February 23rd, 2008

Ten poems to memorize in school

A recent commenter, a teacher, asked for my recommendations for poems for 6th-8th graders to memorize.

The thought appealed to me. But when I tried to tackle it, I realized it’s harder than it sounds.

Poems with cadence and rhyme are easiest for the brain to retain; they’re the ones most likely to become earworms. But in this age group, you don’t want anything too relentlessly depressing. And the opposite would be even worse—too trite and transparently “inspirational.”

The latter was a great pitfall of the poems we were required to memorize in my childhood, especially the patriotic ones (on page 19-20 here is a poem of this type that I still remember from fifth grade). And then there are the overly treacle-y and sentimental ones such as Longfellow’s “The Children’s Hour” (ditto).

You don’t want the poems to be doggerel. But they can’t be so difficult in syntax or meaning as to be unintelligible. It’s okay, though, to choose poems that are a mental stretch—as I wrote in my post on the subject, it’s possible to retain a poem in the memory even though you don’t really understand it at the time, and yet conjure its lines up later in life in a meaningful “aha!” moment. And it’s okay—and perhaps even desirable—to choose a few poems that are a stretch as far as language and/or form.

The following are my highly idiosyncratic choices; as I was compiling this I was struck by how many of them contain famous lines:

(1) Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death.” Is this too depressing? I don’t think so. These kids know about death already. Dickinson is a deceptively simple but extraordinarily complex poet. The example of her work usually chosen to introduce her to young people is the very atypical and accessible “I’m nobody” (“I’m nobody! Who are you?/Are you nobody, too?”). But if the students are to understand what Dickinson is about at all, something that’s more of a challenge is needed.

(2) Then of course there’s Frost. “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening” and/or “The Road Not Taken” are almost no-brainers—in terms of the choice, I mean, not the poems. They must be discussed, however, in order to be understood on anything other than the most obvious level. And, as I’ve written before, there are many other levels. “Fire and Ice” is also an easy one to memorize, so short and rhythmic that it causes a remarkably tenacious earworm. It’s another of Frost’s “simple” poems that becomes more complex the more you reflect on it.

(3) Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking” is exceptionally hypnotic. It’s also an excellent example of an odd poetic form, the villanelle. Have them memorize it for the sound and for the mystery; maybe they’ll come back and get more of the meaning later.

(4) Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “Tears Idle Tears.” A real tearjerker. Accessible with just a bit of tweaking.

(5) Almost any sonnet of Shakespeare’s—maybe “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.” This was the one I had to memorize in junior high, and it was a keeper. Watch out for the word “haply” in line 10; it doesn’t mean what they will think it does.

(6) John Donne’s “Song.” The language is archaic, which makes it hard but not too hard. And it’s catchy (pun intended). I memorized it when young, so I can attest to its appeal, including the cynicism it expresses.

(7) Rudyard Kipling, speaking of earworms. “If” is the one usually chosen (and the one I had to memorize in junior high) but I think it’s too close to being doggerel. To be really subversive, I’d prefer something from “The Gods of the Copybook Headings,” especially those last two stanzas. Food for thought, indeed!

(8) Gerard Manley Hopkins, another of my favorite poets. A must is his “Spring and Fall.” It’s difficult. But the subtitle, after all, is “to a young child” (of course, young children were probably more erudite back then). The sentiment, however, endures, and is still perfectly understandable to children if explained correctly. “It is the blight man was born for/It is Margaret you mourn for” (that was done from memory; I adored this poem when I was about twelve years old).

(9) Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology collection has many possibilities, easy to understand but still good poetry. I’m exceedingly partial to his “Fiddler Jones.” It has the added advantage of not rhyming, thus offering some variety. And yet it has enough rhythm to remain relatively easy to memorize.

(10) Then there’s the utterly unique e.e. cummings’s utterly unique “my father moved through dooms of love.” Okay, so it’s not exactly a linear poem. In fact, it may sound like gibberish. But let the language wash over you and I think you’ll agree it’s very lovely.

(11) I thought I’d stop at ten. But I simply must include one more, another favorite of mine: Robert Burns’s “To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With the Plough.” The dialect is almost impossible, I know. But with an explanation of the meaning of the obscure, archaic words, I think it’s a poem that will appeal to kids of that age. At any rate, it’s a masterpiece, going from the cute and cuddly (Burns almost overdoes it but stops right at the brink) to the profound.

(12) Oh, and while I’m at it, I’ll include one guaranteed to make any teacher a really really big hit with the junior high crowd—although it probably would get him/her fired, even in our relatively permissive times. I refer of course to Philip Larkin’s dark and gimmicky “This Be the Verse,” the first line of which is “They f____ you up, your mum and dad…” Ah, poetry!

[NOTE: Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.]

57 Responses to “Ten poems to memorize in school”

  1. roc scssrs Says:

    Lovely, wise choices. I wish I had memorized more poetry. What we did memorize was the treacly stuff. Put me off poetry for a good while. We did memorize some Scripture, which is a sort of poetry, and you are right that it pops into your head at “aha!” moments.

    John Adams said take along a book and you’re never alone; Churchill said if you’ve memorized enough poetry you are never bored.

  2. Patrick Brown Says:

    How about I, Too, Sing America by Langston Hughes? It should be relatively easy to memorize. Plus Hughes had an interesting life, and was the first African-American to make his living by writing.

  3. harry McHitlerburtonstein the Extremist Says:

    While you guys are doing the literary thing, I need a folk lore metaphor for a person or entity that grants you your wish, and in return exacts an unexpected price. Im writing a paper on Varenicline (Chantix) and thought that would be an apt metaphor.

  4. Rob Crawford Says:

    The choice of “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is an interesting one. All the kids have to do is sing it to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”…

  5. gcotharn Says:

    Junior High boys crave action and heroism. I recommend selected lines from Horatius, by Thomas Babington Macaulay(edited to try and defeat neo’s spam filter):


    But the Consul’s brow was sad, and the Consul’s speech was low,
    And darkly looked he at the wall, and darkly at the foe.
    “Their van will be upon us before the bridge goes down;
    And if they once might win the bridge, what hope to save the town?”


    Then out spoke brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate:
    “To every man upon this earth, death cometh soon or late;
    And how can man die better than facing fearful odds,
    For the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods,


    And for the tender mother who ****ed him to rest,
    And for the wife who nurses his baby at her ****t,
    And for the holy maidens who feed the eternal flame,
    To save them from false ***tus, that wrought the deed of shame?


    Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul, with all the speed ye may!
    I, with two more to help me, will hold the foe in play.
    In yon strait path, a thousand may well be stopped by three:
    Now, who will stand on either hand and keep the bridge with me?’


    Then out spake Spurius Lartius; a Ramnian proud was he:
    “Lo, I will stand at thy right hand and keep the bridge with thee.”
    And out spake strong Herminius; of Titian blood was he:
    “I will abide on thy left side, and keep the bridge with thee.”


    “Horatius,” quoth the Consul, “as thou sayest, so let it be.”
    And straight against that great array forth went the dauntless Three.

  6. Misque Writer Says:

    I love Birago Diop’s “Listen More to Things Than To Words That Are Said,” and it isn’t too hard to learn.

  7. Emjay Says:

    As a kid I dug the Inchcape Rock by Robert Southey. For a pithy comeupance it’s hard to beat. Plus, it has the added benefit of introducing the Lakers–the poets, not the basketball team.

    For that matter, what kid could resist the images in Southey’s Battle of Blenheim, ploughing up skulls, rotting corpses, and the refrain for out times:

    But things like that, you know, must be
    At every famous victory

  8. Howard Ellis Says:

    I recommend Emma Lazarus’ “New Colossus.”

  9. Bugs Says:

    The Windhover and/or Pied Beauty, G.M. Hopkins

  10. C.Siegel Says:

    We memorized a lot of good stuff, and I am always happy to have it on the hard disc, so to speak.

    I would add The Gettysburg Address, the Preamble to the Constitution, and (gasp!) Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden. I decided to memorize that one myself in 9th grade, when I realized it had nothing to do with race and everything to do with western cultural responsibility. My first time thumbing the nose at political correctness. Life has not been the same since.

  11. DJMoore Says:

    Neo, dig up a copy of Don Martin’s interpretation of “The Children’s Hour” for the old Mad magazine, and have your friend use that for the kids to learn from. I just re-read the poem from your link, and his images came flooding back. I guarantee it will ruin the poem for them forever, but only in the best way.

    On a more serious note, I’ve always had a soft spot for Kipling’s “The Sons of Martha”.

    I’m amazed nobody’s come up with some of the more obscure Carroll, such as “The White Knight’s Tale”, or a selection from “The Hunting of the Snark”.

    “I tell you once,
    I tell you twice,
    What I tell you three times is true…”

  12. cold pizza Says:

    “Maid Muller” by John Greenleaf Whittier. Famous line: “For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
    The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!'”

    “Give All to Love” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

    “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell.

    “Changes” by Robert Bulwer-Lytton.

    Then, of course, there are all the poems that have been set to music that we call “songs.” Take away the music and explore the symbolism of the words.

    Ah, to be young and ignorant again. Youth departs; ignorance increases. -cp

  13. DJMoore Says:

    Err, I also meant to say: I assume your friend teaches her students how to recite poetry. I learned how to do it from an NPR newscast where some hot poet was being interviewed. He said, Don’t read it line by line. Ignore the meter. Pay attention to the punctuation, and just…say it, as if it were prose, or dialog in a play.

    When I’ve tried it, the verses pop out as if in relief. The meter’s there, all right, but it no longer straitjackets the words, and this prevents the sing-song effect..

    It even works for song lyrics, such as Springsteen’s “Born to Run” or The Eagles “Life in the Fast Lane”. Spoken lyrics can be surprisingly effective when broken out of the rhythmic constraints of the music.

    In Eddie and the Cruisers, the band’s lyricist-to-be teaches Eddie about the importance of inserting just the right pause, or caesura, in a line of poetry. That clip ought to be a part of every poetry introduction. (Can’t find a Youtube of it. Darn.)

    One more poem suggestion: “The Theory That Jack Built”, from Winsor and Perry’s Space Child’s Mother Goose.

  14. Doug Dryden Says:

    I heartily concur with Kipling’s *Gods of the Copybook Headings*. His *If* seems somewhat trite & a cliche, but Gods is far more powerful, though it would be tough to get it past the political correctness crowd (in fact, I can certify that it’s tough – I’ve tried twice). His *Dane-geld*, likewise, is superb for youth but unacceptable to many adults.

    I would include Newbolt’s *Vitai Lampada*, though boys would likely favour it more. Also – Cooke’s *How Did You Die?*, Shelley’s *Ozymandias*, Milton’s *Sonnet: On His Blindness*, Sandburg’s *Grass*, Edna Wilcox’ *Solitude*, Sills’ *Opportunity*, McCrae’s *In Flanders Fields*, & Magee’s *High Flight*. All of these were taught to me when I was younger, though they’re not stylish now.

    In the same vein, I would recommend Brecht’s *The Solution* & “What If They Gave a War and Nobody Came?*, though originally in German.

  15. pauldanish Says:

    Speaking of earworms, just about anything by Vachel Lindsay would fall into that category, but especially “General William Booth Enters into Heaven” and “Bryan. Bryan, Bryan, Bryan”. Granted, with Lindsay there is the issue of doggerel, but there is also the issue of teaching some important history — social history in the case of Booth and political history in the case of Bryan. And, especially in the case Bryan, some history that is highly germane today; the parallels between the campaign of 1896 and the unfolding Obama candidacy are pretty striking.

    And then there is an anonymous poem called “The Little Red God” (see below). It is so much in the style of Lindsay that it’s hard to believe he didn’t write it. I originally encountered it in a paperback book of verse titled American Ballads that appeared during the 1950s and have never seen it anywhere else. (It’s on the internet today, probably scanned from American Ballads, judging from the type face it appears in.) It is sort of an “If” for Americans, and if there was ever a poem that will persuade teenage boys that poetry isn’t for wimps this is it. It may flunk the doggerel test, but I would argue that it’s doggerel that transcends itself. It also has Hip Hop qualities too it. Talk about your earworm.

    The Little Red God

    Here’s a little red song to the god of guts,
    Who dwells in palaces, brothels, huts;
    The little Red God with the craw of grit;
    The god who never learned how to quit;
    He is neither a fool with a frozen smile,
    Or sad old toad in a cask of bile;
    He can dance with a shoe-nail in his heel
    And never a sign of his pain reveal;
    He can hold a mob with an empty gun
    And turn a tragedy into fun;
    Kill a man in a flash, a breath,
    Or snatch a friend from the claws of death;
    Swallow the pill of assured defeat
    And plan attack in his slow retreat;
    Spin the wheel till the numbers dance
    And bit his thumb at the god of Chance;
    Drink straight water with whisky-soaks,
    Or call for liquor with temperance folks;
    Tearless stand at the graven stone,
    Yet weep in the silence of night, alone;
    Worship a sweet, white virgin’s glove,
    Or teach a courtesan how to love;
    Dare the dullness of fireside bliss,
    Or stake his soul for a wanton’s kiss;
    Blind his soul to a woman’s eyes
    When she says she loves and he knows she lies;
    Shovel dung in the city mart
    To earn a crust for his chosen art;
    Build where the builders all have failed,
    And sail the seas that no man has sailed;
    Run a tunnel or dam a stream,
    Or damn the men who finance the dream;
    Tell a pal what his work is worth,
    Though he lose his last, best friend on earth;
    Lend the critical monkey-elf
    A razor — hoping he’ll kill himself;
    Wear the garments he likes to wear,
    Never dreaming that people stare;
    Go to church if his conscience wills,
    Or find his own — in the far, blue hills.
    He is kind and gentle, or harsh and gruff;
    He is tender as love — or he’s rawhide tough;
    A rough-necked rider in spurs and chaps,
    Or well-groomed son of the town — perhaps;
    And this is the little Red God I sing,
    Who cares not a wallop for anything
    That walks or gallops, that crawls or struts,
    No matter how clothed — if it hasn’t got guts.
    — Unknown

  16. Michael Lonie Says:

    As for Kipling, how about “The Ballad of East and West”? It’s a paean to the importance of an individual’s strength of character, far beyond race, class or culture.

    But there is neither East, nor West,
    Border nor breed nor birth,
    When two strong men stand face-to-face,
    Though they come from the ends of the Earth.

  17. Achillea Says:

    Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”

    Joyce Kilmer’s “The House With Nobody In It”

    Rudyard Kipling’s “South Africa” and “The Power of the Dog”

    Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Sonnet XXVI”

    Charles Wolfe’s “To Mary”

    Robert Service’s “The Lone Trail”

    And, doggerel though it may be, Little Thomas

  18. Achillea Says:

    Also, since I’ve never seen the second one posted online (except where I’ve put it up)

    From “Nothing But Praise” by Lt. Henry G. Lee.

    “Prayer Before Battle (To Mars)”
    (December 8, 1941)

    Before thine ancient altar, God of War,
    Forlorn, afraid, alone, I kneel to pray.
    The gentle shepherd whom I would adore,
    Faced by thy blazing plaything, slips away.
    And I am drained of faith — alone — alone.
    Who now needs faith to face thy out thrust sword,
    Bereft of hope, turned to pagan to the bone.
    I kneel to thee and hail thee as my Lord.
    From such a God as thee, I ask not life,
    My life is forfeited, the hour is late.
    Thou need not swerve the bullet, dull the knife.
    I ask but strength to ride the wave of fate.
    And one thing more — to validate this strife,
    And my own sacrifice — teach me to hate.

    “Three Years After”
    (December 8, 1944)

    “Teach me to hate,” I prayed — for I was young,
    And fear was in my heart, and faith had fled.
    “Teach me to hate! for hate is strength,” I said
    “A staff to lean on.” Thus my challenge flung
    Into the thunder of the clouds that hung
    Cloaking with terror all the days ahead —
    “Teach me to hate — the world I loved is dead;
    Who would survive must learn a savage tongue.”

    And I have learned — and paid in days that ran
    To bitter schooling. Love was lost in pains,
    Hunger replaced the beauty in life’s plan,
    Honor and virtue vanished with the rains
    And faith in God dissolved with faith in man.
    I have my hate! But nothing else remains.

  19. Ariel Says:

    “A Refusal to Mourn the Death…” and “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” Dylan Thomas

  20. William Earl Dungey Says:

    How would one find the schools that would demand the learning of these fair poems? Rumor has it they would be subversive in the target students. I would say, so subvert! Thanks.

  21. Gray Says:

    This is actually a post near to my heart. My Ol’ Man, RIP, taught me poems and had me memorize them as a kid. He had me memorize:

    “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”
    John Keats

    “Buffalo Bill’s Defunct”
    E.E. Cummings

    “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries”
    AE Housman

    “Crossing the Bar”
    Alfred Lord Tennyson

    “On His Blindness”
    John Milton

    “The Hound of Heaven”
    Francis Thompson

    “The Hollow Men”
    TS Eliot

    “The Naming of Parts
    Henry Reed

    I remember these poems to this day; and can recite them.
    They are all top-hotch. These are still my favorites.

    I look forward to teaching these to my little son when he is old enough.

  22. Gray Says:

    Oh yeah–and this:

    Sir John Suckling. 1609–1642

    327. Why so Pale and Wan?

    WHY so pale and wan, fond lover?
    Prithee, why so pale?
    Will, when looking well can’t move her,
    Looking ill prevail?
    Prithee, why so pale?

    Why so dull and mute, young sinner?
    Prithee, why so mute?
    Will, when speaking well can’t win her,
    Saying nothing do ‘t?
    Prithee, why so mute?

    Quit, quit for shame! This will not move;
    This cannot take her.
    If of herself she will not love,
    Nothing can make her:
    The devil take her!

    Alas…. This one has given me comfort more than a couple of times. Heh….

  23. Stephen Rittenberg Says:

    Wonderful selections! Let’s not leave out W.H. Auden. This
    is not one of his truly great ones like Sept. 1, 1939 http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15545 or his finest, Musee Des Beaux Arts http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/w__h__auden/poems/10114
    but for bright junior high kids it seems right:

    If I Could Tell You

    Time will say nothing but I told you so,
    Time only knows the price we have to pay;
    If I could tell you I would let you know.

    If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
    If we should stumble when musicians play,
    Time will say nothing but I told you so.

    There are no fortunes to be told, although,
    Because I love you more than I can say,
    If I could tell you I would let you know.

    The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
    There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
    Time will say nothing but I told you so.

    Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
    The vision seriously intends to stay;
    If I could tell you I would let you know.

    Suppose all the lions get up and go,
    And all the brooks and soldiers run away;
    Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
    If I could tell you I would let you know.

  24. Alan Sullivan Says:

    Excellent post. It’s always pleasing to see that a few people still care about poetry. I will not quibble with your list. I might have made a few different choices, but I could not have chosen better.

    Visit the poetry workshop at Eratosphere sometime. You might be surprised by how many talented people are still trying to keep the tradition of versecraft alive.

  25. Nunoftheabove Says:

    The most important poem I teach, and I teach advanced secondary English.

    Primer Lesson

    Look out how you use proud words.
    When you let proud words go, it is not easy to call them back.
    They wear long boots, hard boots; they walk off proud; they can’t hear you calling–
    Look out how you use proud words.

    Carl Sandburg

  26. Fausta Says:

    Beautiful selections!

  27. Ben Says:

    I had to memorize Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”, written in response to Lincoln’s assassination.

  28. david foster Says:

    I second the “Horatius at the Bridge” suggestion…it’s long, but vivid enough to be memorizable. Some more ideas:

    1)”The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens,” traditional
    2)”On Moonlit Heath and Lonesome Bank,” Houseman
    3)”Tom O’Bedlam’s Song,” traditional, especially suitable for Halloween
    3)The WWII air force poems of Randall Jarrell–“Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is apparently often assigned, but there are lots more. Sample:

    In bombers named for girls, we burned
    The cities we had learned about in school–
    Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
    The people we had killed and never seen.
    When we lasted long enough they gave us medals;
    When we died they said, “Our casualties were low.”

    They said, “Here are the maps”; we burned the cities.

  29. Sergey Says:

    Speaking about earworms, how about the most easy memorized and still immensely deep “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe?

  30. FamouslyUnknown Says:

    Poem, meditation, musing, … From Dag Hammarskjold’s ‘Markings’

    In a dream I walked with God
    through the deep places of creation;
    past walls that receded and gates that opened,
    through hall after hall of silence, darkness and refreshment — the dwelling place of souls acquainted with light and warmth — until around me was an infinity into which we all flowed together and lived anew,
    like the rings made by raindrops falling upon wide expanses of calm dark waters.

  31. MamaTod Says:

    My son loved “Jabberwocky”, which is silly and fun and proves that poetry doesn’t have to be stuffy or serious.

    I’ll be bookmarking this page to use in our homeschool. Thanks.

  32. fit Says:

    I still remember the opening lines of “Dried Apple Pies” which I learned and recited nearly forty years ago…

  33. tao9 Says:

    Tyger, Tyger

  34. Richard Aubrey Says:

    If you’re going to do “Gods of The Copybook Headings”, it would be necessary to tell the kids what the headings were. Both literally and as a concept.
    Kipling “gets it”. The milscifi “Gust Front” has a suffix about soldiers and Kipling.
    You could hardly go wrong with the master.
    Ditto “Horatius”.

  35. david foster Says:

    There are a lot of great poems by Stephen Vincent Benet, but most of them are too long to memorize. One of the shorter ones is The Ballad of William Sycamore. Tom Russell has turned it into a song.

  36. Stephen Rittenberg Says:

    And how about this very witty one by Hillaire Belloc, with its famous moralizing last couplet: “And always keep ahold of nurse/for fear of finding something worse”

    There was a Boy whose name was Jim;
    His Friends were very good to him.
    They gave him Tea, and Cakes, and Jam,
    And slices of delicious Ham,
    And Chocolate with pink inside
    And little Tricycles to ride,
    And read him Stories through and through,
    And even took him to the Zoo–
    But there it was the dreadful Fate
    Befell him, which I now relate.

    You know–or at least you ought to know,
    For I have often told you so–
    That Children never are allowed
    To leave their Nurses in a Crowd;
    Now this was Jim’s especial Foible,
    He ran away when he was able,
    And on this inauspicious day
    He slipped his hand and ran away!

    He hadn’t gone a yard when–Bang!
    With open Jaws, a lion sprang,
    And hungrily began to eat
    The Boy: beginning at his feet.
    Now, just imagine how it feels
    When first your toes and then your heels,
    And then by gradual degrees,
    Your shins and ankles, calves and knees,
    Are slowly eaten, bit by bit.
    No wonder Jim detested it!
    No wonder that he shouted “Hi!”

    The Honest Keeper heard his cry,
    Though very fat he almost ran
    To help the little gentleman.
    “Ponto!” he ordered as he came
    (For Ponto was the Lion’s name),
    “Ponto!” he cried, with angry Frown,
    “Let go, Sir! Down, Sir! Put it down!”
    The Lion made a sudden stop,
    He let the Dainty Morsel drop,
    And slunk reluctant to his Cage,
    Snarling with Disappointed Rage.
    But when he bent him over Jim,
    The Honest Keeper’s Eyes were dim.
    The Lion having reached his Head,
    The Miserable Boy was dead!

    When Nurse informed his Parents, they
    Were more Concerned than I can say:–
    His Mother, as She dried her eyes,
    Said, “Well–it gives me no surprise,
    He would not do as he was told!”
    His Father, who was self-controlled,
    Bade all the children round attend
    To James’s miserable end,
    And always keep a-hold of Nurse
    For fear of finding something worse.

  37. Richard Aubrey Says:

    “The Road Not Taken” was used to justify being a nonconformist like everybody else.
    The idea that taking the less-traveled road will make all the difference is, possibly, right. That the difference will be “good” is not necessarily true.

    However, after a few decades, it helps to have at least attempted a few lightly-traveled roads. You won’t have to reproach yourself for missing your particular gold mine. If you’ve tried those roads, you’ll know it wasn’t there. If you haven’t, you don’t really know. You don’t know if you missed something precious because courage failed.

  38. Bugs Says:

    For the School-lad in the Throes of Pubertye:

    WHENAS in silks my Julia goes
    Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
    That liquefaction of her clothes.

    Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
    That brave vibration each way free;
    O how that glittering taketh me!

    –Wobut Hewwick

  39. Ben-David Says:

    Yes to “Crossing the Bar”!

    “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe – impossible NOT to memorize! I first heard this when our Rabbi – an otherwise very stern man – joyously recited it during our morning car-pool to school.

    “The Listeners” by Walter de la Mare

    “Go and Catch a Falling Star” by John Donne – very topical for teenage boys!

    “To a Skylark” by Shelley

    “The Man He Killed” by Thomas Hardy – very accessible poem about the dillemmas of war, as is:

    “As Toilsome I wandered Virginia’s Woods” by Whitman

    How about a little satire:

    “In Westminster Abbey” by Betjeman

    “Resume” or other poems by Dorothy Parker

    You listed Roethke – we did “My Papa’s Waltz” which takes a child’s perspective

  40. neo-neocon Says:

    Ben-David: “Go and Catch a Falling Star” by John Donne is identical to his poem, “Song,” already on my list.

    And if you want a double earworm, listen to Phil Ochs’s musical version of Poe’s “The Bells.” Here’s a slightly different excerpt, with better audio quality, I think (scroll down to click on the song).

  41. Mitch Strand Says:

    I would suggest a Romantic and a Victorian. Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed on Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” is a fine snapshot of what was at that time the world’s city, waking up for another day of the majesty and poverty that defined it.

    Matthew Arnold would be my Victorian. “Dover Beach” concentrates on the decline of faith over the centuries. He is a man living during the Industrial Revolution and bearing witness to the effect the rise of science had on belief. It also has haunting imagery and a sad description of what the world has become.

    My selection of Donne would be Sermon 17, or “No Man is an Island.” Not just for the most famous words, but the ones about each life being translated by war, or pain, or justice until it becomes a leaf in one of the books that lie open to each other in Heaven. It’s a poem that would tell kids that each life is precious.

    There are so many great poems to uplift and enrich and deepen. What children are exposed to in school is a travesty.

  42. juris imprudent Says:

    Either Blake’s “The Tyger” or “A Poison Tree”, both from Songs of Experience.

  43. OBloodyhell Says:

    > (1) Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death.” Is this too depressing?

    It’s dark and depressing but “too much?”, I dunno. Dickinson’s the only poetry reading in 10th-grade Am-Lit that I actually found even vaguely interesting. I could not for all the tea in China name any other author I was exposed to in that course (I could make lots of obvious guesses, but not a single one actually stuck in my head), so, I think she needs to be included for approachability if nothing else. You might want to discuss the depressive themes explciitly to counter any developmental obsession, but it can also be used as an entry into some interesting discussion about copyright law and author’s rights. She directed that all her unpublished stuff be destroyed by her estate. Luckily, they did not do so — and it has all survived her death. This could be the basis for some lively discussion on the rights of authors over their works.

    I personally tend towards the social gain theory — if you didn’t want anyone to have it, you should have destroyed it before anyone else got access to it. After that, it has a certain societal ownership as to access and use (society still owes you a reward for it, but as to access and use, you lost that when you chose to take it public).

  44. PeterC Says:

    Many great poems named here – Dover Beach is a particular favourite of mine – but one not mentioned so far that I’d add is Ozymandias.

    Ulysses is one of Tennyson’s greatest poems but perhaps too long for easy memorisation.

  45. Mishymoocow-2 Says:

    Blake: Tyger & Poison Tree. Definitely. Essential.

    T S Elliot: The Love Song of J Alfred Profrock they won’t understand it, but how can you resist: Between the rooms the women come and go, talking of Michaelangelo or I have measured out my life with coffee spoons and finally

    [with apologies for any misquote]

    Wilfred Owen: Dulce Est Decorum Est – gotta love the WW1 poets. They should also be introduced to Sassoon: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend” there’s years of mental chewing in that one.

    The Twa Corbies: the language is great and its the first murder mystery: nobody knows about the murdered knight “but his hawk and his hound and his lady fair”. Creepy but not too creepy, and most kids love the pecking out of eyes bit.

    Keats: When I have fears that I may cease to be – that usually resonates with teenagers. Ok, he died of TB, but we have drugs for that today. And it offers practical advice for overcoming depression.

    Shelley’s Ozymandias is good too. “Look on my works ye mighty and despair” I recall the boys went for that one.

    I like your list too – 10 is too few.

  46. Mishymoocow-2 Says:

    oops…my syntax stinks – sorry.

  47. PeterC Says:

    For DJ Moore: one obscure Lewis Carroll poem well worth reading – although you have to ‘dig it out’ from the text, as verses appear at odd intervals – is the ‘Gardener’s Song’, from “Sylvie and Bruno”:

    He thought he saw a banker’s clerk
    Descending from a bus
    He looked again and saw it was
    A hippopotamus
    ‘If this should stay to dine’, he said
    ‘There won’t be much for us!’

    He thought he’d found an argument
    That proved he was the Pope
    He looked again and found it was
    A bar of mottled soap
    ‘A fact so dread’, he faintly said
    ‘Extinguishes all hope!’

  48. pamrose Says:

    I could never have survived high school and much of undergraduate years without Edna St.Vincent Millay. I have my two original paperbacks (Sonnets & Lyrics) all marked, rewritten to fit my immediate situation, dog-eared and quite yellow and can turn to most first lines deftly.

    A modern woman yet excels with sonnets which is one reason to recommend one that is a little offbeat in structure and expressive of the woman’s experience as one of the great struggles of mankind marches on:

    Oh, oh, you will be sorry for that word!
    Give back my book and take my kiss instead.
    Was it my enemy or my friend I heard,
    “What a big book for such a little head!”
    Come, I will show you now my newest hat,
    And you may watch me purse my mouth and prink!
    Oh, I shall love you still, and all of that.
    I never again shall tell you what I think.
    I shall be sweet and crafty, soft and sly;
    You will not catch me reading anymore:
    I shall be called a wife to pattern by;
    And some day when you knock and push the door,
    Some sane day, not too bright and not too stormy,
    I shall be gone, and you may whistle for me.

    Many people feel that these issues are resolved and/or grown tiresome or stirring up trouble. Not so. e.g. my first husband. He was hip, rock and roll, well-educated professional from a family the same, Berkeley grad, fully informed of the p.c. du jour that putting women down was fully outre’.
    And he would never have believed me if I hadn’t been too frightened to tell him (can o’ worms) that every time I started to tell him an opinion, theory, analysis of my own making, he would cut me off and dismiss my ideas as “sociology”! “More sociology.” (Sociology being a “soft science”) Disappointing, frustrating, maddening, hateful, substituted for, grew further and further apart until we couldn’t reach each other any longer.
    This is not a sob-story. Now I’ll make my point in recommending the sonnet above, and the personal stuff.
    Ready? Really? OK. Guys, please take note of your initial feelings, then if they evolve, when I say:

    Seems like most of the poems recommended so far
    by males (names) are about war, warriors, heroes, heroics, epic struggles and other rather brutal, competitive events or thoughts by survivors.
    If so, that’s why I recommended the above piece…there is another pov.

    Additionally, by the same author, an unstructured, symbolic within the reality of dead (which is the most significant result from wars) is absent from many kids communications and choices, forgotten within the omnipotence kids often feel or pose.
    “Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies” is III of 3 about death, is not brutal and just kinda sneaks up with an awareness that it’s not just remote uncles or cats; it’s also friends, lovers, mothers and fathers. Not for guilt; for experiencing momentarily death’s permanence.

  49. toastheroven Says:

    The first peace, which is the most important,
    is that which comes from within the sails of people
    when they realize their relationship, their oneness
    with the universe and all its powers,
    and when they realize that at the center of the universe
    dwells the Great Spirit,
    and that this center is really everywhere,
    it is within each of us.

    Black Elk

  50. kassie Says:

    you should write some poems for kids im only 9 and im have to memorize a ten lined poem thats funny caring or sweet

  51. lesley Says:

    Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily this is not difficult.

  52. Poem #25: To a Mouse by Robert Burns, 1785 | Semicolon Says:

    […] Neoneocon, Ten Poems to Memorize in School: “The dialect is almost impossible, I know. But with an explanation of the meaning of the obscure, archaic words, I think it’s a poem that will appeal to kids of that age. At any rate, it’s a masterpiece, going from the cute and cuddly (Burns almost overdoes it but stops right at the brink) to the profound.” […]

  53. Mrs. Adkins Says:

    Glad to find your suggestions. I will be using some of these with my 5th graders. I have decided it is time for poetry memorization again!! Whether they like it, or not! 🙂 (They’ll like it later, I’m sure.)

  54. Cait Says:

    I loved Paul Revere’s Ride by Longfellow when I was a kid, and had it memorized at one point. It has a great cadence for recitations and it’s great when kids are learning about the Revolutionary War.

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