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47 of Your Favorite Writers on Their Favorite Poems

Recommendations from writers you (probably) already know.

Literary Hub

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If yo’ve been hoping to find some poetry to enjoy but don’t know exactly where to start, we’ve got you covered with recommendations from these 47 writers you (probably) already know.

Ben Lerner:

The narrator [of 10:04] is both inspired and embarrassed by [Walt] Whitman’s belief that he could project himself into the future and that his poems could help form a kind of collective subject. Also Whitman sometimes flirts with the boundary between poetry and prose. And he’s a great poet of New York. And “Walt Whitman” is himself a work of fiction—a kind of silly yet messianic figure who is supposed to be able to contain multitudes. I guess my favorite poem is “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

—from a 2014 interview with McNally Jackson

Danez Smith:

Some poems never really leave you once you hear them. Ariana Brown’s “Wolfchild” was one of those poems for me last year. Brown speaks on black and brownness with such complexity and rawness and grace in this piece. Every time I come back to it I’m amazed how through such stunning language she creatives something so magical and clear and needed in our conversations about re­imagining America and America­ness. Hella stunning, hella important, and also just a fantastic poem. I’m voting for this poem in the primaries.

—as told to HuffPost

Laura Lippman:

If we agree that Stephen Sondheim is a poet, then I pick “Someone in a Tree,” which encompasses all my favorite subjects — perspective, memory, who gets to tell the story. My more traditional pick would be W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” particularly for the lines about poetry flowing past the places “where executives would never want to tamper. . . . ranches of isolation . . . raw towns.” I covered poverty for The Baltimore Sun for a long time, and there was definitely a raw town vibe to that beat.

—from Lippman’s “By the Book” interview

Elizabeth Gilbert:

[Jack Gilbert] wrote what may be my very favorite poem, “A Brief for the Defense,” late in his life; there’s maturity in it no youth could ever muster. It feels like something that should be in Ecclesiastes—it’s biblical in its wisdom and scope. The poem takes on his the central trauma of human consciousness, which is: What are we supposed to do with all this suffering? And how are we supposed to live?

The first lines of the poem are:

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.

So it begins with an admission of how devastating the world is, how unfair and how sad. He goes on to say what he’s seen from a life of watching very carefully: women at the fountain in a famine-stricken town, “laughing together between / the suffering they have known and the awfulness / in their future.” He describes the “terrible streets” of Calcutta, caged prostitutes in Bombay laughing. So there’s this human capacity for joy and endurance, even when things are at their worst. A joy that occurs not despite our suffering, but within it.

When it comes to developing a worldview, we tend to face this false division: Either you are a realist who says the world is terrible, or a naïve optimist who says the world is wonderful and turns a blind eye. Gilbert takes this middle way, and I think it’s a far better way: he says the world is terrible and wonderful, and your obligation is to joy. That’s why the poem is called “A Brief for the Defense”—it’s defending joy. A real, mature, sincere joy—not a cheaply earned, ignorant joy. He’s not talking about building a fortress of pleasure against the assault of the world. He’s talking about the miraculousness of moments of wonder and how it seems to be worth it, after all. And one line from this poem is the most important piece of writing I’ve ever read for myself:

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.

This defines exactly what I want to strive to be—a person who holds onto “stubborn gladness,” even when we dwell in darkness. I want to be able to contain both of them within me at the same time, remain able to cultivate joy and wonder even at life’s bleakest.

—from Gilbert’s “By Heart” column in The Atlantic

Julian Barnes:

A. E. Housman’s “The Laws of God, the Laws of Man,” otherwise known as “Last Poems XII.” This poem, written circa 1900, is about independence of mind and independence of spirit. It acknowledges, while also undermining, the powers that seek to control the individual. I particularly admire, and am moved by, that final, ironic, defiant sub-clause in the penultimate line: “if keep we can.”

—as told to The New York Times Book Review

Darryl Pinckney:

In Paris With You,” by James Fenton.

—from Pinckney’s “By the Book” interview

Emma Donoghue:

One of the poems [my mother] used to recite to me, “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!”, became very important to me in my teens. I probably sought it out again once I knew that I was in love with a girl myself at 14—because there I was, in 1980s Ireland, realizing that I was a lesbian and couldn’t tell a soul. It was as if there was nobody around in Irish culture at the time who I could see myself in. So I used Emily Dickinson. On the basis of her poems and letters, it seemed like she had strong passions for women in her life as well as for men. I remember thinking, “Well, I may be a freak in my social context, but I can be like Emily Dickinson. Who needs to be normal?”

. . .

I find the poem to be viscerally expressive of romantic and erotic love. What comes across most is this sense of overwhelming yearning. It’s actually quite a demanding overture: she’s saying she wants to “moor in” somebody, a very physical and intimate image.

At the same time, you don’t know who she’s addressing—it’s very unspecific, and not just in terms of gender. It’s hard to determine the relationship between the narrator and the object of affection. Is the speaker someone who has experienced a cozy life with the beloved, and has been sadly parted from that person? Or is the narrator pining for an acquaintance from afar? “Were I with thee”—that could even be a stalker talking. It’s very ambiguous.

What makes it all work is the slight edge of hysteria edge we sense in the speaker. One minute you’re thinking oh, she’s a wonderful, romantic heroine; the next minute you’re wondering whether she’s a stalker. The slightly unhinged feel to her adds to the reader’s thrill. She appears to be offering images of safety and comfort and home, but there’s this crazy edge.

—from Donoghue’s “By Heart” essay in the Atlantic

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

For me, at this point in my life, [my favorite poem] has to be Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage.” It is the poem I return to over and over — both for what it says about my country, and how it says it. Hayden wrote an origin myth for America and placed it right where it belonged — in enslavement. The narrators of this myth are the enslavers themselves. The irony of our history drips from every one of their lines. “Lost three this morning,” a ship’s captain observes. “Leaped with crazy laughter / to the waiting sharks, sang as they went under.”

—as told to The New York Times Book Review

Ron Rash:

In poetry, Robert Morgan [deserves a greater readership]. His long poem “Mockingbird” is my favorite poem by a living American.

—from a 2015 interview with Glen Glazer at the NYPL

Geoff Dyer:

The Prelude,” by Wordsworth, or “Paradise Lost,” by Milton. “The Prelude” is part of my bloodstream practically, or maybe I mean metaphorically. Obviously parts of “Paradise Lost” are a total bore, but it’s worth the slog. After reading the scene where Adam and Eve eat the apple (“Carnal desire inflaming, he on Eve / Began to cast lascivious Eyes, she him / As wantonly repaid. . . .”), it’s hard not to concur with Terence McKenna’s claim that the expulsion was the original drug bust. The end is the most beautiful thing in all of literature; as Adam and Eve leave Eden they are us. Oh, and to bring things up-to-date, I love practically every funny, crazy and profound line in “It Is Daylight,” by Arda Collins.

—from Dyer’s “By the Book” interview

Joan Didion:

Carrion Comfort,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

—according to Guernica

Jesse Ball:

There’s a misunderstanding about what nonsensical things are—the idea that they’re just funny, and that’s the beginning and the end of it. Nonsense is not “not sense”—it operates at the edge of sense. It teems with sense—at the same time, it resists any kind of universal understanding.

I believe Carroll first wrote “Jabberwocky” as a stanza of Anglo-Saxon poetry. (Nonsense tends to play off and puncture some known landscape.) Here, he’s playing off the language of all these wonderful things from The Canterbury Tales to The Pearl to one of my personal favorites, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As well as older texts like the Exeter Book riddles. He’s tapping into those wonderfully alliterative verses, that rich history of sound, within the Old English and Middle English traditions. What comes out is this:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

It’s not in favor of some other sensical thing that could be said. In fact, it’s very precise. You couldn’t supply another object that would do a better job of what it’s doing in its place. The poem preserves a truth Carroll feels within himself of the sounds of those Anglo-Saxon words, their color and direction.

. . .

At the same time the poem provides this very specific insight about the sound and of Anglo-Saxon poetry, it also evades clear interpretation. Many times, when someone writes something, they hope for some precision of communication—they want to provide some precise statement that exists in one mind, and make it exist in your mind. But I think Carroll’s understanding of communication was more interesting than that. He understands that the text that you create is an object that collides with the mind with the reader—and that some third thing, which is completely unknowable, is made. He was completely content with that, and that contentment allows him to make this object “Jabberwocky” as interesting and beautiful and lovely as an object as it can be. The poem’s construction allows you to be sent somewhere along the vector of “Jabberwocky,” though no one but you can say just where.

—from Ball’s “By Heart” column in the Atlantic

Franny Choi:

If the best poems contain a transformative element, Ross Gay’s “Small Needful Fact” is actual magic. To me, this poem is proof of the necessity of the thought experiment as a tool for survival. And it is one of the humblest and most beautiful poems in the realm of poems addressing police violence that I have ever read. It does, I think, exactly what poems are meant to do.

—as told to HuffPost

Anthony Doerr:

The poem I’ve returned to most often over the past decade or so is a 39-page diamond mine called “The Glass Essay,” by Anne Carson. Every stanza of this masterpiece sends bolts of pleasure and recognition ricocheting through me. It’s about the speaker visiting her mother on a moor; it’s also about heartbreak, various connotations of “glass,” the Brontë family and “prisons, / vaults, cages, bars, curbs, bits, bolts, fetters, / locked windows, narrow frames, aching walls.” Who knows, maybe it’s not even a poem—maybe it’s a novel, a short story, an essay in verse? Whatever we call it, it feels to me like a thousand floodlights switching on.

—as told to The New York Times Book Review

Kate Atkinson:

[On Edward Thomas’s “Adlestrop“] This is my favorite poem and the one that moves me more than any other. In June 1914 the poet Edward Thomas was traveling from Worcester to Oxford when the train he was on made an unscheduled stop—”The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.” Afterwards, Thomas immortalized this fleeting moment.

There are many things to love—the artlessness of the opening line, “Yes, I remember Adlestrop,” as though we had just joined a conversation that had being going on for a while. The strangely effective use of the word “unwontedly.” The sense of languid heat conjured up by the “high cloudlets” and the “meadowsweet, and haycocks dry.” At the beginning of the poem language is pared down to simplicity—”No one left and no one came / On the bare platform.” Adlestrop itself is “only the name.” But then we begin to see a progression, an expansion into something more numinous until we reach the swell of those sublime final lines as the lone blackbird begins to sing and “round him, mistier, / Farther and farther, all the birds / Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.” This is when the tears come, for the transiency of all things and for the transcendent beauty of these lines.

The moment is made more poignant with hindsight, of course, for this is a lost Eden, on the cusp of Armageddon. Thomas must have sensed that too, I think. He joined the Artists Rifles and was killed at Arras in 1917 without ever seeing his poems published.

—as originally appeared on Literary Hub

Erica Jong:

Renascence,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

—chosen and performed for Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project

Alice McDermott:

Dirge Without Music,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

—chosen and performed for Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project

Elena Ferrante:

Amelia Rosselli (1930-96) is one of the Italian poets of the last century who pushed herself most forcefully, most painfully and most imprudently beyond the limits destiny had set for her. Among her many “superb sheets of disobedience,” I recommend Sleep (1953-66, but published in Italy in 1992), a collection of poems written in English in the grip of Italian. I especially love “Well, so, patience to our souls.” I like that word, “patience,” which, in the 10 lines that follow—in a jiffy run, as we are “left alone with our sister / navel” — is struck by aggressive verbs like run, snap, tear and ravish, and by “flaming strands of opaque red lava” while “the wind cries oof! / and goes off.”

—as told to The New York Times Book Review

Benjamin Percy: 

At the Lowe’s Home Improvement Center,” by Brian Turner.

—according to The Minnesota Daily; hear Percy read the poem here

Michael Cunningham:

St. Kevin and the Blackbird,” by Seamus Heaney.

—chosen and performed for Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project

francine j. harris:

Every semester I gather things. And there are things that I come back to, and usually the poems I keep coming back to are because I can teach them for so many different reasons. Mary Ruefle’s “White Buttons” [for example]: I keep teaching this poem, because there are so many reasons to teach this poem. I can teach it to talk about how images reinforce themselves over a period of time because it’s a little bit longer, so these images just develop out of thin air– almost literally- there are these text pages, these book pages, like petals, and you don’t know how it happened, right? There’s a way that the images build, and I can teach it for that. I can teach it for the associative moves she makes, like that weird move she makes where she suddenly says:

(I am sorry I did not

go to your funeral

but like you said

on the phone

an insect cannot crawl

to China)

I can teach it as a second person address, that interrupts the speaker. I can teach it for so many different reasons. One of the poems I’ve been teaching on and off for years is Yusef Komunyakaa “You And I Are Disappearing” for almost all of the same reasons. There are so many reasons to teach that poem: listing, cataloguing, subtext, how you can read a poem have two entirely different experiences with the poems based on your experience with the subject matter, imagery. I’m always grabbing poems for imagery. . . The funny thing is, I feel like, and maybe this is an essentialist statement, I’ll say poems today that stay with me, stay with me for the same reasons– because there’s a lot going on in them. Every time I come back to them I’m thinking of something else, something else that makes it work.

—as told to Four Way Review

Gillian Flynn:

Gwendolyn Brooks nestled into my heart when I was about 12, and she’s never been replaced. So, this is my heartbeat anthem: “A Song in the Front Yard.” It hit me with so much impact as a quiet, shy, relentlessly pleasing junior-schooler who yearned to be so much more than that. “I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life./ I want a peek at the back./ Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows./ A girl gets sick of a rose.” Whenever I’m feeing unnerved or anxious or timid, I think of that: “A girl gets sick of a rose.” Yes, exactly.

—as told to The New York Times Book Review

Colm Tóibín:

It seems strange now that the poem by [Elizabeth Bishop] that I liked best then [at 19] and learned by heart was “Cirque d’Hiver,” a poem about a “mechanical toy,” a poem with elaborate rhyme schemes and a tone close to a nursery rhyme.

Across the floor flits the mechanical toy,
fit for a king of several centuries back.
A little circus horse with real white hair.
His eyes are glossy black.
He bears a little dancer on his back.

The poem seems so determined to be jolly and inconsequential, almost jokey, that it is hard to find the undertow in it, which arises oddly from the sheer amount of time and energy spent observing this scene in such great and good-humored detail to the exclusion of all else. Somehow, I felt a sense that, in concentrating on this and this only for a long time, the poem hinted that the rest of the world could be kept away and made to seem not to matter.

—from Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop

Cynthia Ozick:

Dover Beach,” by Matthew Arnold. And running neck-and-neck, Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” All are cutting-edge images of the 21st century so far.

—from Ozick’s “By the Book” interview

Sloane Crosley:

Tulips,” by Sylvia Plath.

—as told to Double or Nothing

Stephen King:

My favorite poem is “Falling,” by James Dickey. Published in 1967, its delirious language, coupled with a clear narrative, make it a precursor to Dickey’s novel Deliverance, published three years later. The poem is audacious, sensuous and completely beautiful. It’s also as neat a parable of the human condition as has ever been written.

—as told to The New York Times Book Review

Junot Díaz:

Kingdom Animalia,” by Aracelis Girmay. Girmay is one of my favorite poets. She blows across the islands of my soul like storm season. I remember rereading these lines shortly after I lost my sister:

Oh, body, be held now by whom you love.
Whole years will be spent, underneath these impossible stars,
when dirt’s the only animal who will sleep with you
& touch you with
its mouth.

And I was never the same.

—as told to The New York Times Book Review

Richard Bausch: 

For the Last Wolverine,” by James Dickey.

—chosen and performed for Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project

Aimee Bender:

I first heard “The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” [by Wallace Stevens] at a funeral. A large funeral, and a very sad one. A poet read it to the people gathered, and I found it moving, and helpful, but in a kind of inexplicable way. It’s something of an oblique poem. It concerns mystery, and its language is itself mysterious. Yet there was something in it that I sensed, even listening for the first time, about a community coming together to support this family and pay tribute to this life. . . Right away, I knew I’d want to look that poem up and spend more time with it. One line—“We say God and the imagination are one”—stuck with me especially. There’s something beautifully enigmatic about that line: It contains what feels so expansive and mysterious about the imagination to me. I love the way it treats the imagination with an almost-religious reverence.

. . .

Language is the ticket to plot and character, after all, because both are built out of language. If you write a page a day for 30 days, and you pick the parts where the language is working, plot and character will start to emerge organically. For me, plot and character emerge directly from the word—as opposed to having a light-bulb about a character or event. I just don’t work like that. Though I know some writers do, I can’t. I’ll think, oh I have an insight about the character, and when I’ll sit down to write, it feels extremely imposed and last for two minutes. I find I can write for two lines and then I have nothing else to say. For me, the only way to find something comes through the sentence level, and sticking with the sentences that give a subtle feeling that there’s something more to say. This means I’ve hit on something unconscious enough to write about—something with enough unknown in there to be brought out. On some level I can sense that, and it keeps me going.

That’s why I love Stevens’s poem, too—it sits between these great mysteries that he’s articulated without dispelling them completely. Some of those mysteries clarify, but they’re not all going to clarify. I think a good poem will always stay a little mysterious. The best writing does. The words that click into place, wrap around something mysterious. They create a shape around which something lives—and they give hints about what that thing is, but do not reveal it fully. That’s the thing I want to do in my own writing: present words that act as a vessel for something more mysterious. I know it’s working when I feel like there’s something hovering beneath it the verbal, that mysterious emotional place that Stevens wrote about.

—from Bender’s “By Heart” column in the Atlantic

J. K. Rowling:

Walt Whitman’s “Of the terrible doubt of appearances.”

—according to The New Yorker

Donna Tartt:

Though some poems I loved when I was young have lost their sting over the years, Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat” still exhilarates me as much as it ever did; it’s a mysterious poem, difficult to translate, but every time I read it I’m astonished all over again by its glaciers and whirlwinds, its swamps and deliriums, its bursts of phosphorescence and its final, heartsick dream of Europe: a paper boat floating in a sidewalk puddle.

—as told to The New York Times Book Review

Maurice Sendak:

John Keats’s “Welcome Joy, and Welcome Sorrow.” (Sendak also kept a death mask of Keats next to his bed.)

—according to The Comics Journal

Helen Macdonald:

[I admire] Milton and Shakespeare, Donne, Wordsworth, Coleridge—“Frost at Midnight” is my favorite poem—Auden, Frank O’Hara, Barbara Guest, John Ashbery, Peter Riley, J. H. Prynne, and R. F. Langley, who is perhaps my favorite modern poet. The Cambridge School movement influenced me a lot as a student. It taught me to be playful with language and never, ever to be afraid of difficulty.

—from Macdonald’s “By the Book” interview

Kaveh Akbar:

My favorite poem to teach is, I think, Russell Edson’s “The Neighborhood Dog.” Something about it vibrates at the exact frequency of my brain. It’s just the perfect poem. It does everything I love in poems, and though I’ve taught it dozens of times to dozens of different groups of poets, I still don’t really have any idea how to talk about why it works in any sort of critically useful way. It’s actual magic.

Also, it’s important to note that the version of “The Neighborhood Dog” originally published in AGNI is a full 15% better than the weaker version Edson eventually published in the book, and in The Tunnel.

—from a 2017 interview with The Rumpus

Joyce Carol Oates:

Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno.”

—chosen and performed for Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project

Jeanette Winterson:

No one who loves poetry can have a favorite poem. There are too many, and life changes, and poems occupy us just as we occupy them. So I am going to cheat and say that for performance poetry it’s Kate Tempest’s “Brand New Ancients.” Catch it on YouTube. She is language, passion and politics, and if that isn’t life, what is? Poetry and politics are not separate spheres. Life is connected. So I am reading Adrienne Rich right now. Try anything from The Will to Change. Engagement, activism, beauty, longing and a way to talk about those things. Poetry turbocharges language.

—as told to The New York Times Book Review

Jamaica Kincaid:

William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”

—chosen and performed for Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project

E. E. Cummings:

William Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality.”

—according to Susan Cheever’s E. E. Cummings: A Life

David Mitchell:

Before I was published, when I was about 29 years old—I’m 45 now—I was looking through the poetry section in a bookshop. I found this very slim volume of poems by a man I’d never heard of before, James Wright, called This Branch Will Not Break. I flicked through it, and found a poem that is still one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. [“Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”] I bought it, and for much of my life I’ve had a copy of the poem just above my desk, or wherever I’ve worked. Whatever else is going on in the day, my eyes can go and find this textual hammock.

. . .

For me, the poem’s chief value is as a reminder to stay inside the moment. It asks us not to let our minds rerun things that have already happened, not to trouble our head fruitlessly about things that haven’t happened yet. Inhabit the now, the poem urges— just see the beauty around you that you don’t normally see.

—from Mitchell’s “By Heart” essay in the Atlantic

Grace Paley:

1919,” by W. B. Yeats.

—chosen and performed for Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project

Bill Bryson:

I am not a good reader of poetry, but recently I happened upon “In Flanders Fields,” the celebrated poem of the First World War. I had never read it all the way through and was astounded by how powerful and moving a few simple lines could be. I had always assumed that the author was British, but in fact he was a Canadian doctor named John McCrae, who wrote it just after the Second Battle of Ypres. McCrae died a short while later himself without ever seeing home again, which clearly adds to the poignancy of it.

—from Bryson’s “By the Book” interview

Quan Barry:

I’ve always loved the work of W.S. Merwin. As I became a more serious student of poetry, I read his body of work much more closely. It was amazing to see how he evolved from rather formal beginnings to the poet we think of today, whose unpunctuated work relies pretty heavily on the reader to pull meaning out of the text. I once saw Merwin read when I was an undergrad, and I still remember how he ended the evening with this long poem called “Lives of the Artists,” which is an amazing poem about the life of a Native American youth. In general, I love the collection by Merwin that contains this poem, a collection titled Travels—there’s a poem in it called “A Distance” that I adore, adore, adore. I can’t necessarily tell you what’s happening in that poem, but it ends with three questions: “what/ are you holding above your head child/ where are you taking it what does it know.”

—as told to Writer’s Bone

Louise Erdrich:

I covered the vinyl walls around my soaking bathtub with poems written in permanent marker—James Harrison’s “Counting Birds” is my favorite. His work is bold, consolatory; like Harrison, I wonder if there is a bird waiting for me in the onrushing clouds.

—from Erdrich’s “By the Book” interview

Francine Prose:

Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.”

—chosen and performed for Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project

Elizabeth Alexander:

We did a sound check [for Obama’s first inaugural] on the mother of all microphones, which carried laser-sharp sound for miles and miles without an echo. “O.K., now, read your poem,” the technician said. “I can’t do that!” I exclaimed, and then, out of nowhere, “It’s bad luck!” “O.K., O.K.,” the man said. “Say something else.” So I recited my favorite poem by my favorite poet, the bard of Chicago’s South Side, Miss Gwendolyn Brooks. I was certain she would have been the one to have written and read a poem for Obama if she had been living.

I recited “kitchenette building,” the first poem in her first collection, A Street in Bronzeville, from 1945. It is about how people who feel themselves at the mercy of inequitable circumstance experience hope. “We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,” the poem opens, then builds into a meditation on how people fight to make space for their dreams despite privation and difficult circumstance. “Could a dream send up through onion fumes / its white and violet[?]” she asks. It is one answer to Langston Hughes’s concept of the dream deferred, expressed in his poem “Harlem,” in which he wonders what happens when opportunity is unmet too long and injustice prevails:

Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags,
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

These poets are some of America’s pithiest great philosophers. As I spoke Brooks’s lines, I saw people among the many milling tourists and inaugural-goers on the Mall stop and listen to her arresting words, cast in the shape of a poem.

—from Alexander’s essay in The New Yorker

Jacqueline Woodson:

You Don’t Miss Your Water,” by Cornelius Eady, is a poem I return to when I’m stuck as a writer. The depth of emotion in this very short poem speaks not only to Eady’s amazing voice as a writer but to everything so many of us know about the complicated relationship between adult child and dying parent. Even when this poem is very far away from what I’m writing, it serves to remind me how much emotion matters in story.

—as told to The New York Times Book Review

Robert Pinsky:

Incantation,” by Czeslaw Milosz.

—chosen and performed for his own Favorite Poem Project

Emily Temple is the managing editor at Lit Hub. Her first novel, The Lightness, was published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in June 2020. You can buy it here.

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This post originally appeared on Literary Hub and was published April 2, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.