Poetry, if we let it, can help us take a good look at ourselves, each other and the world and think about what we value in all three. I once read a quote by Dylan Thomas that read “a good poem helps to change the shape of the universe” – here are four poems that changed the shape of mine.
1. The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes
The Highwayman was my first love – it’s what got me into poetry; I must’ve been about nine years old. I remember my older sister was learning about it at school, and I stole her textbook and memorized the entire 16 stanza, 102 line poem. I used to recite it when my mom’s friends came to visit.
Not only is the poem stunning to read, but it got me thinking about important questions at a young age. Questions like, are there bad kinds of love? What sort of lengths would I go to for a person I cared about?
I’ll let you read the poem and figure out what you think for yourself.
2. Be Kind by Charles Bukowski
My grandmother is a terrible woman. There, I said it. Even when I was very young, I picked up on how bitter and unpleasant she was. Then, of course, there was the casual racism, the rudeness and the infuriating sense of entitlement that I started to recognize the older I got and the more I spent time around her. People would always tell me to be patient, “it’s her age”, they’d say. But I always struggled with the notion – surely understanding and compassion should ripen with time?
In this poem, Charles Bukwsoki discusses the notion of “aging badly.” It helped to solidify what I already thought, but it also got me thinking about aging well, and what that would look like. I read it whenever I need to remind myself that I want to lead a life that sums up to something beautiful rather than bitter.
3. The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
My mother loves Robert Frost, and so I find myself drawn to reading his work, especially when I miss her, and this is a poem that I always find myself coming back to.
Poets and poetry lovers will probably peg it as a cliche, partly because of its ubiquitous use in school curriculums and partly because it adorns many a mug and inspirational quote plaque.
Like most people, I used to think that The Road Not Taken was about going against the grain, about taking risks and how that makes all the difference. But the more I read the poem, the more uncertain I got about how the speaker felt at the end. Was he looking back with fondness and self-assertion, or was it regret?
I contemplate my own choices to a painful extent, and I guess that’s why I became so obsessed with figuring out what the poem meant – for me at least.
And I have started to contemplate the idea that the two roads in the poem are interchangeable. Perhaps, the speaker claims that his decision “made all the difference”, because that’s just the kind of thing we say when we want to assert that we are where we are because of our own choices. Nonetheless, poetry is to be interpreted, and I can’t say I’ve made up my mind yet. What do you think?
This piece by David Orr debates the poem’s interpretations quite eloquently, and in much more detail.
4. Heaven, or Whatever by Shane Koyczan
Few people read like Shane Koyczan, which is why I’ve linked to the YouTube version of this piece rather than the actual text. In his poem, Koyczan explores the complex, and beautiful thing that is his relationship with his grandfather. The piece revolves around the contemplation of his grandfather’s version of heaven, a belief that he personally struggles to wrap his head around.
I was raised as a Muslim in Saudi Arabia, and during compulsory religious classes at school, I was taught to believe in heaven. But the older I got, the less I felt like the heaven that I learned about was mine.
I discovered Heaven, or whatever during my freshman year at university, a time when I was particularly struggling with figuring out what I really believed for myself and what I believed because it was what I had been told to believe for eighteen years. This poem helped me find peace within doubt.
Are you a poet or a poetry enthusiast? Link us to your work and/or favorite pieces in the comments!