The Best Of African American Poetry

Throughout history, centuries of oppression against African Americans have inspired some of the greatest poems of all time. These poems perfectly capture the emotions of those who were enslaved, ripped from their homes, or simply not provided with the same freedoms and privileges as everyone else. 

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Sympathy has been read by hundreds of millions since it was written, and you probably recognize the final line even if you’re not familiar with the entire poem: “I know why the caged bird sings!” The phrase was made famous by Maya Angelou, who was inspired to write Caged Bird.

Angelou didn’t simply write about what it was like to enslaved literally, but figuratively as well, and through stark contrasted with what it was like to be free — or to yearn for freedom. She described a “bird that stalks / down his narrow cage / can seldom see through / his bars of rage.” You might also recognize those lines, even if you don’t recognize the entire poem. Although her poetry uses imagery to show us the effects of slavery, most of it is figurative in the sense of generalization.

Phillis Wheatley wrote On Being Brought from Africa to America, a poem that still resonates with people today. She was born and died in the latter half of the 18th century, and is famous for not only her beautiful poems, but because she was one of the first African Americans to publish such a book of poetry — and while she was still very young at that. Perhaps more astoundingly, she was given her freedom shortly after its publication.

Langston Hughes wrote I, Too during the Harlem Renaissance in the early 1900s. His poetry bears in mind the struggles of African Americans growing up and surviving in the United States, and reminds readers that it was never easy. This is especially recognizable when he describes the impact of segregation.

Pandemics Have Always Inspired Poetry

Life and art are interconnected as are the past and present. When confronted with the harshness of reality, we try to remember what others went through during similar events in the past. We try to take inspiration from their survival. Certainly we take it from the words they left behind. It should come as little surprise that poets never let a good crisis go to waste — and a devastating pandemic is as good a crisis as any.

One poem called Cholera from the modern era is a testament to the horrors of even worse outbreaks. It reads:

It is dawn.

Listen to the footsteps of the passerby,

in the silence of the dawn.

Listen, look at the mourning processions,

ten, twenty, no… countless.

Everywhere lies a corpse, mourned

without a eulogy or a moment of silence.

Humanity protests against the crimes of death.

Cholera is the vengeance of death.

Even the gravedigger has succumbed,

the muezzin is dead,

and who will eulogize the dead?

O Egypt, my heart is torn by the ravages of death.

Another work of poetry called Night Visitor evokes images of love, stress, and darkness in the face of inevitable death.  An Iraqi named Ahmed bin al-Hussein al-Kindi wrote it sometime during the 10th century after contracting a fever in Egypt. It reads:

For she does not pay her visits save under cover of darkness,

I freely offered her my linen and my pillows,

But she refused them, and spent the night in my bones.

My skin is too contracted to contain both my breath and her,

So she relaxes it with all sorts of sickness.

When she leaves me, she washes me

As though we had retired apart for some forbidden action.

It is as though the morning drives her away,

And her lachrymal ducts are flooded in their four channels.

I watch for her time without desire,

Yet with the watchfulness of the eager lover.

You can understand why many of us turn to these poems today. The novel coronavirus is extremely infectious and has a higher fatality rate than the seasonal flu, but many American citizens haven’t even begun to take the virus — or the disease it causes, COVID-19 — seriously. That failure will result in even more emotional pain as the cases, and eventual deaths, continue to mount. 

The best we can do is continue to share information, take care of one another, and explore works from the past in order to better cope with the present!

Is Robert Frost The Most Influential Poet Of All Time?

Robert Frost was a popular English poet before his death at the age of 88 in 1963, and he has perhaps grown even more popular as time has worn on. Many of those poems were written from a New England setting, which could be why he began to gain notoriety among Americans before his death. He is one of the few poets who gained fame before death, winning four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry while he was still alive. He was also granted the Congressional Gold Medal. 

One poem that you’ve probably quoted before is “The Road Not Taken.” Here it is:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

In the mood for something even simpler but just as memorable? Humans are obsessed with end of the world scenarios, which could be why “Fire and Ice” resonates with so many of us. Here it is:

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

Like the work of most popular poets, his was probably the result of emotional pain and suffering throughout life. He father died from tuberculosis when he was a young boy, leaving the family with almost nothing. He was a young adult when his mother died of cancer. His sister died from mental illness after Frost placed her in a mental hospital in 1920. 

Later, he had to do the same with his own daughter. And in fact, only two of his six children survived him. His wife died in 1938, long before he did. Perhaps it is no surprise that he and his family were all suffering from clinical depression.

Reading “The Waste Land” By T.S. Eliot

If you enjoy poetry, you’ll already have read this great — and frustrating — poem by T.S. Eliot. The poem is a thematic telling of those who lost much during World War I, with speakers sharing grief and exploring the concept of death in a chaotic, traumatic world. It begins before the war, when life was simpler. From there, it delves deeply into the darkness of the human experience during and after the war.

Here’s a sample of the first chapter:

   I. The Burial of the Dead

  April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee

With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,

And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,

And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.

And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,

My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,

And I was frightened. He said, Marie,

Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.

In the mountains, there you feel free.

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

  What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water. Only

There is shadow under this red rock,

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

And I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

                   Frisch weht der Wind

                      Der Heimat zu

                      Mein Irisch Kind,

                      Wo weilest du?

“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;

“They called me the hyacinth girl.”

—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,

Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not

Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither

Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,

Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Oed’ und leer das Meer.

The Greatest Poetry Of William Ernest Henley: Who Was He?

William Ernest Henley was an English poet, known for having only one leg. He was born in 1849. He married and had a child (who died at the tender age of five) between writing poems that would one day rocket his name to fame — but not before he died of tuberculosis when he was only 53. He passed away while resting at home in Woking, Surrey. He is perhaps best known for his poem “Invictus,” which follows:

Out of the night that covers me,

      Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

      For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

      I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

      Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

      How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

      I am the captain of my soul.

Henley was sick all his life, having come down with tuberculosis when he was only 12 years old. That bout with the disease forced surgeons to amputate his leg in 1868, the same year his father passed away. The disease left him in great pain almost all of his young life. 

Robert Louis Stevenson admitted once in a letter that his character “Long John Silver” was inspired by his friendship with Henley. He wrote Henley directly after publishing Treasure Island ni 1883: “I will now made a confession: It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver … the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.”

And his departed daughter Margaret actually inspired a famous character as well. J.M. Barrie chose the name “Wendy” in Peter Pan for precisely this reason.

But what kind of a man was Henley? Stevenson’s grandson described him thusly: “…a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he wept one off one’s feet.”

His brother recounted that Henley was in severe pain in the periods just before his tuberculosis abscesses were drained — but directly afterward he was known for his boundless energy.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that such a wonderful poet was victim to such a difficult life. That’s what they say about all writers, of course.

Ed Sheeran: The Most Popular Singer Ever?

Okay, not exactly — but apparently the lyrics to his song “Beautiful People” ranks number one on Letssingit’s survey of 1000 popular songs. The song is about being true to oneself, no matter what. It’s about abandoning the material world in order to search for greater meaning and true purpose in life. According to the lyrics in the song itself, those are the world’s most “Beautiful people.”

The song reads thus:

L.A. on a Saturday night in the summer

Sundown and they all come out

Lamborghinis and their rented Hummers

The party’s on, so they’re headin’ downtown

(‘Round here) everybody’s lookin’ for a come up

And they wanna know what you’re about

Me in the middle with the one I love and

We’re just tryna figure everything out

We don’t fit in well

‘Cause we are just ourselves

I could use some help

Gettin’ out of this conversation, yeah

You look stunning, dear

So don’t ask that question here

This is my only fear, that we become

Beautiful people

Drop top, designer clothes

Front row at fashion shows

“What d’you do?” And, “Who d’you know?”

Inside the world of beautiful people

Champagne and rolled-up notes

Prenups and broken homes

Surrounded, but still alone

Let’s leave the party

That’s not who we are

(We are, we are, we are)

We are not beautiful

Yeah, that’s not who we are

(We are, we are, we are)

We are not beautiful

L.A. mm

Drove for hours last night and we made it nowhere (nowhere, nowhere)

I see stars in your eyes when we’re halfway there (all night)

I’m not fazed by all them lights and flashin’ cameras (uh)

‘Cause with my arms around you, there’s no need to care

We don’t fit in well

We are just ourselves

I could use some help

Gettin’ out of this conversation, yeah

You look stunning, dear

So don’t ask that question here

This is my only fear, that we become

Beautiful people

Drop top, designer clothes

Front row at fashion shows

“What d’you do?” And “Who d’you know?”

Inside the world of beautiful people

Champagne and rolled-up notes

Prenups and broken homes

Surrounded, but still alone

Let’s leave the party

That’s not who we are

(We are, we are, we are)

We are not beautiful, yeah

Yeah, that’s not who we are

(We are, we are, we are)

We are not beautiful

We are, we are, we are

We are not beautiful

“The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe

One of the most influential poems of all time is called “The Raven” and was written by none other than Edgar Allen Poe. While the poem can be read through as no more than a simple story of a man’s love for the mysterior “Lenore,” it can obviously take on a more universal appeal.

Who among us hasn’t felt that kind of longing for another person at one time or another? Those feelings of love — unrequited or not — drive us in much that we do. We love, we lose, and we mourn. Those are the universal truths by which we are all bound.

Here’s an excerpt from the famous poem:


Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—

            Only this and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;

And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.

Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow

From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—

For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—

            Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;

So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating

“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—

Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—

            This it is and nothing more.”

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,

“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;

But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,

And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,

That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—

            Darkness there and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,

And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”

This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—

            Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,

Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.

“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;

      Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—

Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—

            ’Tis the wind and nothing more!”

Hart Crane’s Best Work Of 1869

How many of us don’t listen to our urges? Perhaps most intrinsic of all human dispositions is that base desire to explore — a thirst for adventure. That’s what Brooklyn Bridge represents in a fan-favorite Hart Crane poem, To Brooklyn Bridge. Here it is in its entirety:

Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge

by Hart Crane

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest

The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,

Shedding white rings of tumult, building high

Over the chained bay waters Liberty—

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes

As apparitional as sails that cross

Some page of figures to be filed away;

—Till elevators drop us from our day …

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights

With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene

Never disclosed, but hastened to again,

Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced

As though the sun took step of thee, yet left

Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,—

Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft

A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,

Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,

A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,

A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;

All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn …

Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,

Thy guerdon … Accolade thou dost bestow

Of anonymity time cannot raise:

Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,

(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)

Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,

Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,—

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift

Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,

Beading thy path—condense eternity:

And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;

Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.

The City’s fiery parcels all undone,

Already snow submerges an iron year …

O Sleepless as the river under thee,

Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,

Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend

And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

The bridge represents the potential inherent in an epic adventure that we all must embark upon at some point in our lives, whether personal or actual. In this poem we get to congregate with all those explorers who came before us. Perhaps most of all, To Brooklyn Bridge is a metaphor for the American resolve to make things bigger and better — to constantly strive to achieve the very best we can achieve. And perhaps that is what makes the poet timeless.

Still Relevant Today: “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”

Dylan Thomas probably didn’t realize the poem he’d written would have such universal and long-lasting appeal — but here we are in 2019, and the lines are as relevant as they’ve ever been. Then again, whereas it might always be interpreted to mean those who are at death’s door should always fight the urge to give in and go to their graves quietly, it can also be taken another way.

No matter the obstacle in front of you; no matter how bleak; no matter how unbreakable, unstoppable, or insurmountable it seems: do not remain complacent. Fight the good fight no matter what.

Here is the poem in its entirety:


Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Today, there’s an irony to those verses when you take them at face value. The “wise people” aren’t necessarily our elders. These days the wise people are the youth — the ones truly fighting for our future based on facts and empirical knowledge rather than the fruitless struggle of keeping the status quo the same. Then again, depending on your view of society, there are many who see the current president as the wisest leader of all (but we won’t comment on that).

Of course the artists among us will always continue toward the path of knowledge and reality over falseness and darkness. Words will continue to create powerful changes in our world even though, sooner or later, more might be required. What does the world hold in store for us? It’s anyone’s guess!

Metaphors In Song Lyrics: Katy Perry’s Firework

As soon as you read the headline of this article, you probably already started singing the phrase in your head. One of Katy Perry’s most popular songs from her Teenage Dream album is a great example of a metaphor in song lyrics.

Last I checked, I didn’t know anyone who was physically or literally a firework. So what does Katy Perry mean when she says the following lyrics:

Cause baby you’re a firework
Come on show them what you’re worth
Make them go oh, oh, oh
As you shoot across the sky

A firework is a big burst of colored flames that as Perry so eloquently put it, burst across the sky. They are loud, dynamic, full of energy, colorful, etc. In this metaphor, Perry encourages her listeners to be all of these things.

Music Video for Katy Perry’s Fireworks

A copy of her lyrics also show that the entire song is riddled with metaphors. What other metaphors can you pick out and what do they mean to you?

Do you ever feel like a plastic bag
Drifting thought the wind
Wanting to start again
Do you ever feel, feel so paper thin
Like a house of cards
One blow from caving in
Do you ever feel already buried deep
Six feet under scream
But no one seems to hear a thing
Do you know that there’s still a chance for you
‘Cause there’s a spark in you
You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine
Just own the night
Like the Fourth of July
‘Cause baby you’re a firework
Come on show ’em what your worth
Make ’em go “Oh, oh, oh!”
As you shoot across the sky-y-y
Baby you’re a firework
Come on let your colors burst
Make ’em go “Oh, oh, oh!”
You’re gonna leave ’em fallin’ down down down
You don’t have to feel like a waste of space
You’re original, cannot be replaced
If you only knew what the future holds
After a hurricane comes a rainbow
Maybe a reason why all the doors are closed
So you can open one that leads you to the perfect road
Like a lightning bolt, your heart will glow
And when it’s time, you’ll know
You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine
Just own the night
Like the Fourth of July
‘Cause baby you’re a firework
Come on show ’em what your worth
Make ’em go “Oh, oh, oh!”
As you shoot across the sky-y-y
Baby you’re a firework
Come on let your colors burst
Make ’em go “Oh, oh, oh!”
You’re gonna leave ’em fallin’ down down down
Boom, boom, boom
Even brighter than the moon, moon, moon
It’s always been inside of you, you, you
And now it’s time to let it through
‘Cause baby you’re a firework
Come on show ’em what your worth
Make ’em go “Oh, oh, oh!”
As you shoot across the sky-y-y
Baby you’re a firework
Come on let your colors burst
Make ’em go “Oh, oh, oh!”
You’re gonna leave ’em fallin’ down down down
Boom, boom, boom
Even brighter than the moon, moon, moon
Boom, boom, boom
Even brighter than the moon, moon, moon