Our Favorite Poems About Murder

Human history is rife with bloodshed, either through war or murder. Poets have explored every facet of this penchant for violence: why we do it, how we do it, and the cost of doing it for each successive generation. And even as we explore the reasons and mechanisms behind our own self-destructiveness, it continues to haunt us. Here is one of our favorite murder poems. Yuck.

His Soul is Torn in Response to A Ragged Soul was written by Bryan Florence to explore the feelings of a jury member when faced with the soul-crushing responsibility of deciding on another person’s fate when that person stands accused of committing a murder. Here’s the poem:

His soul is torn, taken in his youth.

I am not excusing him for killing his spouse with a hammer

His soul was lost long ago

When he was a child, merely four.

This does not enter into my conscious thoughts.

Should it though?

No.

We are here to decide on his fate.

He has already killed one,

and is suspected of murdering two who are missing.

Who could believe these were all coincidences?

Not me.

He turned and looked into my eyes once.

I felt the jury box melt.

I knew he wanted to kill me.

I felt dead.

If he could do that with a look, what could he do with a hammer?

I find it easy to cast my vote to keep him in prison for the rest of his life.

Imagining what a woman went through as he killed her with a hammer.

Pounding her head with at least forty two blows.

I never want him out.

When the verdict is read he turns and gives me a stare of pure hate.

I am terrified.

I had never met anyone soulless before.

Poems about murder all share a particular morbidity, but Florence’s short work manages to evoke feelings we don’t often think about or perceive. Juries are usually formed of mostly anonymous individuals who work behind closed doors. What do we know about how they feel when they convict a person for murder?

Exploring Debt Through Poetry

Debt and bankruptcy are among the biggest problems faced by American citizens — and their government — today, and those problems will likely be carried with us well into the future. It seems like they’re only getting worse with each new president. Poets have explored the notion of “debt” from a figurative standpoint forever. Here are a couple of our favorites.

The following poet by Paul Laurence Dunbar explores the concept of “debt” and the lack of debt settlement or relief in life. You might interpret to mean the “debts” that accrue one on top of another through bad decisions each day, i.e. the things we regret by the time we go to the grave. Or you might interpret it more literally as a commentary on American materialism and going into debt because we like to buy and buy and buy.

This is the debt I pay

Just for one riotous day,

Years of regret and grief,

Sorrow without relief.

Pay it I will to the end —

Until the grave, my friend,

Gives me a true release —

Gives me the clasp of peace.

Slight was the thing I bought,

Small was the debt I thought,

Poor was the loan at best —

God! but the interest!

This next poem is called “College’ll Wait” by Mark Stellinga — and it was added only this year! It explores debt from a different standpoint. The poem suggests that each of us has a debt to pay because we have a duty to society. College can “wait” because military service and making the world a safer, better place to live is more important. Here’s an excerpt:

She’d be doin’ absolutely everything she could to stop me from enlisting in 

the Army after school.

Trouble was…Dad and Grandpa both had proudly served, and plans ignoring their decisions didn’t feel too cool. 

Pointing at the photographs of my and my Dad’s father, all decked out in uniform, I argued with her, “Mom… 

Lots of other guys I know are joining up this summer, an’ I’d feel like a coward tellin’ Dad and Grandpa Tom…

“Given all the conflicts overseas…that I’m not going!   Plus – having missed the scholarship we all were sure I’d get –

College ’ll wait…and seein’ as Dad has yet to find a job…I don’t wanna add another dime of fam’ly debt.”

“Get in the car,” Mother barked…“it’s best you see – up close – the facet of – 

a conflict -that may help you to decide. 

We’re going to tour Walter Reed, and…by the time we leave…I’m sure you’ll feel the lucky ones are actually – those who died!”

At the end of the poem, the narrator realizes that what his mother showed him only made his desire to serve his country stronger. He’d now seen first-hand what others had sacrificed. It was important that those sacrifices be seen as a debt handed down to each future generation — and paid back one day at a time.

Valentine’s Day Poetry

Now that the holiday is past, we can start to reflect! Valentine’s Day means a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, it’s a special day where we get to show others how much we care. For others, it’s a special day to wallow in self-despair, doubt, and wonder if we’ll ever really find someone to love and who loves us back.

For many, the idea of Valentine’s Day is a joke all by itself — because why shouldn’t you share how much you love someone routinely, every day, all year long instead of just using one day as sort of an exclamation point on love?

No matter your personal beliefs, you can write a poem. And thankfully, others have already done the work for us. Here are a couple of our favorites.

Lord Byron wrote “She Walks in Beauty.” It’s a perfect way for a man to envision loving and cherishing a woman (or vice versa, if you change pronouns). Here it is:

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes;

Thus mellowed to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,

Had half impaired the nameless grace

Which waves in every raven tress,

Or softly lightens o’er her face;

Where thoughts serenely sweet express,

How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,

So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,

The smiles that win, the tints that glow,

But tell of days in goodness spent,

A mind at peace with all below,

A heart whose love is innocent!

Another writer named John Clare describes his feelings of “First Love,” which we mostly likely all remember. Here’s a short excerpt:

I ne’er was struck before that hour

With love so sudden and so sweet,

Her face it bloomed like a sweet flower

And stole my heart away complete.

My face turned pale as deadly pale,

My legs refused to walk away,

And when she looked, what could I ail?

My life and all seemed turned to clay.

And then my blood rushed to my face

And took my eyesight quite away,

The trees and bushes round the place

Seemed midnight at noonday.

I could not see a single thing,

Exploring The Hardships Of Divorce Through Poetry

You’ve probably heard the relevant statistics: nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. Or young people aren’t marrying or having children as much (or as early) as they once did. Society is about to collapse, blah blah blah. We’ve all heard the doomsday naysaying. Marriage is a difficult vow to uphold. The institution is under pressure from all sides. But sometimes it’s important to focus on the pain we feel at the end of one journey — which we can use to recognize that it can just as easily be viewed as the beginning of another.

How often do couples claim to have had an amicable divorce? They happen. But even when couples split up agreeably, it can still be an emotional roller coaster — especially after years of togetherness have been invested. The following poems explore divorce in all its forms, from the good to the bad.

“The Break Away” was written by Anne Sexton. And she’s not one to cut corners when describing the harsh realities of a life apart:

Your daisies have come

on the day of my divorce.

They arrive like round yellow fish,

sucking with love at the coral of our love.

Yet they wait,

in their short time,

like little utero half-borns,

half killed, thin and bone soft.

They breathe the air that stands

for twenty-five illicit days,

the sun crawling inside the sheets,

the moon spinning like a tornado

in the washbowl,

and we orchestrated them both,

calling ourselves TWO CAMP DIRECTORS.

There was a song, our song on your cassette,

that played over and over

and baptised the prodigals.

It spoke the unspeakable,

as the rain will on an attic roof,

letting the animal join its soul

as we kneeled before a miracle–

forgetting its knife.

Pablo Neruda’s popular poem “If You Forget Me” explores what it might be like to lose someone you love — even when you know you’re better off without them:

I want you to know

one thing.

You know how this is:

if I look

at the crystal moon, at the red branch

of the slow autumn at my window,

if I touch

near the fire

the impalpable ash

or the wrinkled body of the log,

everything carries me to you,

as if everything that exists,

aromas, light, metals,

were little boats

that sail

toward those isles of yours that wait for me.

And then there are the poets who explore what it means to make and break a vow at a time when vows were taken, well, more seriously than those made today. John Dryden shows us how to walk this path in “Why Should a Foolish Marriage Vow:”

Why should a foolish marriage vow,

Which long ago was made,

Oblige us to each other now

When passion is decay’d?

We loved, and we loved, as long as we could,

Till our love was loved out in us both:

But our marriage is dead, when the pleasure is fled:

‘Twas pleasure first made it an oath.

If I have pleasures for a friend,

And farther love in store,

What wrong has he whose joys did end,

And who could give no more?

‘Tis a madness that he should be jealous of me,

Or that I should bar him of another:

For all we can gain is to give ourselves pain,

When neither can hinder the other.

The History Of American Cities Through The Lens Of Poetry

The United States of America is a great melting pot of diversity, much of which can be seen in its cities. February is African American History Month — but most of us have forgotten because we’re so focused on COVID-19 and a historic second impeachment. But go to America’s cities, and the melting pot is there for everyone to see. The history becomes more visible. Chinatown in NYC, Little Tokyo in LA, the French Quarter in New Orleans. 

Poetry is a great way to experience a city’s history. 

Trenton, New Jersey holds a number of events throughout the year devoted to those whose hearts yearn for more poems from new and old writers alike. The Pop Up Shop: Black History Month: Poetry Edition will occur on February 27 at 2 PM in the Heavenly J Dance Studio. Remembering Poe will take place in the Historic Village at Allaire (Wall Township, NJ), but will set you back thirty dollars.

New York is another great place to enjoy the written word — voice aloud. The Spoken Word Battle Slam series: The ReBoot will take place in Brooklyn’s APAC Studio on Friday, March 5 at 8 PM. Slam poetry is an experience like no other, and we highly recommend seeing (and listening for yourself) at least once.

Head to Honey’s Lounge in Houston, Texas for Talkin Dirty After Dark on Friday, February 19, at 7 PM. A second event at Honey’s will present The Ides of March on Friday, March 19 at 7 PM.

For fifteen dollars, you can listen to Herbs & Words Spoken Word & Smokin Mics in Philadelphia, PA on February 27 at 8 PM. 

Those interested in city-specific poems can begin a relevant search here. Chicago Poems is an aptly-named collection of poems written by Carl Sandburg. Here’s an excerpt:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.

And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.

And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.

And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:

Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.

If you’re not drooling for American cities just yet, try “Elegy for the Native Guards.” Here’s a taste:

We leave Gulfport at noon; gulls overhead

trailing the boat—streamers, noisy fanfare—

all the way to Ship Island. What we see

first is the fort, its roof of grass, a lee—

half reminder of the men who served there—

a weathered monument to some of the dead.

Poems That Explore The Minority’s American Dream

The United States is a melting pot. We don’t have “culture” of our own — or so some say — not because we haven’t built a wonderful country, but because we’ve assimilated the cultures of all our combined peoples. We’ve assimilated their foods, their interests, their art, and everything else. But for some reason not all of us understand that our diversity is what makes us stronger. It’s what gives us that little extra something that other countries lack.

And because of that, discrimination against minorities is alive and well in America. If anything, the last four years have ensured that the friction between our minority and majority communities is more dangerous than ever. Attacks against minorities are on the rise. And that’s why we feel it’s time to enjoy some of the poems that explore the American dream — from a minority’s point of view.

Langston Hughes provided us with a wonderful poetic vision of his American dream. A compilation called The Dream Keeper and Other Poems gave us great insight. He wrote:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes […].

Tomorrow,

I’ll sit at the table

When company comes. […]

Besides,

They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed —

I, too, sing America.

The lines express a semblance of camaraderie between those who feel like outcasts and everyone else — even if some people pretend not to see it. Langston writes as an American like anyone else, and challenges those who are prejudiced to take a good look and see if they can say he isn’t really beautiful.

“Not a Movie” shows the struggle that African Americans once endured when trying to vote. Sadly, that struggle is echoed today in the GOP’s use of voter suppression. 

Well, they rocked him with road-apples

Because he tried to vote

and whipped his head with clubs

and he crawled on his knees to his house

and he got the midnight train

and he crossed that Dixie line

now he’s livin’

on a 133rd.

[…] And there ain’t no Ku Klux

On a 133rd.

Other minorities express similar struggles through poetry. A group of Muslim American girls wrote “American Dream” and “Welcome” to show what their parents expected when immigrating. This is “Chameleon,” written in part by 15-year-old Lena Ginawi.

We will never be white only pretend to be. We hide behind big mirrors and lies unsure of who we really are.

African American or the other way around? Pakistani first, American?,” they say.

“Tears roll off our face. The droplets form a perfectly curved rainbow. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, which one am I?” they say voices rising.

“Which one are we. Maybe we’re a mix. Maybe we are many. A combination of colors … Maybe we are one.”

Theirs is a story so many share: that of a marginalized community trying to fit in just like everyone else. 

Poems To Inspire During The Remaining Months Of The Coronavirus Pandemic

By the end of this pandemic, it’s almost certain that most of us will understand some semblance of the losses we’ve been forced to endure. Even those of us who haven’t directly felt the effect will have a friend or friend of a friend who lost a loved one or works in healthcare. Nursing homes have been entirely wiped out by COVID-19, their residents sent to the hospital to never return. While some of us will always deny the reality of what has happened, most of us get it. And we’re looking for a way to cope.

Well, poetry will always provide an outlet for those of us who need it the most. Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” is a great reminder that life presents us a choice: allow pain to conquer all, or allow all to conquer pain. Granted, Bishop wrote this poem in the 70s while struggling with alcoholism, but the words are certainly as relevant as ever — especially since they begin with a list of things that can be lost. The bright side is this: some of us haven’t lost near to everything we have worth having, and we should cherish all left to us in this time of uncertainty.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

The Risk Of Suicide In Poets And Their Works

Poetry has always been a medium for the subjects we least like to discuss. It’s a way to describe our innermost thoughts without saying exactly what we mean, and that’s why it’s so special. A poem is always open to interpretation, and that means that many readers will never truly understand the mind of the poet. But that’s okay. This style of writing is meant to be fluid.

Many readers believe that a number of writers who have committed suicide left clues in their poems–Sylvia Plath chief among them. According to research on the subject, writers who have committed suicide veer toward subjects of social detachment and narcissism, in stark contrast with writers who lived to a ripe old age or died naturally.

Writers are known to commit suicide at a greater rate than average, poets in particular, so it might not come as too much of a surprise that depressed writers tend to choose darker words and explore darker subjects than happy writers. According to the same research, struggling writers often stick to the first-person point of view, using the word “I” at higher rates.

Today, poetry is used as a medium in order to prevent suicide. It is used to explore our feelings of grief after a loss or teach others about options to cope with depression.

There are those who believe it’s the nature of poetry that causes depression among poets. When you write, you most often do it alone. As a species, we most often focus on the negative over the positive. Poetry is a means of personal expression, and therefore it focuses on the bad over the good. Then again, poets also have increased rates of mental illness. Is creativity a predictor of depression or other mental illness?

Poets tend to die an average of six years earlier than those in other professions. This is due to increased rates of alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, and all the health concerns that result. Whether or not this is causative is open to debate. Perhaps those who are depressed are simply more likely to turn to poetry as a means of coping.

THE SYLVIA PLATH EFFECT ON POETRY

It is generally admitted that poetry is one of the great art forms in the world, as it is painting with words. And some of the best word painters have been men – but only because their careers are longer and thus their portfolios thicker.

Turns out, this is not a sexism thing nor is it something having to do with the “patriarchy.” There is apparently a mental pathology that seems to dictate that female poets – for all their equal brilliance with the written word – will generally have a shorter career in poetry, and life as a whole.

Sylvia Plath was one of the great young female poets of her time but had her life cut short by depression, as she committed suicide in 1963 at the age of 30 by putting her head inside an oven and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning while her children slept in nearby bedrooms.

A number of studies look at writers and poets of both genders, and even prominent women in various career fields, to determine if there was something to the curious case of a number of female poets who died or were committed to mental institutions for various disorders. The research in the several studies all came to pretty profound conclusions – female poets or creative writers actually had a higher likelihood of mental illness than male counterparts or even women in other career fields. And frankly, it wasn’t even close, which was all the more remarkable.

In 2001, a psychologist by the name of James Kaufman developed the phrase “Sylvia Plath effect” to describe this phenomenon of female creative writers falling victim to mental illness at a higher rate than other women and male creative writers.  There has been some pathological research that seems to locate some indicators of those who have higher risks of mental illness, but so far there is no real determination as to whether the mental illness creates the poets, or whether being a woman and what happens to bring about the mental illness. The “chicken or egg” dilemma is still being discovered and researched.

It is unfortunate that the Sylvia Plath effect is not based on a phenomenon of great female poets coming out of the classes from which Sylvia Plath is taught – but instead, it describes the odd phenomenon of the high mortality rates of female creative writers (which an exception being the long and storied career of modern poet Maya Angelou). If your daughter has aspirations of becoming a poet or creative writer, it might be a good idea to take her in for a psychological evaluation, just to make sure she’s not susceptible to the Sylvia Plath effect.

Considering The Symbolism Of “The Raven”

As we get ever closer to Halloween, one of the favorite activities of some families is to read some of the classic works of Edgar Allen Poe.

After all, who else in American literature has such scary and macabre stories and poems, focused on death and lost love? Edgar’s our man when it comes to Halloween.

One of the favorite Halloween poems is “The Raven,” which was successfully spoofed by the animated show The Simpsons during a Halloween special.

Poe developed quite a legacy with his short stories and poems, all revolving around death, lost love and the macabre in general. “The Raven” is one of those poems that can be analyzed to be about either death or lost love, or perhaps both. The symbolism can be interpreted in a number of ways, and let’s take a quick look at a couple of these symbols and what they could mean.

The Raven

Of course in a poem known as “The Raven,” it would only make sense to spend a little time discussing the title character. The raven tortures the narrator of the poem, especially with his incessant “nevermore” reply. But what does the raven mean in the poem?

The narrator refers to “Lenore” a few times in the piece, and the raven is asked about Lenore. While the Lenore symbolism will be discussed in a minute, the raven could either be seen as death (due to the dark color of the bird, which is often correlative to death) or could be symbolizing the Grim Reaper taking away Lenore, that lost love. Another idea has to do with Lenore not being an actual person but a symbol of love, where the raven is a reminder to the narrator that death is coming and overrules any positive emotion in this mortal existence.

Lenore

Lenore is clearly a symbol and is not referring to an actual person. At least, that seems to be the idea, because Poe takes no effort to explain anything about her.

We know from Poe’s biography that he did have a true love lost in his life, a woman whom he was infatuated but was forbidden because she was married to someone else. Then she died quite young and it tore Poe’s heart.  Perhaps Lenore is a memory of that lost love, and the raven represents death which took her away from the narrator and tortures the narrator’s heartbreak.

Another possible explanation is that Lenore could represent life eternal, or hope and optimism, while the raven is reality of death and the finality of mortal existence, and as much as the narrator wants to “focus” on what is possible with Lenore, the raven never fails to dominate the room, showing that escaping death can never happen. It’s like paying taxes.

Flight of the Raven

Which direction “The Raven” actually goes is up for healthy debate, but it seems pretty clear that both of Poe’s favorite themes – death and lost love – are showing in colorful words straight from the heart of Poe, one of the great writers in American history, and the darling of Halloween.