22 Short Poems That’ll Help You Read More Poetry This Year
Appreciating poetry doesn't have to take a lot of time, as these moving short poems prove
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The beauty of short poems
Poetry provides the words we’re searching for, no matter the situation. Poetry books have love poems for times when you want to be romantic, poems for kids and limericks for when you feel like laughing and funeral poems for when you need to grieve. You’ll find long poems to spend an evening with and short poems to read in snatches of time. Maybe that’s why poetry has even taken over TikTok—just look at the fans of Whitney Hanson’s poetry.
If you need a quick-acting dose of inspiration, the short poems in this collection have just what you’re looking for. In a couple of minutes—or seconds!—these poems will open your mind, touch your heart, refresh your spirit or simply make you laugh. (Sorry, they’re all longer than the shortest popular poem, a single letter m with an extra leg, conceived by Aram Saroyan.) We hope you enjoy these mini masterpieces from around the globe and across the centuries. They’ll take you moments to read but much longer to forget.
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1. “There is no Frigate like a Book” by Emily Dickinson
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –
The best books transport readers in ways a plane or boat (“frigate”) cannot. Likewise, poems such as this one carry us to faraway lands faster than the fastest horse (or, in the words of this poem, “courser”). Emily Dickinson would know—she rarely left her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts. Perhaps the prolific poet was content with letting her mind journey through her transportive short poems.
2. “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
One very simple poem is “The Red Wheelbarrow.” This clean-cut gem by Jewish American poet and doctor William Carlos Williams invites us into a moment of mindfulness and appreciation of everyday beauty. For more inspiration from the world around you, try these nature poems.
3. “Poem” by Langston Hughes
The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.
Beautiful, also, is the sun
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
One of America’s most famous poets, Langston Hughes was a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance, a huge upsurge in art and literature in the Black American community. If you like this, it’s time you read more great works by Black poets.
4. “Lesbia Railing” by Gaius Valerius Catullus
Lesbia forever on me rails.
To talk of me she never fails.
Now, hang me, but for all her art,
I find that I have gained her heart.
My proof is this: I plainly see
The case is just the same with me;
I curse her every hour sincerely,
Yet, hang me, but I love her dearly.
Translated by Jonathan Swift
Gaius Valerius Catullus was a Roman poet who lived from 84 to 54 B.C.E. Catullus was known for his scathing wit and for being both earthy and intellectual. This poem, which still rings hilariously true across the centuries, is no exception. “Lesbia,” to whom Catullus dedicated many poems, was probably a married woman named Clodia with whom he was having an affair. If you want to keep laughing, try these funny poems.
5. “To an Icicle” by Blanche Taylor Dickinson
Chilled into a serenity
As rigid as your pose
You linger trustingly,
But a gutter waits for you.
Your elegance does not secure
You favors with the sun.
He is not one to pity fragileness.
He thinks all cheeks should burn
And feel how tears can run.
Kentucky-born Blanche Taylor Dickinson was another figure of the Harlem Renaissance and published journalism, short stories and poems while working as a teacher in segregated schools.
6. “Love” by Sappho
Love, like a mountain-wind upon an oak,
Falling upon me, shakes me leaf and bough.
Translated by William Ellery Leonard
Only fragments remain of the work of Sappho, a poet born around 650 B.C.E. on the Greek island of Lesbos, but they were more than enough to earn her an immortal place in literature. The poet’s dazzlingly sensual poems were written for women, and collections of her poetry are must-reads if you’re looking to fill your shelves with more LGBTQ+ books. For more poems to send the woman who shakes you leaf and bough, try these love poems for her.
7. “My Love” by Ono No Yoshiki
Is like the grasses
Hidden in the deep mountain:
Though its abundance increases,
There is none that knows
Translated by Arthur Waley
“My Love” appears in the Kokinshū, an anthology published in Japan in 902. Short poems go by many names, depending on their form. You may be familiar with haikus or limericks. In the Japanese tradition, a five-line poem is called a waka or tanka and has five, seven, five, seven and seven syllables. While the syllable counts sometimes get lost in translation, the meaning does not. If the object of your hidden love is a guy, try these love poems for him.
8. “Holy Thursday” by William Blake
Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reducd to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!
And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill’d with thorns.
It is eternal winter there.
For where-e’er the sun does shine,
And where-e’er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.
Poet and artist William Blake lived from 1757 to 1827 and is known for his mystical combinations of verse and illustration, which often decried injustice in his native England. This inspirational poem takes the opportunity to point out the hypocrisy in the religious observation of Holy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter, when poverty in England was widespread.
9. “Boats Sail on the Rivers” by Christina Rossetti
Boats sail on the rivers,
And ships sail on the seas;
But clouds that sail across the sky
Are prettier far than these.
There are bridges on the rivers,
As pretty as you please;
But the bow that bridges heaven,
And overtops the trees,
And builds a road from earth to sky,
Is prettier far than these.
One of the most deceptively simple short poems, Christina Rossetti’s “Boats Sail on the Rivers” cleverly suggests that nature’s work is far more impressive than anything humans can build. Born in 1830 to an Italian father and English mother, Rossetti, like her brother, Dante, was a highly regarded poet in her own lifetime, and her fame has endured to this day. It’s a moving poem to share with children and a bit meatier than some of the sillier pieces of poetry they may be used to (like these funny limerick examples).
10. “I built my hut” by Tao Qian
I built my hut in a zone of human habitation,
But near me there sounds no noise of horse or coach.
Would you know how that is possible?
A heart that is distant creates a wilderness round it.
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,
Then gaze long at the distant summer hills.
The mountain air is fresh at the dusk of day:
The flying birds two by two return.
In these things there lies a deep meaning;
Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail us.
Translated by Arthur Waley
Tao Qian, also know as Tao Yuanming, lived from 365 to 427 in China. Chrysanthemums and wine featured often in his poetry, which was judged as too simple in his own era and wasn’t appreciated until centuries after his death.
11. “The Heart of a Woman” by Georgia Douglas Johnson
The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,
Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.
The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.
Atlanta-born poet Georgia Douglas Johnson, whose parents were of African American, Native American and English ancestry, studied music and wrote poems and plays. When she moved to Washington, D.C., her house became a gathering place for writers of the Harlem Renaissance, earning it the nickname, the “S Street Salon.” To discover a young poet who is a figure in American poetry today, read these Amanda Gorman poems.
12. “Peace” by Bhartrihari
Courage, my Soul! now to the silent wood
Alone we wander, there to seek our food
In the wild fruits, and woo our dreamless sleep
On soft boughs gathered deep.
There loud authority in folly bold,
And tongues that stammer with disease of gold,
And murmur of the windy world shall cease,
Nor echo through our peace.
Translated by Paul Elmer Moore
A philosopher, grammarian and poet, Bhartrihari lived from 450 to 510 in India. His work blended the philosophy of language with mysticism, conceiving of language as part of the divine nature of the universe.
13. “Ode 13” by Hafiz
Oft have I said, I say it once more,
I, a wanderer, do not stray from myself.
I am a kind of parrot; the mirror is holden to me;
What the Eternal says, I stammering say again.
Give me what you will; I eat thistles as roses,
And according to my food I grow and I give.
Scorn me not, but know I have the pearl,
And am only seeking one to receive it.
Translated by Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Persian poet Hafiz (also spelled Hafez) was born in about 1325 in Shiraz, Iran. His name refers to the feat of having learned the Koran by heart. The intimations of divinity in this poem are apt because Hafiz was a devotee of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam that spoke of union with the divine through a personal experience of God.
14. “[Traveler, your footprints]” by Antonio Machado
Traveler, your footprints
are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road;
you make your own path as you walk.
As you walk, you make your own road,
and when you look back
you see the path
you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no road;
only a ship’s wake on the sea.
Antonio Machado was one of Spain’s greatest 20th-century poets and palled around with such literary lights as Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío and Irish author Oscar Wilde. This famous poem, which in Spanish sounds even more like a song, invites us to embrace being lost.
15. “God Never Planted a Garden” by Anne Spencer
God never planted a garden
But He placed a keeper there
And the keeper ever razed the ground
And built a city where
God cannot walk at the eve of the day,
Nor take the morning air.
Anne Spencer was born in Virginia in 1882 to two former slaves. Something of a prodigy, Spencer graduated from college at 17 years old as valedictorian of her class. She helped found the Lynchburg, Virginia, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and wrote poems that addressed sexism and racism as well as editorials attacking white supremacy. Many of her poems incorporate natural imagery—she herself created a famously exquisite garden in Lynchburg—but with an ironic tone, as in the case of this poem.
16. “I Am Silent” by Jalal al-Din Rumi
I am Silent. Speak Thou, O Soul of Soul of Soul,
From desire of whose Face every atom grew
Translated by Frederick Hadland Davis
Born in 1207 in modern-day Afghanistan (then part of the Persian empire), Jalal al-Din Rumi gained fame in his own lifetime and remains one of the world’s most beloved poets to this day. He had an intense spiritual friendship with a mystic named Shams al-Din Tabrizi, whose later disappearance inspired intense sadness and longing that, in turn, seems to have inspired Rumi’s greatest works. On the hunt for more poetry? These Mother’s Day poems won’t disappoint.
17. “He is Like a Lotus” from The Egyptian Book of the Dead
I am the pure lotus,
Springing up in splendor
Fed by the breath of Ra.
Rising into sunlight.
Out of soil and darkness,
I blossom in the Field
Translated by Robert Hillyer
This short but powerful set of verses comes from The Egyption Book of the Dead, a collection of nearly 200 ancient Egyptian burial spells meant to help the dead find their way into the afterlife. Short poems like this one may not be top of mind when considering funeral poetry, but it’s a moving option for those grieving.
18. “Tears” by al-Khansā’
Tears, ere thy death, for many a one I shed,
But thine are all my tears since thou art dead.
To comforters I lend my ear apart,
While pain sits ever closer to my heart.
Translated by R.A. Nicholson
Tamāḍir bint ‘Amr ibn al-Ḥārith ibn al-Sharīd, also known as al-Khansā’, which translates to “the snub-nosed one” (it’s meant as a compliment!), is considered one of the greatest poets in the Arabic language, despite having died in the seventh century. She is known for intensely emotional poems—we’re going way beyond funny roses-are-red poems here. Take, for instance, “Tears,” which memorializes the deaths of two of her brothers in tribal warfare. She was part of a tribe that converted to Islam during the life of the prophet Muhammed, whom she personally met.
19. “A Tree Design” by Arna Bontemps
A Tree is more than a shadow
Blurred against the sky,
More than ink spilled on the fringe
Of white clouds floating by.
A tree is more than an April design
Or a blighted winter bough
Where love and music used to be.
A tree is something in me,
Very still and lonely now.
Born in 1902, Arna Bontemps had this poem selected for inclusion in a landmark anthology of Black American poetry, Caroling Dusk, when he was just 25 years old. It was just the beginning of a lifetime of scholarship and literary creation for the young poet, who was at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance and collaborated with other greats, such as Langston Hughes.
20. “April” by Sara Teasdale
The roofs are shining from the rain.
The sparrows tritter as they fly,
And with a windy April grace
The little clouds go by.
Yet the back-yards are bare and brown
With only one unchanging tree—
I could not be so sure of Spring
Save that it sings in me.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, to well-to-do parents, Sara Teasdale was a respected, award-winning poet in her time. Her poetry is known for its simplicity. This one, in just a few lines, evokes that familiar but contradictory feeling that spring will never get here and that it’s just about to arrive. If you’re searching for poems during the fall instead, give these Thanksgiving poems a try.
21. “Treasure” by Lucillius
They call thee rich; I deem thee poor;
Since, if thou dares not use thy store,
But saves only for thine heirs,
The treasure is not thine, but theirs.
Translated by William Cowper
The first-century Greek poet Lucillius was known for his mastery of the short poem format known as an epigram. He wrote more than 100 of them, usually satirizing his subject in a few witty lines.
22. “Love Song” (traditional poem of the Hohokam)
Early I rose
In the blue morning;
My love was up before me,
It came running up to me from the doorways of the Dawn
On Papago Mountain
The dying quarry
Looked at me with my love’s eyes.
Translated by Mary Austin
The Hohokam were farmers in what is now southern Arizona for more than a thousand years until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. They were known for their intricate irrigation systems that allowed them to cultivate crops in the desert. Their descendants are the Tohono O’odham and Pima Nations. This poem was collected by Mary Austin, an early-20th-century American poet of the modernist movement. Although she was not Native American, she worked to preserve and publish Native American poetry.