To celebrate the beautiful art of poetry, we’re counting off 20 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 the best short poems of all time.
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.
Breaking Bad (Season 5, Episode 14)
" Ozymandias " pic.twitter.com/eugkkXkTzC
— Mohamed Samy (@MuhamedSamey) October 13, 2020
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.
Lmao instead of writing a poem, Robert frost just posts a poll “aight if world’s ending how we going out?” Fire/Ice
— Laura The Internet Explorer (@snotgirl69) September 19, 2020
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.
— Angela Wheelock (@qbangela) October 8, 2020
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.
🦋 Sunday Thoughts 🦋
💚 Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
-William Shakespeare 💚
Video by Nithin Pa from Pexels. pic.twitter.com/hgbHA4ievs
— Marc K (@KreyeMarc) February 16, 2020
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.
i am so tired
— pussy ass bitch (@2001subaru) October 21, 2020
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.
“All that see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” Edgar Allan Poe
— Tenebrisse🌛 (@Tenebrisses) October 17, 2020
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.
No man is an island. We all get through it with the fellowship of others.
— Brad Norris (@EveryoneLies17) October 17, 2020
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.
I’ve be told, by good authority, that this is good advice. “A Word to Husbands” by Ogden Nash pic.twitter.com/wOxLDchHxv
— Ciarán Quinn (@c1aranquinn) July 13, 2016
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.
Beating rugs against the house, we watch dust, lit light stars, spreading across the yard. – Natasha Tretheway, Housekeeping
— Romaine Washington (@poetromaine) July 12, 2019
10. Strickland Gillilan – Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes (also known as Fleas)
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.
The shortest story in the world is:
Fleas. Adam had’em. 🤣🤣🤣
— Ellie Hartland (@DrWeasel38) November 22, 2019
11. William Carlos Williams – This Is Just To Say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
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.
this is exactly what happened to william carlos williams when he took out the plums from the fridge and ate them
— Kundiana Jones 🗡WINWIN DAY (@johntographique) October 27, 2020
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
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. Seuss classic to shreds.
Thinking about Green Eggs and Ham book reviews again pic.twitter.com/jyx5rtWe0i
— Luke Morse (@Luke_R_Morse) October 26, 2020
13. Pablo Neruda – If You Forget Me
I want you to know
You know how this is:
if I look
at the crystal moon, at the red branch
of the slow autumn at my window,
if I touch
near the fire
the impalpable ash
or the wrinkled body of the log,
everything carries me to you,
as if everything that exists,
aromas, light, metals,
were little boats
toward those isles of yours that wait for me.
if little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you little by little.
you forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you.
If you think it long and mad,
the wind of banners
that passes through my life,
and you decide
to leave me at the shore
of the heart where I have roots,
that on that day,
at that hour,
I shall lift my arms
and my roots will set off
to seek another land.
if each day,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,
my love feeds on your love, beloved,
and as long as you live it will be in your arms
without leaving mine.
If you happen to forget this poem, remember one thing – love is as fickle as it is passionate. Chilean Nobel Prize Winner Neruda switches the tone of If You Forget Me from romantic, to darkly honest, back to romantic. The result is an incredibly realistic passage on love and how even in its beauty, it can waver, or even completely disintegrate. *Shudders*.
if each day,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated.
— Regina Kenney (@Regina_Kenney) December 3, 2017
14. Joyce Kilmer – Trees
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
We’ve received some memorable artistic portrayals of trees over the years. The Ents in Lord Of The Rings are ancient and wise and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree is utterly heartbreaking (if you know, you know). However, Kilmer’s portrayal positions trees in the highest regard. The human-like qualities he gives trees are metaphorically faultless, and the final couplet drives home his arguments’ significance even further, by claiming the medium he’s utilising isn’t even worthy for such a beautiful feature of nature.
— Carin Wagner FA (@wfineart5) January 5, 2021
15. Derek Walcott – Love After Love
The time 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.
There have been several love poems on this list, but Love After Love is the first to explicitly explore the underrated importance of loving one’s self. As Cher once said, it appears there is life after love. The hopeful sentiment from poet and playwright Walcott is so compelling, that the pieces’ outro line has likely fallen victim to the fancy font, inspirational quote portion of Tumblr.
Do we talk about love after love and how second chances become first opportunities. Do we talk about any of this enough.
— Monique Lorden (@1985Poet) January 18, 2021
16. Robert Burn – A Red, Red, Rose
O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.
So fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel awhile!
And I will come again, my luve,
Though it were ten thousand mile.
The highly famed romantic expression of comparing a women’s cheeks to a rose is believed by most to have begun here. At least, in written form. This iconic poem from the 18th-century bard reads much like the lyrics to a love song, so it’s unsurprising to hear that the last remaining troubadour Bob Dylan called this poem his single biggest inspiration. Now, that’s some high-calibre praise.
Anybody wanna have a burns supper and recite A Red Red Rose with me tomorrow since nobody else seems to like haggis?
— shelbyy☠ (@Shelbym97591) January 24, 2021
17. Margaret Atwood – You Fit Into Me
you fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
So few words. So much evocation. Atwood positions a tightly knit couple as hooked together, but while a hook is strong, it isn’t comfortable. I believe Atwood is exploring the idea of imbalanced relationships here. Pain and pleasure are often juxtaposed, but Atwood recognises that these feelings are blurred. A relationship may feel snug and tight, but what if you’ve merely been hooked like a fish, just waiting to be killed at the opportune moment.
— corn! ☃️ (@k0ponk) August 17, 2021
18. Leunig – How To Get There
Go to the end of the path until you get to the gate.
Go through the gate and head straight out towards the horizon.
Keep going towards the horizon.
Sit down and have a rest every now and again,
But keep on going, just keep on with it.
Keep on going as far as you can.
That’s how you get there.
The rat race of modern life is exhausting. Every success brings new problems, and every problem leads to new successes. Like the horizon itself, our final destination often feels out of reach – and that’s because it is. There is no grand finale. No encore. It’s the choices we make along the way that embed meaning into our existential crisis. Who better than to expose our fragilities than a self-described vaudevillian like Leunig.
— Jonas Holt 🚮 (@Jonas_Holt) May 8, 2021
19. Sylvia Plath – Metaphors
I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.
Nine lines with nine syllables each. The structure itself is perhaps the biggest clue of all regarding the subject of Plath’s unsettling playfulness. Ask yourself, what takes nine months to arrive? An elephant, rising yeast, a ponderous house… what could these possibly have in common? The posthumous Pulitzer Prize winner is addressing pregnancy; an ongoing point of interest for the tragic poet. Suddenly, the comparisons turn from humorous to sobering, as Plath positions herself as a carrier with only one sole purpose, and “there’s no getting off”.
God, how I ricochet between certainty and doubt.
— Sylvia Plath (@itssylviaplath) March 17, 2018
20. Anais Nin – Risk
And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
When was the day you stopped conforming and started leading your own life? For me, it came right after high school. Seeking the approval of others whilst sacrificing my own identity? Yeah, that wasn’t going to cut it anymore. It was time to take the plunge, aka, “blossom”, and discard any remnants of external expectations. As cliché as it sounds, it’s a vital life lesson that comes with time, and few have described this realisation as powerfully as Nin.
Sure it’s safer to keep ideas to oneself. There’s no rejection or criticism. But there’s also no way to hone one’s skills and produce something of value.
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anaïs Nin
— Stephen Koranda (@stephenpkoranda) November 8, 2021