Medieval Short Poems
The word “medieval” has been used as a slur for as long as it’s been a word, However, the Middle Ages was more than just a time of superstitious oafs rotating crops and going on Crusade. It is a thousand years of humanity — filled with stories of love and passion, ingenuity and cooperation, and rich with diverse complex peoples living their best, human, lives. This selection of short poems has been curated to display the complexity of those lives: from reflections on nature to stirring elegies, these poems serve to disrupt and subvert contemporary stereotypes of the Middle Ages.
“The Wanderer” http://www.anglo-saxons.net/hwaet/?do=get&type=text&id=wdr
“The Wife’s Lament” https://arts.uwaterloo.ca/~rtierney/TheWifesLament.pdf
Hildegard von Bingen, “O Viridissima Virga” https://allpoetry.com/Hildegard-von-Bingen-
Christine de Pizan, “Love to the Lady” https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/love-to-the-lady/
“Wynter Wakeneth al my Care (Winter Awakens all my Grief)”http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/medlyric/wynterwakeneth.php
“Fowles in the Frith” http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/medlyric/fowles.php
The Early Modern Period
The Early Modern period (roughly 1550-1750) was a time of great upheaval in human understanding, as a new spirit of science swept through Europe. These poems are meant to provide a detailed cross-section of what life in this period was like. Spenser’s pastoral longings are countered by Donne’s reflection on scientific advancement — while the others are chosen to examine the sexual politics of the period.
Edmund Spenser, “The Shepherd’s Calendar (January)” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/53208/the-shepheardes-calender-january
Lady Mary Chudleigh, “To the Ladies” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43943/to-the-ladies
Mary Sidney Herbert Countess of Pembroke, “The Doleful Lay of Clorinda” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/55242/the-doleful-lay-of-clorinda
Andrew Marvell, “To his Coy Mistress” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44688/to-his-coy-mistress
Margaret Cavendish, “Man’s Short Life and Foolish Ambition” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/55590/mans-short-life-and-foolish-ambition
John Donne, “The Flea” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46467/the-flea
Ocean Vuong Poetry
Ocean Vuong was born in Saigon, Vietnam and raised in Hartford, Connecticut in a working-class family of nail salon and factory laborers. Vuong’s poetry explores transformation, desire, and violent loss, seeing poetic “form” as a “space where tensions can be investigated”— from enjambments to end-stops, breaks to stutters.
Vuong’s poetry pairs well with a short reading on how to close read poetry (https://writing.wisc.edu/handbook/assignments/closereading/#9). In my GEL class, we put a Vuong poem up on the board and go through each line, working out possible interpretations, while taking biographical context into account (see, in particular, Vuong’s NPR interview on Time is a Mother (https://www.npr.org/2022/04/05/1090845515/poet-ocean-vuong-sifts-through-the-aftershock-of-grief-in-time-is-a-mother).
“Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong”
“Old Glory” Time is a Mother (pairs well with Vuong’s comments on masculinity. See https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2019/06/10/no-homo/)
“Telemachus” (borrows themes from The Odyssey to explore the speaker — potentially Vuong’s own memory) and his troubled relationship with his father.
Death through the Ages
Death is an inevitable and mysterious event which has captivated the minds of readers for as long as there have been readers. Poetry offers the opportunity to imagine and grapple with the unknowable finality of death. And yet, poetry and literature about death often gives readers a glimpse at the existential importance of life — providing readers a means of grappling with and defining the meanings of life and death. These poems are selected to provide a glimpse at how death has been viewed over the longue duree, from the Middle Ages to today.
Anonymous, “A Warning Spoken by the Soul of a Dead Person” https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/cook-and-strakhov-dance-of-death-warning-soul-dead-person
John Donne, “Death be not Proud (Holy Sonnet X) https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44107/holy-sonnets-death-be-not-proud
Emily Dickinson, “Because I could not stop for Death – (479)” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47652/because-i-could-not-stop-for-death-479
Mary Oliver, “Death at a Great Distance” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=37174
Pablo Neruda, “Nothing but Death" https://poets.org/poem/nothing-death
Maya Angelou, “When Great Trees Fall” https://poems.com/poem/when-great-trees-fall/
Sylvia Plath, “Lady Lazarus” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49000/lady-lazarus
The Beat Generation
The Beat Generation was a post–war literary movement that impacted American politics and influenced counterculture. It started as a response to the formalist approach of Columbia professors Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren. The adjective “Beat” was first introduced by Jack Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes. It had the connotations of “beatific” or “upbeat.” It’s also a musical term typically applied to jazz with the expression “being on the beat.”
Although some of the Beats attended Columbia, they considered themselves anti-academic. Rather than being based on disillusionment like the Lost Generation, the Beats were life affirming and called themselves “giggling nihilists.” They saw the problem of modern life as spiritual and they clung on withdrawal and ecstasy to tackle it. The central themes explored by the Beats were the rejection of standard narrative values, spirituality and its meaning, an interest in eastern philosophy and Buddhism, engagement with left wing politics (with some exceptions), existential issues, experimentation with drugs as a means to enhance certain experiences, and sexual liberation and exploration. Some of the most notable members are Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Allen Ginsberg’s long poem Howl is considered the most salient Beat Generation manifesto.
The Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance (1918–37)—known at the time as the New Negro Movement—saw a proliferation of artistic output by Black Americans, many of whom lived and worked in Harlem, New York. There are innumerable poems from the period worth sharing with students, but the poems collected here are all relatively short and cover a range of topics relevant to the period, including migration to the North, the influence of the jazz age, the institutionalization of a Black literary tradition, etc.
Gwendolyn Bennett, "Heritage"
Sterling Brown, "The Young Ones"
Countee Cullen, "Yet Do I Marvel"
Langston Hughes, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"; "Harlem"; "The Weary Blues"
Georgia Douglas Johnson, "Black Woman"; "Brotherhood"
Claude McKay, "Africa"; "America"; "If We Must Die"
Jean Toomer, "Cotton Song"; "Beehive"
Poetry focusing on the natural or non-human world is hardly a new phenomenon, with examples stretching back to Virgil’s Georgics. While "nature poetry" might conjure ideas of uncritical appreciation for the non-human environment, the contemporary poets in this cluster attempt to come to terms with the implications of adverse human impacts on the environment, from pollution to animal extinction to climate change. For a primer on ways of teaching environmental or "ecopoetry," read Craig Santos Perez’s essay "Teaching Ecopoetry in a Time of Climate Change."
Elizabeth Bishop, "The Fish"
Franny Choi, "How to Let Go of the World"
Latasha N. Nevada Diggs, "My First Black Nature Poem"
Dorianne Laux, "Evening"
W.S. Merwin, "For a Coming Extinction"
Craig Santos Perez, "Halloween in the Anthopocene, 2015"
Juliana Spahr, "Dynamic Positioning"
Black Arts Movement
Spearheaded by Baraka's "Black Art," the Black Arts Movement (1960s-1970s) featured poetry that emphasized Black pride and the artistic output of Black writers despite unrelenting racial oppression. Linked to the politics of the civil rights movement, poetry from this period is critical of hegemonic American institutions designed to perpetuate racial inequality. Without a fuller understanding of the political and social history of the 1960s, students may struggle to understand some of the more complex poems from the period. The poems collected below can be seen as somewhat introductory, as they address the broader themes of the period and are some of the more accessible BAM-era poems.
Ai, "Woman to Man"
Amiri Baraka, "Black Art"
Gwendolyn Brooks, "We Real Cool"; "kitchenette building"
Nikki Giovanni, "Nikki-Rosa"; "Dreams"
Etheridge Knight, "Last Words by 'Slick'"
Haki R. Madhubuti, "Gwendolyn Brooks"
Ntozake Shange, "senses of heritage"
Margaret Walker, "Sorrow Home"
Though the Imagist movement in poetry is typically periodized at the beginning of the twentieth century and strived for clear expression through precise images, its influence might be seen through the work of poets who followed, channeling meaning through objects. This cluster of poems spans from the beginnings of imagism (H.D., Pound, WCW) to contemporary poets who express issues of identity, social injustice, and relationships through central metaphor. The poems are relatively short, range from prose poetry to rap, and can help students grapple with poetry by unpacking the many implications of even one core image.
William Carlos Williams, "This Is Just To Say"
Ezra Pound, "In a Station of the Metro"
Mary Ruefle, "The Bench"
Koon Woon, "How to Cook Rice"
Audre Lorde, "Coal"
Maya Angelou, "Caged Bird"
Tyler, the Creator/Tyler Okonma, "Garden Shed"
The British Industrial Revolution
Great Britain’s Industrial Revolution led to profound social, economic, and political change, all of which helped to shape both the natural and literary world. Just as James Watt’s steam engine sought to redefine expectations of an industrialized society, Victorian writers searched for new ways to account for the ‘naturalization’ of industry in their works. These poems cover topics ranging from industrial anxiety to socioeconomic impact; supernatural technology to environmental consequences.
William Blake, "The Chimney Sweeper"; "London"
William Wordsworth, "Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey"; "Lines Written in Early Spring"
Lord Byron, "Song for the Luddites"
Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ozymandias", "Ode to the West Wind"; "England in 1819"
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "The Cry of the Children"; "A Curse for a Nation"
Algernon Charles Swinburn, "The Triumph of Time"
Queer of Color Poetry
Spanning a wide period from the early days of the gay liberation movement to the present day, the poems collected here all speak to experiences of being a queer person of color in the US. This cluster addresses both the joys and trials of queer life, covering topics such as interracial relationships, alienation from family, the building of queer communities, and gay marriage.
Confessional poetry was a highly personal mode of poetic expression that emerged in the United States during the postwar period. It was characterized by its commitment to introspection, particularly the confession of private, taboo feelings and mental conflicts associated with mental illness, death, and traumatic experience. Oftentimes these confessional poets blended their aesthetic expressions with modes of autobiography and auto-analysis that took heavily from the now-antiquated work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. While pioneered by poets like Robert Lowell and W.D. Snodgrass in the late 1950s, later poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton became even more iconic practitioners of confessional poetry in the latter part of the century. You can introduce students to the genre via M.L. Rosenthal's foundational essay “Poetry as Confession” (1959).
Robert Lowell, Life Studies, particularly "Waking in the Blue" (1959)
W.D. Snodgrass, "Heart’s Needle" (1959)
Anne Sexton, "The Truth the Dead Know" (1962); "Wanting to Die" (1966)
Sylvia Plath, Ariel, particularly "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus" (1965)
John Berryman, Dream Songs, particularly "Dream Song 14" (1964)
Indigeneity & Sovereignty
The following are a selection of Indigenous poetry from the United States that range from the '60s to now. Many are more recent and deal with contemporary issues of violence, exclusions, and stereotypes facing Native Americans (Diaz, Pico, Miranda), but all (in some way or another) are about the crucial need for storytelling. Long Soldier’s is the only lengthy one, but it’s a surefire success in any literature classroom. Regardless of the selection, students will need a brief background in regard to legacies of colonialism and forced assimilation.
Layli Long Soldier, "38"
Joy Harjo, "An American Sunrise"; "How to Write a Poem in a Time of War"
Natalie Diaz, "American Arithmetic"
Leslie Marmon Silko, "Ceremony"
Sherman Alexie, "The Powwow at the End of the World"
Tommy Pico, excerpt from Nature Poem
Deborah Miranda, "I Am Not a Witness"
Louise Erdrich, "Advice to Myself"
Contemporary Poetry in the Black Lives Matter Era
The following poems all emerged after 2013, when the Black Lives Matter social movement was founded to bring attention to the widespread killing of Black people in America, especially at the hands of the police. The poems cover a wide array of topics related to racism, from the police murder of Eric Garner (Gay) to Donald Trump's ignorance of Frederick Douglass (Bennett). Some of the poems require background/context, which can be easily found online and brought directly into the classroom to put into conversation with the poetry. For example, you might show your students Kanye West's comments on slavery while teaching the Dawson poem.
Joshua Bennett, "Frederick Douglass is Dead"
Erica Dawson, "No, Kanye, it’s not LIKE we’re mentally in prison"
Eve L. Ewing, "I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store"
Ross Gay, "Pulled Over in Short Hills, NJ, 8:00 AM"; "A Small Needful Fact"
Terrence Hays, "American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin"
Claudia Rankine, "[On the train the woman standing]" (from Citizen, VI)
Danez Smith, "Dear White America"
Media & Technology
How have media and technology emerged as pivotal words (and concepts) in public discourse? How do they affect the stories we tell about ourselves and each other? What can writing, reading, and the book teach us about what it means to be human in the midst of technological change?
In engaging with these questions, these selections of contemporary poems explore the complex (and often precarious) relationship between humans and technologies, looking specifically at how the boundaries between humans and technologies have been established and breached over the past two decades. Using these poems, students will be able to reflect on the causes and consequences of technological change, along with how the human/technology relationship has been understood and represented in different media.
Hanif Abdurraqib, "And What Good Will Your Vanity Be When The Rapture Comes?"
Hanif Abdurraqib, "The Crown Ain’t Worth Much"
Margaret Rhee, selections from Love, Robot
Regie Cabico, "Daylight Saving Time Flies like an Instagram of a Weasel Riding a Woodpecker & You Feel Everything Will Be Alright"
Phil Kaye, "Before the Internet"
Dylan Garity, "Friend Zone"
George Watsky, "Drunk Text Message to God"
Sarah Howe, "Relativity"
SHEA, "social media"
Elections are often stressful, scary, and tumultuous times for students, their families, communities, the nation, and the world more broadly. One way to productively engage these anxieties in the GEL classroom before, during, or after elections is to engage this poetry cluster on election poetry and to explore poetry’s larger political and cultural functions — say, the way Amanda Gorman’s Biden-Harris inauguration poem “The Hill We Climb” endeavors to galvanize aspirational change, or the way that Lowell’s “Inauguration Day: January 1953” openly condemns the country’s cultural backsliding in the wake of Eisenhower’s election. Moving from Gorman (2021) to Whitman (1884), this poetry cluster has students surveying the centuries-long relationship between American poetry and electoral politics. The result is a better understanding of the political and cultural function of literature in their own political present.
World War I
The following poetry cluster focuses on the responses of American and British poetry to the catastrophes of WW1. The selected texts thematize the sense of spiritual and moral decentering — “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” Yeats famously writes — that these societies experienced in the aftermath of the first world war. Also thematized in poems like Wilfred Owen’s famous “Dulce et Decorum Est” is the unprecedented power of modern warfare’s technologies, which, in the modernist imagination, amounted to a tremendous machinery of death. Hughes’s autobiographical poem “Out,” offers an extended view of how traumatic memories of WW1 haunted families for generations in a phenomenon that Marianne Hirsch would call “postmemory.”
Amy Lowell, "Patterns" (1916)
Siegfried Sassoon, "Suicide in the Trenches" (1918)
W.B. Yeats, "The Second Coming" (1920)
Wilfred Owen, "Dulce et Decorum Est" (1921)
Jean Toomer, "Seventh Street" (1923)
Ted Hughes, "Out" (1962)
World War II
This WW2 poetry cluster surveys a handful of poetic responses to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the mass genocide that took place in the Nazi concentration camps, the continuation of racial oppression in the Jim Crow era and the rise of Cold War cultural conservatism and nuclear angst in the United States. This poetry cluster effectively sets the stage for discussing the late-1950s rise of American counter culture, which responded in large part to the anxieties expressed in these canonical poems, two of which — “Death Fugue” and “Poems of the Atomic Bomb — have been translated from their originals.
Langston Hughes, "Will V-Day Be Me-Day Too?"
Randall Jarrell, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"
Paul Celan, "Death Fugue"
Sylvia Plath, "Daddy"
Robert Lowell, "Memories of West Street and Lepke"
Sankichi Tōge, "Poems of the Atomic Bomb"
This cluster of poems centers upon the original song “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol, but famously performed by Billie Holiday. What is particularly effective about this cluster is that it points out to students that lynching has not stopped taking place and that the reference to strange fruit remains eerily relevant through these various allusions. Moreover, students get excited about studying the likes of Kanye West and Common. Also, Common’s song is featured in 13th, so if you want to consider the documentary, you can pair them. This cluster allows conversations about music and how it changes the poems, in addition to discussing all of these poems more formally. Though McKay’s poem is technically earlier than the original, it confronts lynching and showcases a different kind of sonnet (which students like more than Shakespeare, and yet they still learn about sonnets). This could be taught across a week. Papers about these selections tend to be good.