably good for memorization too. Here it is:

Hip-Hop Ghazal

Gotta love us brown girls, munching on fat, swinging blue hips,
decked out in shells and splashes, Lawdie, bringing them woo hips.

As the jukebox teases, watch my sistas throat the heartbreak,
inhaling bassline, cracking backbone and singing thru hips.

Like something boneless, we glide silent, seeping 'tween floorboards,
wrapping around the hims, and ooh wee, clinging like glue hips.

Engines grinding, rotating, smokin', gotta pull back some.
Natural minds are lost at the mere sight of ringing true hips.

Gotta love us girls, just struttin' down Manhattan streets
killing the menfolk with a dose of that stinging view. Hips.

Crying 'bout getting old—Patricia, you need to get up off
what God gave you. Say a prayer and start slinging. Cue hips.
posted by dashdash at 11:12 AM on March 16, 2018

Invictus, by William Ernest Henley.

"My head is bloody, but unbowed." That, to me, is the very image of strength.
posted by LauraJ at 12:11 PM on March 16, 2018

You led with a Robert Frost poem. One of my Frost favorites is "Choose Something Like a Star." It's incredibly calming and perspective-restoring.

Bonus link: Randall Thompson's gorgeous choral setting.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 1:47 PM on March 16, 2018

From an experience of Buddhist teacher Frank Ostaseki, a death poem written by a woman he cared for in hospice

Don’t just stand there with your hair turning gray,
soon enough the seas will sink your little island.
So while there is still the illusion of time,
set out for another shore.
No sense packing a bag.
You won’t be able to lift it into your boat.
Give away all your collections.
Take only new seeds and an old stick.
Send out some prayers on the wind before you sail.
Don't be afraid.
Someone knows you’re coming.
An extra fish has been salted.

--Mona (Sono) Santacroce (1928 - 1995)
posted by kitkatcathy at 4:37 PM on March 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Recuerdo by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Ars Poetica by Archibald Macleish

As If to Demonstrate an Eclipse and Metamorphosis by Billy Collins

These are all poems I memorized when I was looking for ways to keep my brain occupied.
posted by kristi at 12:44 PM on March 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

You might already have memorized these because I hear them a lot in pop culture - but I really like If by Rudyard Kipling and Anyway by Kent M. Keith.

Take care :)
posted by Crookshanks_Meow at 9:26 AM on March 18, 2018

Two of my favorites that I have memorized (and forgotten):

The Kingfisher
Mary Oliver

The kingfisher rises out of the black wave
Like a blue flower, in his beak
he carries a single silver leaf. I think this is
The prettiest world— so long as you don’t mind
a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life
that doesn’t have its splash of happiness?
There are more fish than there are leaves
on a thousand trees, and anyway the kingfisher
wasn’t born to think about it, or anything else.
When the wave snaps shut over his blue head, the water
remains water— hunger is the only story
he has ever heard in his life that he could believe.
I don’t say that he’s right. Neither
do I say he’s wrong. Religiously he swallows the silver leaf
with its broken red river, and with a rough and easy cry
I couldn’t rouse out of my thoughtful body
if my life depended on it, he swings back
over the bright sea to do the same thing, to do it
(as I long to do something, anything) perfectly.

The Sea And The Man
Anna Swirszczynska

You will not tame this sea
either by humility or rapture.
But you can laugh
in its face.

was invented by those
who live briefly
as a burst of laughter.

The eternal sea
will never learn to laugh.
posted by Tevin at 6:18 AM on March 20, 2018

Expect Nothing by Alice Walker

Expect nothing. Live frugally
On surprise.
become a stranger
To need of pity
Or, if compassion be freely
Given out
Take only enough
Stop short of urge to plead
Then purge away the need.

Wish for nothing larger
Than your own small heart
Or greater than a star;
Tame wild disappointment
With caress unmoved and cold
Make of it a parka
For your soul.

Discover the reason why
So tiny human midget
Exists at all
So scared unwise
But expect nothing. Live frugally
On surprise.
posted by abhardcastle at 10:01 AM on March 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Thing Is by Ellen Bass

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.
posted by abhardcastle at 10:03 AM on March 21, 2018 [1 favorite]


At last I can be with you!
The grinding hours
since I left your side!
The labor of being fully human,
working my opposable thumb,
talking, and walking upright.
Now I have unclasped
unzipped, stepped out of.
Husked, soft, a be-er only,
I do nothing, but point
my bare feet into your
clean smoothness
feel your quiet strength
the whole length of my body.
I close my eyes, hear myself
moan, so grateful to be held this way.
posted by abhardcastle at 10:06 AM on March 21, 2018

Love after Love by Derek Walcott
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome, and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
posted by abhardcastle at 10:09 AM on March 21, 2018

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