Short, Famous Poems for Middle School or High School Students
Poetry can be difficult to get excited about. It seems that poets go to great lengths to ensure no one understands anything they’re saying.
There are numerous poems available that you can give to your students, but many of them are so opaque that it’s difficult to make sense out of a single phrase. All of the poems included here are reasonably clear. If your students give any of these poems a careful reading, they should be able to get something out of them.
Quick Poem List
These are the selections on this page:
2. "Deer Hit"
3. "Mother to Son"
4. "Fire and Ice"
5. "Eating Poetry"
6. "That Sure is My Little Dog"
7. "Another Reason Why I Don't Keep a Gun in the House"
8. "Still I Rise"
10. "We Real Cool"
11. "The Shark"
13. "A Man Said to the Universe"
15. "She Walks in Beauty"
16. "The Raven"
17. "Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening"
18. "The Road Not Taken"
19. "Language Lesson 1976"
20. "Richard Cory"
21. "Because I Could Not Stop For Death"
22. "Sonnet 130"
23. "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud"
24. "Very Like a Whale"
25. "One Perfect Rose"
26. "When We Two Parted"
27. "The Workbox"
28. "My Papa's Waltz"
29. "The Unknown Citizen"
30. "My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is"
31. "A Litany in Time of Plague"
32. "A Work of Artifice"
33. "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night"
1. "Snow" | David Berman
The narrator and his little brother, Seth, are walking through a field. They see the imprints where kids had made snow angels. He tells Seth that angels had been shot and dissolved on the ground.
2. "Deer Hit" | Jon Loomis
A seventeen-year-old is driving drunk on a curvy road when he hits a deer. It's badly hurt but still alive. He puts it in his car.
Read "Deer Hit" (PDF Pg 6)
3. "Mother to Son" | Langston Hughes
A mother tells her son that her life has been hard but she has kept going, comparing it to climbing stairs. She urges him to keep climbing.
4. "Fire and Ice" | Robert Frost
The speaker considers whether the world's end will be with fire or ice. He gives his opinion on the question.
5. "Eating Poetry" | Mark Strand
The speaker is eating poetry in a library. The librarian is sad and can't believe what she's seeing.
6. "That Sure is My Little Dog" | Eleanor Lerman
The speaker wants to turn the responsibilities of the world over to the new generation.
7. "Another Reason Why I Don't Keep a Gun in the House" | Billy Collins
The neighbor's dog won't stop barking. The narrator tries various things to muffle the noise, including blasting a Beethoven symphony.
8. "Still I Rise" | Maya Angelou
The narrator asserts that she will rise regardless of what others say or think, or what happened in the past.
9. "Oranges" | Gary Soto
The speaker tells about the first time he walked with a girl at twelve-years-old. It was cold and he had two oranges in his jacket. They walked to a drugstore where he offered to buy her a candy.
10. "We Real Cool" | Gwendolyn Brooks
Seven teenager playing pool think they're really cool.
11. "The Shark" | E.J. Pratt
“And I saw the flash of a white throat,/ And a double row of white teeth,”
The narrator describes a shark’s menacing movements.
12. "Mirror" | Sylvia Plath
“I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.”
From a mirror’s point of view, this poem describes the mirror’s truthfulness, and its interpretation of the thoughts of a woman looking at her reflection.
13. "A Man Said To The Universe" | Stephen Crane
“A man said to the universe:/ ‘Sir, I exist!’/ ‘However,’ replied the universe,/ ‘The fact has not created in me/ A sense of obligation.’”
This quotation is the entire poem.
Poems 14–23 can be read at Poetry Foundation
14. "If" | Rudyard Kipling
“If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;/ If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;/ If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two impostors just the same;"
If is a poem of advice that advocates the “stiff upper lip” of the British upper class.
15. "She Walks in Beauty" | Lord Byron
“She walks in beauty, like the night/Of cloudless climes and starry skies”
This well known poem describes a beautiful and elegant woman.
16. "The Raven" | Edgar Allan Poe
“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 someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.”
The narrator reads and thinks of his lost love when a raven interrupts him at the window and repeats “Nevermore.”
This is one of the best known poems. It’s frequently parodied and referenced.
17. "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" | Robert Frost
“My little horse must think it queer/ to stop without a farmhouse near”
A man on horseback stops to look as snow falls in the woods.
18. "The Road Not Taken" | Robert Frost
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,/ And sorry I could not travel both”
The narrator stops at a fork in the road and thinks about each option.
19. "Language Lesson 1976" | Heather McHugh
“When Americans say a man / takes liberties, they mean / he’s gone too far.”
This poem plays with the multiple meanings and connotations of words.
20. "Richard Cory" | Edwin Arlington Robinson
“Whenever Richard Cory went downtown,/ We people on the pavement looked at him:/ He was a gentleman from sole to crown,/ Clean favored, and imperially slim.”
Richard Cory is rich, educated, and admired by all. This poem has a surprise ending that makes the reader question appearances.
21. "Because I Could Not Stop For Death" | Emily Dickinson
“Because I could not stop for death-/ He kindly stopped for me-/ The carriage held but just Ourselves-/ And Immortality.”
Death is personified as a gentleman caller who takes a carriage ride with the narrator.
22. "Sonnet 130" | Shakespeare
“I love to hear her speak, yet well I know / That music hath a far more pleasing sound;”
The narrator satirizes the clichés that poets use to describe the objects of their love by acknowledging that his mistress is inferior to nature’s beauty and other stock comparisons.
23. "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" (Daffodils) | William Wordsworth
“I wandered lonely as a cloud/ That floats on high o’er vales and hills,”
The narrator describes the impression that seeing a host of daffodils had on him.
This is one of the best known English language poems.
Poems 24–33 can be read at Poem Hunter
24. "Very Like a Whale" | Ogden Nash
“What does it mean when we are told / That the Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold?”
This comic poem mocks the use of metaphors and similes.
25. "One Perfect Rose" | Dorothy Parker
“A single flow’r he sent me, since we met./ All tenderly his messenger he chose;”
The narrator sentimentally describes a rose given to her by an admirer. It has a surprise comic ending.
26. "When We Two Parted" | Lord Byron
“They name thee before me,/ A knell to mine ear;”
The narrator describes his feelings when parting from his beloved.
27. "The Workbox" | Thomas Hardy
“So here’s the workbox, little wife,/ That I made of polished oak./ He was a joiner, of village life;/ She came of borough folk.”
A man gives his wife a workbox made from the same wood as a coffin. She is overcome with emotion.
28. "My Papa's Waltz" | Theodore Roethke
“The whiskey on your breath/ Could make a small boy dizzy;/ But I hung on like death:/ Such waltzing was not easy.”
The narrator relates his boyhood experience of “waltzing” with his father.
29. "The Unknown Citizen" | W. H. Auden
“Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,/ And his Health-Card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.”
A man’s life is described on a state-erected monument with details that appear in the “Bureau of Statistics”. He’s noteworthy for being a perfectly average citizen.
30. "My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is" | Sir Edward Dyer
“I fear no foe, I fawn no friend;/ I loathe not life, nor dread my end.”
This poem is an expression of a contented mind.
31. "A Litany in Time of Plague" | Thomas Nashe
“Beauty is but a flower/ Which wrinkles will devour;”
This poem details the indiscriminate nature of death; it comes for everyone regardless of wealth, beauty, or strength.
32. "A Work of Artifice" | Marge Piercy
“It is your nature/ to be small and cozy,/ domestic and weak;”
This poem compares women’s stunted development, physically and mentally, to a pruned bonsai tree.
33. "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" | Dylan Thomas
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
The narrator urges his listener to resist death with all his might.
In our quest to understand poetry there are a few questions we can ask:
- Who is the narrator?
- What is the point of view?
- What is the plot or the story of the poem?
- What does the title tell us about the poem?
- What does the poem literally mean?
- What is the setting?
- What do the words suggest or connote?
- What is the theme?