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Here are 12 of the greatest short poems ever written

To celebrate the beautiful art of poetry, we’re counting off 12 of the greatest poems that nailed it in just a few sentences.

Whilst novels have ample time and space to world-build, establish characters, and describe avidly, and of course (if you’re lucky), make you feel something – poetry is a different beast entirely. Extracting emotion with just a few poetic sentences? That’s efficient and impressive.

In celebration of that, we’re shining a light on some of the greatest short-form poems ever written. So, without further ado, prepare yourself for an avalanche of English techniques which you probably haven’t thought about since school, as we dive into 12 of the best short poems of all time.

Poetry
Photo: iStock/Getty

Some quick precursors: this list is in no particular order and no poet can make it twice. Alright, here goes!

#1. Percy Shelley – Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

Kicking off the list is Ozymandias, a bleak sonnet written in 1818. It describes a statue isolated in a desert which used to mark a great civilisation. A popular interpretation is that Shelley is pointing out the uselessness of human accomplishments: nothing lasts. Ozymandias is also the title for an episode Breaking Bad, in which protagonist Walter White is abandoned in the desert, left with only a minuscule percentage of his accumulated wealth. How very fitting.

#2. Robert Frost – Fire & 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 favour 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.

Of course poetic mastermind Robert Frost was going to make his way onto this list. Interestingly, this 1920 poem was penned just two years after WWI. In the space of nine lines, and with the aid of some vivid juxtaposition, Frost perfectly captures that post-war uncertainty and existential aches that many would have felt during this time.

#3. Emily Dickinson – I heard a fly buzz – when I died 

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

When it comes to Dickinson, the topic of death is commonly explored. However, her approaches are so unique that you have to admire the creativity. This poem explores death from the past tense, recalling the moment it happened to great effect. With some signature Dickinson dashes for rhythm and puzzlement, this is one to read again – again – again.

#4. William Shakespeare – Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

If you’re not familiar with any of the names on the list so far, do not fear, Shakespeare is here! Also dubbed Sonnet 18, this poem is more than just about love, it’s about the memory of it, and a very real, human fear that we, in time, will be forgotten. Throw in some hyperbole, repetition, and a couple of striking similes, and you have a sonnet for the ages. On another note, did you know that Shakespeare had an affinity for weed? More on that here.

#5. Langston Hughes – So Tired Blues 

With the sun in my hand
Gonna throw the sun
Way across the land-
Cause I’m tired,
Tired as I can be

Hughes was one of the earliest pioneers of jazz poetry. For that alone, he could have made this list, but this poem is a personal favourite. The desire to speed up time to get to bed earlier is such a universal feeling, and Langston describes it with such gleeful imagery. It’s a challenge not to grin.

#6. Edgar Allan Poe – A Dream Within A Dream 

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

Move over Inception, Edgar Allen Poe did it first. This poem of uncertainty is a riddle and a half, with the protagonist grappling with the strings of reality. It’s essentially the literary text of The Matrix, and, like many of Edgar Allen Poe’s literary efforts, it’s ingenious.

#7. John Donne –  No Man Is an Island

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s

Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Finally, we reach Donne’s 400-year-old masterpiece. Calling for unity, Donne’s comparison of people to countries is the sort of anti-isolation remark that still resonates strongly today. The opening line from this memorable excerpt was even used as a hashtag during the Brexit debate. Who said poetry is a dead art? Not I.

#8. Ogden Nash – A Word To Husbands 

To keep your marriage brimming
With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
Whenever you’re right, shut up.

Nash always claimed to think in rhyme, but it’s his truthful tongue-in-cheek execution that gets A Word To Husbands on the list. The nagging temptation to say “I told you so” is ever-present in relationships, most likely since the dawn of time. However, the one thing you should never ever, ever, do, is speak it. Wise words, Nash.

#9. Natasha Tretheway – Housekeeping

We mourn the broken things, chair legs
wrenched from their seats, chipped plates,
the threadbare clothes. We work the magic
of glue, drive the nails, mend the holes.
We save what we can, melt small pieces
of soap, gather fallen pecans, keep neck bones
for soup. Beating rugs against the house,
we watch dust, lit like stars, spreading
across the yard. Late afternoon, we draw
the blinds to cool the rooms, drive the bugs
out. My mother irons, singing, lost in reverie.
I mark the pages of a mail-order catalog,
listen for passing cars. All-day we watch
for the mail, some news from a distant place.

From the poet laureate, Natasha Tretheway, comes Housekeeping: a striking painting of visceral imagery and pulse. An author of five poetry collections, Tretheway finds inspiration in her upbringing and personal hardships. The result of her inward reflection and memory often evokes feelings of raw honesty and newfound clarity, particularly with this piece.

#10. Strickland Gillilan – Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes (also known as Fleas)

Adam.
Had ’em

No list of the greatest short poems ever would be complete without… the shortest poem ever. There are some other contenders, such as Aram Saroyan’s four-legged m, but the spot had to go to Gillilan. Using just three words, and a ridiculously scientific title, he scores a quick laugh. Plus, his brief and uselessly profound revelation was probably true.

#11. William Carlos Williams – This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

A simple and peculiar poem, This Is Just To Say also has multiple interpretations. Some see it as a casual apology to his wife, others compare it to the story of Eve and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Bible, and some see it as simply a celebration of finding delight in the small things. There’s no right answer, but its evocative nature makes for excellent penmanship.

#12. Dr. Seuss – Green Eggs & Ham 

I do not like them in a box
I do not like them with a fox
I do not like them in a house
I do not like them with a mouse
I do not like them here or there
I do not like them anywhere
I do not like green eggs and ham
I do not like them Sam I am

Last but not least, Dr. Seuss: the writer who served as the introduction to exceptional illustration and poetry for countless children. For that, he needed to be on this list, even if meant just quoting a page from one of his best. Seuss’s method of injecting whimsy and absurdity into rhyme and meter made for some memorable children’s books, distinct enough to earn impressive sales and staying power. Warning: you should definitely not watch Henry Rollins tear this Dr. Suess classic to shreds.