Life Pick: Poems

In honor of National Poetry Month, the Life writers choose their favorite poems.


“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by TS Eliot

It’s hard to summarize my love for “Prufrock” – it’s one of the greatest poems of the 20th century for a reason. It can feel grand and canonical, but to me, it feels deeply personal.  My dad showed me this poem when I was 11 or 12, and every time I read it, I think of him reading it aloud in our home office, the page illuminated in the soft lamplight. There’s so many amazing lines in “Prufrock” as the mysterious narrator toes the threshold of interacting with the world and merely observing it, all the while growing older. My favorite was “Do I dare/disturb the universe?” which I wrote in pen ink on the inside of my closet door shortly after reading the poem for the first time. But there’s so many more legendary lines, like “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” and “In the room women come and go, talking of Michaelangelo.” The thing about “Prufrock” is that it isn’t pretentious – much unlike the world the narrator is describing. It’s compulsively readable, in fact, from the beginning straight through to its haunting ending: “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” – Nikki Barnhart

“Alabanza: In Praise of the Local 100” by Martin Espada

Written in commemoration of the September 11 attacks, “Alabanza” spotlights not only the first respondents or the passengers of Flight 93, but the poor immigrant population that cooked and washed dishes in the restaurant on the 100th floor of the World Trade Center. “The cook with the shaven head and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye, a blue-eyed Puerto Rican with people from Fajardo, the harbor of pirates centuries ago.” Alabanza directly translates to praise, and Espada offers to not only the people in his poem, but the environment that they shared. “Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish rose before bread. Praise the bread.” “Alabanza” includes that horrifying moment where the jets collided with the building, sending the restaurant into suffocating darkness, but the resonating feelings of “Alabanza” are joy and togetherness. It is about tragedy, but more about people united in their poverty and their profession. “One said with an Afghan tongue: Teach me to dance. We have no music here. And the other said with a Spanish tongue: I will teach you. Music is all we have.” – Brendon Field

“Invictus” by William Ernest Henley

“Invictus” is a great poem because it speaks to something in all of us. The sadness and troubles that plague all of us, combined with the hopeful message that we each possess an “unconquerable soul.” Henley’s reputation as a great author is almost entirely based on this single poem, four verses that cemented his place in literary history.

This poem was written by Henley after tuberculosis caused him to have one of his legs amputated. Although he was told he might have to lose his other leg, it was saved. While recovering in the hospital, he was inspired to write this poem.

This whole piece speaks the endurance of human beings, both in body and soul. Despite the physical damage to the narrator, he soldiers on. Henley hints at his childhood, which was mired in poverty, but despite that intense emotional trauma, the narrator keeps going. “Invictus” is also an ode to self-reliance, as the power to keep going is present in every person with free will and a desire to keep living. “I am the captain of my soul” is one of the most chilling lines ever written, and stays with the reader long after they have stopped reading. For all of these reasons, “Invictus” will go down as one of the greatest poems ever written. – Edward Pankowski

One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” is one of my favorite poems I have ever read. Her words accomplish what every poet strives to achieve, but many fail to do: touch the reader in a way that feels chillingly familiar. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Bishop repeats this line in each stanza. Yes, we have all lost our car keys or our favorite pair of sunglasses. But, with each stanza Bishop expands upon this theme of losing to include abstract loss and profound personal loss that we all must endure in life. We also have all felt the loss of time or a friendship; precious moments that we cling to but can never get back. Though Bishop writes that none of these losses are ultimately “a disaster,” her tone takes a feeling of longing, a melancholy, which we have all experienced at one moment or another for simpler, happier times. – Ashley Maher

“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas 

“Do not go gentle into that good night,” begins Dylan Thomas. His poem, of the same name as the first line, is without a doubt one of the greatest literature pieces from the 20th century. Vividly exerting the way old men should die, Thomas exudes “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Furthermore, the poem is written in the villanelle form—a 19-line poem, containing five tercets followed by a quatrain. It has become the example of a villanelle in any English class but this is poem is more than the simple case. “Do not go gentle into that good night” tells us all how we should live our lives. -Emily Lewson

“Audiobook: How to Ruin Your Life for Fun and Profit” by Neil Hilborn

“So you want to be unhappy,” Neil Hilborn says, “You probably think that you need to be an interesting person or artist. And you’re right!” Hilborn, a spoken word poet, recently received internet attention for his poem “OCD,” but “Audiobook: How to Ruin Your Life For Fun and Profit” is his best work. Here he demonstrates aggressive wit, a technical mastery of irony and a breakdown of creative self-destruction.

He lacerates the idea that a person has to be miserable to matter. “Would you rather be happy or interesting?” he asks, “Would you rather be on the news or just watching it? Happy people don’t make history. Happy people make children, then die.” He makes a spectacle out of self-described “artists” making a spectacle of their own self-inflicted pain.

In another layer of farcical paradox, Hilborn simultaneously mocks contemporary art while justifying the rising genre of spoken word poetry with his accessibility, humor and insight. “The misery circus is parading into town and you are holding the banner,” he says, “Miles of people are following you. They are all wearing grey. A rainbow of grey. They are all watching as they kick themselves bloody on their own feet.” It’s beautiful writing and, as you can see in his YouTube renditions, he delivers it superbly. -Christopher McDermott


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