Little Poems

Look inside
Hardcover
$18.00 US
On sale Mar 14, 2023 | 256 Pages | 978-0-593-53630-8
From Sappho and Li Bai to Sandra Cisneros and Ocean Vuong: a pocket-sized treasury of tiny, jewel-like poems from around the world and through the ages.

Short poems have been popular for centuries, from the famous fragments of Sappho in ancient Greece to the traditional haiku of Japan, from the Imagist poems of Ezra Pound and H. D. to the witty couplets of Dorothy Parker and Ogden Nash, from lyrical gems by Shakespeare and Rumi to modern classics by W. H. Auden and Margaret Atwood. This collection brings together brief poems—defined as fewer than fourteen lines—from a wide range of poetic traditions. Together they make for enjoyable reading and easy memorizing and provide a wealth of appropriate lines ready-made to copy into a card or an email.

Little Poems offers a generous supply of verses that surprise, amuse, move, and delight.
Foreword by Michael Hennessy
 
EARLY POETS OF GREECE, ROME, AND CHINA
SAPPHO Be Kind to Me
SAPPHO It’s No Use
SAPPHO Tonight I’ve Watched
SAPPHO You May Forget But
ANACREON Wreath
ANACREON On Drinking .
PRAXILLA Adonis in the Underworld
PRAXILLA Seek Love among the Brave
ANYTE The Cock Shall Crow No More
ANYTE Elm Tree
CATULLUS Poem 70
CATULLUS Poem 85
CATULLUS Poem 92
CATULLUS Poem 101
ANONYMOUS (CHINESE) Meeting in the Road
EMPEROR WUTI On the Death of Li Fuje¯n
MARTIAL Epigram 10.47
MARTIAL Epigram 10.61
MARTIAL Epigram 5.9
MARTIAL Epigram 9.33
MARTIAL Epigram 6.12
MARTIAL Epigram 6.57
PHILIP OF THESSALONICA A Gardener
ANONYMOUS (CHINESE) Plucking the Rushes
JULIAN THE EGYPTIAN Two Epigrams
LI BAI Thoughts in the Silent Night
LI BAI Taking Leave of a Friend
WANG WEI Deer Enclosure
WANG WEI Thinking of My Brothers
DU FU Travelling Northward
DU FU Sunset
BAI JUYI Spring Grasses
 
MEDIEVAL AND EARLY MODERN POETS
ANONYMOUS From The Triads of Ireland
ANONYMOUS The Viking Terror
HANSHAN Two Songs of Cold Mountain
LU YOU Evening in the Village
ARNAUT DANIEL Alba
ANONYMOUS Cuckoo Song
RUMI Yesterday I Went to Him Full of Dismay
ANONYMOUS Fowls in the Frith
CHRISTINE DE PIZAN Rondeau
GEOFFREY CHAUCER Roundel: Welcome Summer
ANONYMOUS Thirty Days Has November
ANONYMOUS I Am of Ireland
ARAKIDA MORITAKE Fallen Flower
ARAKIDA MORITAKE Summer Night
PIERRE DE RONSARD A Shepherd Prays to the God Pan
ANONYMOUS Western Wind
ANONYMOUS Hey Nonny No
ANONYMOUS Two Madrigals
EDMUND SPENSER Shipwreck
SIR PHILIP SIDNEY A Ditty
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE Ariel’s Song
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE Full Fathom Five
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE O Mistress Mine
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE Tell Me Where is Fancy Bred
THOMAS DEKKER Golden Slumbers
 
SEVENTEENTH- AND EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY POETS
JOHN DONNE A Burnt Ship
JOHN DONNE No Man Is an Island
BEN JONSON The Kiss
BEN JONSON On My First Son
JOHN FLETCHER Care-Charming Sleep
ROBERT HERRICK Upon Julia’s Clothes
ROBERT HERRICK On Julia’s Breath
ROBERT HERRICK Upon a Child
ROBERT HERRICK Upon Prue, His Maid
GEORGE HERBERT Bitter-Sweet
JOHN MILTON Song on May Morning
ANNE BRADSTREET To My Dear and Loving Husband
RICHARD CRASHAW To the Infant Martyrs
RICHARD CRASHAW Upon the Infant Martyrs
RICHARD LOVELACE To Lucasta, Going to the Wars
JOHN DRYDEN Song Sung by Aerial Spirits
MATSUO BASH¯O Four Haiku
ANNE FINCH On Myself
JONATHAN SWIFT From Verses Made for Fruit-Women
ALEXANDER POPE Upon a Girl of Seven Years Old
FUKUDA CHIYONI Four Haiku
YOSA BUSON Four Haiku
ANONYMOUS From Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book
JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE Wayfarer’s Night Song
JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE All Things the Gods Bestow
Three Epigrams: Sir Henry Wotton
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
Alexander Pope
PHILLIS WHEATLEY On Being Brought from Africa to America
KOBAYASHI ISSA Four Haiku
ROBERT BURNS The Ploughman’s Life
ROBERT BURNS Anna, Thy Charms
WILLIAM BLAKE Infant Joy
WILLIAM BLAKE Infant Sorrow
WILLIAM BLAKE Eternity
WILLIAM BLAKE The Sick Rose
ANONYMOUS From Mother Goose’s Melody
 
NINETEENTH-CENTURY POETS
WILLIAM WORDSWORTH My Heart Leaps Up
WILLIAM WORDSWORTH A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal
DOROTHY WORDSWORTH From Journal Written at Grasmere
SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE Answer to a Child’s Question
SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE On Donne’s Poetry
LEIGH HUNT Jenny Kissed Me
GEORGE GORDON, LORD BYRON So We’ll Go No More A Roving
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY Music, When Soft Voices Die
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY To the Moon
JOHN CLARE Birds’ Nests
JOHN CLARE The Beanfield
JOHN KEATS This Living Hand
JOHN KEATS I Had a Dove
ALEXANDER PUSHKIN I Loved You
ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING Best
ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON The Eagle
ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON Flower in the Crannied Wall
ROBERT BROWNING Meeting at Night
ROBERT BROWNING Parting at Morning
EMILY BRONTË Love and Friendship
LEWIS CARROLL How Doth the Little Crocodile
LEWIS CARROLL The Owl and the Panther
Two Limericks:
Cosmo Monkhouse
Edward Lear
HERMAN MELVILLE Monody
WALT WHITMAN A Noiseless Patient Spider
WALT WHITMAN A Glimpse
WALT WHITMAN To Old Age
EMILY DICKINSON I’m Nobody
EMILY DICKINSON Wild Nights
EMILY DICKINSON After Great Pain
CHRISTINA ROSSETTI Sleeping at Last
GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS Pied Beauty
PAUL VERLAINE Tantalized
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON Requiem
STEPHEN CRANE Many Red Devils Ran from My Heart
STEPHEN CRANE In the Desert
 
MODERN POETS: EARLY TWENTIETH-CENTURY
THOMAS HARDY At Tea
A. E. HOUSMAN Loveliest of Trees
A. E. HOUSMAN He Would Not Stay for Me
RABINDRANATH TAGORE Who Are You, Reader?
RABINDRANATH TAGORE Logic
CONSTANTINE CAVAFY Ionic
WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS A Drinking Song
WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS To a Squirrel at Kyle-Na-No
PAUL VALÉRY In the Sun
RUDYARD KIPLING Seal Lullaby
MASAOKA SHIKI Four Haiku
ROBERT FROST Nothing Gold Can Stay
ROBERT FROST Fire and Ice
AMY LOWELL Opal
AMY LOWELL A Decade
RAINER MARIA RILKE The Panther
ADELAIDE CRAPSEY Two Cinquains
CARL SANDBURG Fog
CARL SANDBURG Choose
CARL SANDBURG Grass
WALLACE STEVENS Life Is Motion
WALLACE STEVENS Anecdote of the Jar
WALLACE STEVENS Of Mere Being
ALICE CORBIN HENDERSON Humoresque
GUILLAUME APOLLINAIRE Mirror
JAMES JOYCE A Flower Given to My Daughter
JAMES JOYCE From Ulysses: Found Poems
KAHLIL GIBRAN The Fox
WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS The Red Wheelbarrow
WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS This Is Just to Say
E. E. CUMMINGS l(a
D. H. LAWRENCE Green
D. H. LAWRENCE The Gazelle Calf
EZRA POUND In a Station of the Metro
EZRA POUND Alba
EZRA POUND The Bath Tub
H. D. Heat
MARIANNE MOORE To a Snail
MARIANNE MOORE O To Be a Dragon
T. S. ELIOT From Preludes 1
GIUSEPPE UNGARETTI Morning
GIUSEPPE UNGARETTI Soldiers
BORIS PASTERNAK Hops
ANNA AKHMATOVA The Pillow Hot
CLAUDE MCKAY The Tropics in New York
EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY First Fig
EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY Second Fig
DOROTHY PARKER Résumé
JEAN TOOMER Reapers
FEDERICO GARCÍA LORCA From Night
FEDERICO GARCÍA LORCA Farewell
COUNTEE CULLEN Incident
 
MODERN POETS: MID-TWENTIETH-CENTURY
JORGE LUIS BORGES The Moon
LANGSTON HUGHES Harlem
LANGSTON HUGHES Poem (To F. S.)
LANGSTON HUGHES Suicide Note
OGDEN NASH Reflections on Ice-Breaking
OGDEN NASH The Lama
STEVIE SMITH Not Waving but Drowning
LORINE NIEDECKER Poet’s Work
LORINE NEIDECKER A Monster Owl
LORINE NIEDECKER March
PABLO NERUDA Octopi
KENNETH REXROTH From the Persian (1)
KENNETH REXROTH From the Persian (2)
W. H. AUDEN That Night When Joy Began
W. H. AUDEN Epitaph on a Tyrant
W. H. AUDEN August 1968
W. H. AUDEN From Shorts
Two Limericks:
Dixon Merritt
A. H. R. Buller
RICHARD WRIGHT Four Haiku
THEODORE ROETHKE Child on Top of a Greenhouse
ELIZABETH BISHOP Casabianca
RANDALL JARRELL The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
OCTAVIO PAZ The Street
GWENDOLYN BROOKS We Real Cool
JACK KEROUAC Four Haiku
PHILIP LARKIN Days
PHILIP LARKIN This Be the Verse
PHILIP LARKIN Cut Grass
ALLEN GINSBERG Blessed Be the Muses
ALLEN GINSBERG Fourth Floor, Dawn
FRANK O’HARA Animals
MOLLY HOLDEN The Fields for Miles
JAMES WRIGHT Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio
SYLVIA PLATH Metaphors
 
CONTEMPORARY POETS
LISEL MUELLER Small Poem about the Hounds and the Hares
A. R. AMMONS Clarifications
A. R. AMMONS Salute
ROBERT CREELEY I Know a Man
CHARLES TOMLINSON Frost
CHARLES TOMLINSON In December
JOHN HOLLANDER Macrodot
ADRIENNE RICH In the Evening
TED HUGHES Snails
SHEL SILVERSTEIN The Toucan
SIR DEREK WALCOTT The Fist
JOHN UPDIKE Youth’s Progress
N. SCOTT MOMADAY The Snow Mare
VÁCLAV HAVEL Alienation
LUCILLE CLIFTON Homage to My Hair
JIM HARRISON Oriole
MICHAEL S. HARPER American History
CHARLES SIMIC On This Very Street in Belgrade
CHARLES SIMIC Watermelons
MARGARET ATWOOD You Fit into Me
MARGARET ATWOOD Last Year I Abstained
SEAMUS HEANEY Mother of the Groom
TED KOOSER Floater
JAMES WELCH The Man from Washington
MICHAEL ONDAATJE Biography
WENDY COPE The Orange
WENDY COPE Valentine
WENDY COPE Another Unfortunate Choice
RITA DOVE Geometry
ALBERTO RÍOS Immigrant Centuries
GARY SOTO From The Elements of San Joaquin
MONIZA ALVI Rural Scene
LORNA DEE CERVANTES The Body as Braille
SANDRA CISNEROS From The Rodrigo Poems
CAROL ANN DUFFY Strange Place
CATHY SONG April Moon
KATHLEEN PEIRCE Begging the Question
LIYOUNG LEE Eating Together
STEVE WILSON Of April
SIMON ARMITAGE Homework
SHERMAN ALEXIE “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”
PATRICK PHILLIPS Having a Fight with You
CECILY PARKS Conversation between Fox and Field
LUISA MURADYAN Crane
CLEMONCE HEARD School-to-Prison Pants
DANEZ SMITH little prayer
OCEAN VUONG Torso of Air
FOREWORD

Most of us experience literature for the first time in the form of a “little poem.” Long before we’ve tasted our first solid food, we’ve heard a soothing lullaby spoken or sung by a parent, and before we can walk, we have already begun to accumulate a storehouse of nursery rhymes. The sounds and rhythms of those little poems are embedded in memory, and we pass them down to the next next generation.

But little poems range far beyond the nursery.  Nearly all poets in all ages have written them.  Even John Milton, author of the epic-length Paradise Lost, wrote a poem ten lines long.  Milton’s contemporary Robert Herrick, on the other hand, created many little poems, making them his signature genre.  The same holds true for poets across time: those who favored longer forms occasionally wrote brief songs.  And others—ancient Greek epigram writers, Japanese haiku poets, and modern writers like William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, and Dorothy Parker—often favored brevity.

What exactly qualifies as a “little poem”?  There is no consensus, but the Italian word “sonetto,” source of the English word “sonnet,” means “little song,” suggesting that fourteen lines may be a rule of thumb.  But in this book, even a sonnet would be “long.”  All the poems I have included—almost 300 of them, by 175 different authors—are under fourteen lines.  Most range from two lines to twelve.  A few have thirteen lines—just shy of a sonnet.  Poets have been writing such poems for thousands of years, starting in the ancient world and continuing to the present day.  The earliest work in this book is by the Greek poet Sappho, who lived in the seventh century BCE; the most recent is by poets still active in the 2020s, such as Carol Ann Duffy, Danez Smith, and Ocean Vuong.

What do little poems have in common besides their brevity?  Probably not a great deal—except for their astonishing variety. Many are highly accessible on first reading, almost tweet-like.  Others invite contemplation: they call us back to re-read and ponder their lines.  Despite their brevity, however, little poems can do most of what longer poems can do: tell a story; paint a picture; evoke an emotion; argue a point; make us laugh or cry.  They can be serious or sarcastic, somber or silly, disturbing or comforting.  And like all poems, they invite us to see the world with new eyes and to hear it with new ears. 

The poems in this book do all those things.  And their chronological arrangement highlights their diversity in surprising ways.  The first section, for example, includes a mournful poem by first-century BCE Chinese Emperor Wu-ti about the death of his beloved mistress.  But this poem stands in close proximity to two others by the Roman poet Martial making fun of people with bad hairpieces.  Other sections likewise include juxtapositions that I hope will broaden conceptions of what poetry is and what it can do.

In the second section, works by Chaucer and Shakespeare inhabit the same space as the earliest written English version of the well-known children’s mnemonic “Thirty Days Has November.”  And at the end of the section, readers will find a Thomas Dekker poem that Paul McCartney adapted 370 years later for the Beatles song “Golden Slumbers.”  The next section, too, contains many “serious” poems by such major seventeenth- and eighteenth-century figures as Basho, Goethe, and Blake, but the section also offers lighter fare: Mother Goose nursery rhymes, a sharp-tongued political epigram by John Wilcox, and two “verses for fruit-sellers” by Jonathan Swift.  Likewise, the selection of nineteenth-century writing includes moving love poems by Alexander Pushkin and John Keats, but these classic pieces share space with a page of limericks and Emily Dickinson’s playfully profound “I’m nobody! Who are you?”

Modern and contemporary poets, who are amply represented in the final three sections of the book, demonstrate even more vividly the large arena that little poems  occupy.  Powerful poems about love are matched by comic poems on the same topic by contemporary British poet Wendy Cope.  There is also a touching lullaby by Rudyard Kipling; a poem by W. H. Auden about the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; a word-play rhyme by Shel Silverstein; and haiku by Masaoka Shiki, Richard Wright, and Jack Kerouac.

My hope is that readers will find this eclectic mix of little poems as rewarding to read as it was for me to gather.

--Michael Hennessy

About

From Sappho and Li Bai to Sandra Cisneros and Ocean Vuong: a pocket-sized treasury of tiny, jewel-like poems from around the world and through the ages.

Short poems have been popular for centuries, from the famous fragments of Sappho in ancient Greece to the traditional haiku of Japan, from the Imagist poems of Ezra Pound and H. D. to the witty couplets of Dorothy Parker and Ogden Nash, from lyrical gems by Shakespeare and Rumi to modern classics by W. H. Auden and Margaret Atwood. This collection brings together brief poems—defined as fewer than fourteen lines—from a wide range of poetic traditions. Together they make for enjoyable reading and easy memorizing and provide a wealth of appropriate lines ready-made to copy into a card or an email.

Little Poems offers a generous supply of verses that surprise, amuse, move, and delight.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Michael Hennessy
 
EARLY POETS OF GREECE, ROME, AND CHINA
SAPPHO Be Kind to Me
SAPPHO It’s No Use
SAPPHO Tonight I’ve Watched
SAPPHO You May Forget But
ANACREON Wreath
ANACREON On Drinking .
PRAXILLA Adonis in the Underworld
PRAXILLA Seek Love among the Brave
ANYTE The Cock Shall Crow No More
ANYTE Elm Tree
CATULLUS Poem 70
CATULLUS Poem 85
CATULLUS Poem 92
CATULLUS Poem 101
ANONYMOUS (CHINESE) Meeting in the Road
EMPEROR WUTI On the Death of Li Fuje¯n
MARTIAL Epigram 10.47
MARTIAL Epigram 10.61
MARTIAL Epigram 5.9
MARTIAL Epigram 9.33
MARTIAL Epigram 6.12
MARTIAL Epigram 6.57
PHILIP OF THESSALONICA A Gardener
ANONYMOUS (CHINESE) Plucking the Rushes
JULIAN THE EGYPTIAN Two Epigrams
LI BAI Thoughts in the Silent Night
LI BAI Taking Leave of a Friend
WANG WEI Deer Enclosure
WANG WEI Thinking of My Brothers
DU FU Travelling Northward
DU FU Sunset
BAI JUYI Spring Grasses
 
MEDIEVAL AND EARLY MODERN POETS
ANONYMOUS From The Triads of Ireland
ANONYMOUS The Viking Terror
HANSHAN Two Songs of Cold Mountain
LU YOU Evening in the Village
ARNAUT DANIEL Alba
ANONYMOUS Cuckoo Song
RUMI Yesterday I Went to Him Full of Dismay
ANONYMOUS Fowls in the Frith
CHRISTINE DE PIZAN Rondeau
GEOFFREY CHAUCER Roundel: Welcome Summer
ANONYMOUS Thirty Days Has November
ANONYMOUS I Am of Ireland
ARAKIDA MORITAKE Fallen Flower
ARAKIDA MORITAKE Summer Night
PIERRE DE RONSARD A Shepherd Prays to the God Pan
ANONYMOUS Western Wind
ANONYMOUS Hey Nonny No
ANONYMOUS Two Madrigals
EDMUND SPENSER Shipwreck
SIR PHILIP SIDNEY A Ditty
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE Ariel’s Song
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE Full Fathom Five
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE O Mistress Mine
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE Tell Me Where is Fancy Bred
THOMAS DEKKER Golden Slumbers
 
SEVENTEENTH- AND EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY POETS
JOHN DONNE A Burnt Ship
JOHN DONNE No Man Is an Island
BEN JONSON The Kiss
BEN JONSON On My First Son
JOHN FLETCHER Care-Charming Sleep
ROBERT HERRICK Upon Julia’s Clothes
ROBERT HERRICK On Julia’s Breath
ROBERT HERRICK Upon a Child
ROBERT HERRICK Upon Prue, His Maid
GEORGE HERBERT Bitter-Sweet
JOHN MILTON Song on May Morning
ANNE BRADSTREET To My Dear and Loving Husband
RICHARD CRASHAW To the Infant Martyrs
RICHARD CRASHAW Upon the Infant Martyrs
RICHARD LOVELACE To Lucasta, Going to the Wars
JOHN DRYDEN Song Sung by Aerial Spirits
MATSUO BASH¯O Four Haiku
ANNE FINCH On Myself
JONATHAN SWIFT From Verses Made for Fruit-Women
ALEXANDER POPE Upon a Girl of Seven Years Old
FUKUDA CHIYONI Four Haiku
YOSA BUSON Four Haiku
ANONYMOUS From Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book
JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE Wayfarer’s Night Song
JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE All Things the Gods Bestow
Three Epigrams: Sir Henry Wotton
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
Alexander Pope
PHILLIS WHEATLEY On Being Brought from Africa to America
KOBAYASHI ISSA Four Haiku
ROBERT BURNS The Ploughman’s Life
ROBERT BURNS Anna, Thy Charms
WILLIAM BLAKE Infant Joy
WILLIAM BLAKE Infant Sorrow
WILLIAM BLAKE Eternity
WILLIAM BLAKE The Sick Rose
ANONYMOUS From Mother Goose’s Melody
 
NINETEENTH-CENTURY POETS
WILLIAM WORDSWORTH My Heart Leaps Up
WILLIAM WORDSWORTH A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal
DOROTHY WORDSWORTH From Journal Written at Grasmere
SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE Answer to a Child’s Question
SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE On Donne’s Poetry
LEIGH HUNT Jenny Kissed Me
GEORGE GORDON, LORD BYRON So We’ll Go No More A Roving
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY Music, When Soft Voices Die
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY To the Moon
JOHN CLARE Birds’ Nests
JOHN CLARE The Beanfield
JOHN KEATS This Living Hand
JOHN KEATS I Had a Dove
ALEXANDER PUSHKIN I Loved You
ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING Best
ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON The Eagle
ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON Flower in the Crannied Wall
ROBERT BROWNING Meeting at Night
ROBERT BROWNING Parting at Morning
EMILY BRONTË Love and Friendship
LEWIS CARROLL How Doth the Little Crocodile
LEWIS CARROLL The Owl and the Panther
Two Limericks:
Cosmo Monkhouse
Edward Lear
HERMAN MELVILLE Monody
WALT WHITMAN A Noiseless Patient Spider
WALT WHITMAN A Glimpse
WALT WHITMAN To Old Age
EMILY DICKINSON I’m Nobody
EMILY DICKINSON Wild Nights
EMILY DICKINSON After Great Pain
CHRISTINA ROSSETTI Sleeping at Last
GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS Pied Beauty
PAUL VERLAINE Tantalized
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON Requiem
STEPHEN CRANE Many Red Devils Ran from My Heart
STEPHEN CRANE In the Desert
 
MODERN POETS: EARLY TWENTIETH-CENTURY
THOMAS HARDY At Tea
A. E. HOUSMAN Loveliest of Trees
A. E. HOUSMAN He Would Not Stay for Me
RABINDRANATH TAGORE Who Are You, Reader?
RABINDRANATH TAGORE Logic
CONSTANTINE CAVAFY Ionic
WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS A Drinking Song
WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS To a Squirrel at Kyle-Na-No
PAUL VALÉRY In the Sun
RUDYARD KIPLING Seal Lullaby
MASAOKA SHIKI Four Haiku
ROBERT FROST Nothing Gold Can Stay
ROBERT FROST Fire and Ice
AMY LOWELL Opal
AMY LOWELL A Decade
RAINER MARIA RILKE The Panther
ADELAIDE CRAPSEY Two Cinquains
CARL SANDBURG Fog
CARL SANDBURG Choose
CARL SANDBURG Grass
WALLACE STEVENS Life Is Motion
WALLACE STEVENS Anecdote of the Jar
WALLACE STEVENS Of Mere Being
ALICE CORBIN HENDERSON Humoresque
GUILLAUME APOLLINAIRE Mirror
JAMES JOYCE A Flower Given to My Daughter
JAMES JOYCE From Ulysses: Found Poems
KAHLIL GIBRAN The Fox
WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS The Red Wheelbarrow
WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS This Is Just to Say
E. E. CUMMINGS l(a
D. H. LAWRENCE Green
D. H. LAWRENCE The Gazelle Calf
EZRA POUND In a Station of the Metro
EZRA POUND Alba
EZRA POUND The Bath Tub
H. D. Heat
MARIANNE MOORE To a Snail
MARIANNE MOORE O To Be a Dragon
T. S. ELIOT From Preludes 1
GIUSEPPE UNGARETTI Morning
GIUSEPPE UNGARETTI Soldiers
BORIS PASTERNAK Hops
ANNA AKHMATOVA The Pillow Hot
CLAUDE MCKAY The Tropics in New York
EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY First Fig
EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY Second Fig
DOROTHY PARKER Résumé
JEAN TOOMER Reapers
FEDERICO GARCÍA LORCA From Night
FEDERICO GARCÍA LORCA Farewell
COUNTEE CULLEN Incident
 
MODERN POETS: MID-TWENTIETH-CENTURY
JORGE LUIS BORGES The Moon
LANGSTON HUGHES Harlem
LANGSTON HUGHES Poem (To F. S.)
LANGSTON HUGHES Suicide Note
OGDEN NASH Reflections on Ice-Breaking
OGDEN NASH The Lama
STEVIE SMITH Not Waving but Drowning
LORINE NIEDECKER Poet’s Work
LORINE NEIDECKER A Monster Owl
LORINE NIEDECKER March
PABLO NERUDA Octopi
KENNETH REXROTH From the Persian (1)
KENNETH REXROTH From the Persian (2)
W. H. AUDEN That Night When Joy Began
W. H. AUDEN Epitaph on a Tyrant
W. H. AUDEN August 1968
W. H. AUDEN From Shorts
Two Limericks:
Dixon Merritt
A. H. R. Buller
RICHARD WRIGHT Four Haiku
THEODORE ROETHKE Child on Top of a Greenhouse
ELIZABETH BISHOP Casabianca
RANDALL JARRELL The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
OCTAVIO PAZ The Street
GWENDOLYN BROOKS We Real Cool
JACK KEROUAC Four Haiku
PHILIP LARKIN Days
PHILIP LARKIN This Be the Verse
PHILIP LARKIN Cut Grass
ALLEN GINSBERG Blessed Be the Muses
ALLEN GINSBERG Fourth Floor, Dawn
FRANK O’HARA Animals
MOLLY HOLDEN The Fields for Miles
JAMES WRIGHT Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio
SYLVIA PLATH Metaphors
 
CONTEMPORARY POETS
LISEL MUELLER Small Poem about the Hounds and the Hares
A. R. AMMONS Clarifications
A. R. AMMONS Salute
ROBERT CREELEY I Know a Man
CHARLES TOMLINSON Frost
CHARLES TOMLINSON In December
JOHN HOLLANDER Macrodot
ADRIENNE RICH In the Evening
TED HUGHES Snails
SHEL SILVERSTEIN The Toucan
SIR DEREK WALCOTT The Fist
JOHN UPDIKE Youth’s Progress
N. SCOTT MOMADAY The Snow Mare
VÁCLAV HAVEL Alienation
LUCILLE CLIFTON Homage to My Hair
JIM HARRISON Oriole
MICHAEL S. HARPER American History
CHARLES SIMIC On This Very Street in Belgrade
CHARLES SIMIC Watermelons
MARGARET ATWOOD You Fit into Me
MARGARET ATWOOD Last Year I Abstained
SEAMUS HEANEY Mother of the Groom
TED KOOSER Floater
JAMES WELCH The Man from Washington
MICHAEL ONDAATJE Biography
WENDY COPE The Orange
WENDY COPE Valentine
WENDY COPE Another Unfortunate Choice
RITA DOVE Geometry
ALBERTO RÍOS Immigrant Centuries
GARY SOTO From The Elements of San Joaquin
MONIZA ALVI Rural Scene
LORNA DEE CERVANTES The Body as Braille
SANDRA CISNEROS From The Rodrigo Poems
CAROL ANN DUFFY Strange Place
CATHY SONG April Moon
KATHLEEN PEIRCE Begging the Question
LIYOUNG LEE Eating Together
STEVE WILSON Of April
SIMON ARMITAGE Homework
SHERMAN ALEXIE “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”
PATRICK PHILLIPS Having a Fight with You
CECILY PARKS Conversation between Fox and Field
LUISA MURADYAN Crane
CLEMONCE HEARD School-to-Prison Pants
DANEZ SMITH little prayer
OCEAN VUONG Torso of Air

Excerpt

FOREWORD

Most of us experience literature for the first time in the form of a “little poem.” Long before we’ve tasted our first solid food, we’ve heard a soothing lullaby spoken or sung by a parent, and before we can walk, we have already begun to accumulate a storehouse of nursery rhymes. The sounds and rhythms of those little poems are embedded in memory, and we pass them down to the next next generation.

But little poems range far beyond the nursery.  Nearly all poets in all ages have written them.  Even John Milton, author of the epic-length Paradise Lost, wrote a poem ten lines long.  Milton’s contemporary Robert Herrick, on the other hand, created many little poems, making them his signature genre.  The same holds true for poets across time: those who favored longer forms occasionally wrote brief songs.  And others—ancient Greek epigram writers, Japanese haiku poets, and modern writers like William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, and Dorothy Parker—often favored brevity.

What exactly qualifies as a “little poem”?  There is no consensus, but the Italian word “sonetto,” source of the English word “sonnet,” means “little song,” suggesting that fourteen lines may be a rule of thumb.  But in this book, even a sonnet would be “long.”  All the poems I have included—almost 300 of them, by 175 different authors—are under fourteen lines.  Most range from two lines to twelve.  A few have thirteen lines—just shy of a sonnet.  Poets have been writing such poems for thousands of years, starting in the ancient world and continuing to the present day.  The earliest work in this book is by the Greek poet Sappho, who lived in the seventh century BCE; the most recent is by poets still active in the 2020s, such as Carol Ann Duffy, Danez Smith, and Ocean Vuong.

What do little poems have in common besides their brevity?  Probably not a great deal—except for their astonishing variety. Many are highly accessible on first reading, almost tweet-like.  Others invite contemplation: they call us back to re-read and ponder their lines.  Despite their brevity, however, little poems can do most of what longer poems can do: tell a story; paint a picture; evoke an emotion; argue a point; make us laugh or cry.  They can be serious or sarcastic, somber or silly, disturbing or comforting.  And like all poems, they invite us to see the world with new eyes and to hear it with new ears. 

The poems in this book do all those things.  And their chronological arrangement highlights their diversity in surprising ways.  The first section, for example, includes a mournful poem by first-century BCE Chinese Emperor Wu-ti about the death of his beloved mistress.  But this poem stands in close proximity to two others by the Roman poet Martial making fun of people with bad hairpieces.  Other sections likewise include juxtapositions that I hope will broaden conceptions of what poetry is and what it can do.

In the second section, works by Chaucer and Shakespeare inhabit the same space as the earliest written English version of the well-known children’s mnemonic “Thirty Days Has November.”  And at the end of the section, readers will find a Thomas Dekker poem that Paul McCartney adapted 370 years later for the Beatles song “Golden Slumbers.”  The next section, too, contains many “serious” poems by such major seventeenth- and eighteenth-century figures as Basho, Goethe, and Blake, but the section also offers lighter fare: Mother Goose nursery rhymes, a sharp-tongued political epigram by John Wilcox, and two “verses for fruit-sellers” by Jonathan Swift.  Likewise, the selection of nineteenth-century writing includes moving love poems by Alexander Pushkin and John Keats, but these classic pieces share space with a page of limericks and Emily Dickinson’s playfully profound “I’m nobody! Who are you?”

Modern and contemporary poets, who are amply represented in the final three sections of the book, demonstrate even more vividly the large arena that little poems  occupy.  Powerful poems about love are matched by comic poems on the same topic by contemporary British poet Wendy Cope.  There is also a touching lullaby by Rudyard Kipling; a poem by W. H. Auden about the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; a word-play rhyme by Shel Silverstein; and haiku by Masaoka Shiki, Richard Wright, and Jack Kerouac.

My hope is that readers will find this eclectic mix of little poems as rewarding to read as it was for me to gather.

--Michael Hennessy

Books for Black History Month

Join Penguin Random House Education in celebrating the contributions of Black authors, creators, and educators. In honor of Black History Month in February, we are highlighting stories about the history of Black America, the experiences of Black women, celebrations of Black music, and essential books by Black writers. Find more books from Penguin Random House:

Read more