feature image photo by jakkapan21 via Getty Images
I spend most of my free time thinking about poetry. Whether it’s because I’ve just written my own poem or just read someone else’s, there is so much to mull over when it comes to form. What I love the most in a poem is its ability to surprise me, to turn a phrase, to flip the script, to say something that I didn’t see coming. In the way that if you guess the twist in a horror movie ruins the movie for you, the same can ruin a poem for me.
I read a lot of poetry, so there are probably hundreds of lines I could recall that strike me in one way or another. It’s National Poetry Month, so I become a poetry hound, sniffing out new books and revisiting old ones, finding solace, rage, love, and beauty in some of the words crafted by writers I truly admire.
These aren’t necessarily my top 25 lines, these are just the ones I could recall today. I hope they do something for you as they have brought me immense pleasure (and sometimes an understanding of pain) that I hadn’t experienced until I read these lines.
1. “as we both know,/if you worship/one god, you only need/One enemy—”
from Witchgrass by Louise Glück
I think about this line (I’m counting this as one line, sue me) so so much. Even the opening lines: “something comes into the world unwelcome, calling disorder, disorderwp_postskind of haunt me. Any poet will tell you the first line has to have grip, and this poem doesn’t disappoint.
The thing about this specific line is that I’m not entirely sure what the exact meaning is. It makes sense, but my mind is grasping at something deeper that it cannot access when I read it. Maybe that’s why the line sticks with me, it resists a neat and definable meaning.
2. “I wash the silk and silt of her from my hands—/now who I come to, I come clean to, I come good to.”
from Grief Work by Natalie Diaz
“Grief Work” is one of my favorite Natalie Diaz poems, and I have written about these lines before. I think about coming to someone clean and good, and it takes my breath away because I have come to many people at my worst for many years. I like to think I am good now, but there is so much growth left in me.
3. “i’m hurt that you would ever think/ i don’t glisten to you i’m always glistening”
from You Can Take Off Your Sweater, I’ve Made Today Warm by Paige Lewis
This poem knocked me down when I first read it, especially this line. See my point about surprising the reader? You think the obvious word is coming and then it doesn’t. So stunning.
4. “I wished for a place big enough for grief/& all I got was more grief, plus People magazine.”
from How I Became Sagacious by Chen Chen
What I love about Chen Chen’s work but especially in this collection, When I Grow Up I Want to be a List of Further Possibilities, is the surprise and humor in it. It’s funny that People magazine shows up out of nowhere, it’s funny that when you want a way out of grief there is only more grief. Funny in a resigned sigh kind of way, not funny hahaha.
5. “I wake up & it breaks my heart”
from Meditations in an Emergency from Cameron Awkward-Rich
Truly incredible how this poem manages to break me open and put me back together in the same breath. I love this poem, and this is the opening line, making it a poem I come back to when I wake up and my heart is broken, which is often.
6. “Ickle, Ockle, Blue Bockle,/Fishes in the Sea./If You Want a Left Wife,/Please Choose Me.”
from Left-Wife Goose by Sharon Olds
Stag’s Leap is full of fucking bangers, but I think about this line the most. The lines “had a sow twin, had a reap twin/had a husband, could not keep himwp_postsare also so fucking gut punchy like jesus Sharon! I’ve never been divorced, but I feel like Left Wife when I read this poem.
7. “Show me one beast/ that loves itself as relentlessly/as even the most miserable man./ I’ll wait.”
from There Is No Such Thing As An Accident of the Spirit by Kaveh Akbar
If Kaveh Akbar has 1000 fans, I am one of them. If Kaveh Akbar has 0 fans, I am dead. This whole book (Pilgrim Bell, 2021) is a treasure but boyyyy this poem is so lovely. These lines are one I wish I would have written.
8. “She bites into a pear and every pearl/in the world releases its oyster”
from Frequently Asked Questions #4 by Camille T. Dungy
The power and imagery here is just beyond. BEYOND!
9. “I loved you before I was born/it doesn’t make sense, I know”
from I Loved You Before I Was Born by Li-Young Lee
Is there anything to be said here? Like oh my god. Okay, I will say this line reminds me of a lyric from one of my favorite songs, “Slow Show” by The National.
“You know I dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you”
This is art! There is poetry in everything! What a world!
10. “And in the aftermath the brother simply—flourished. The trees simply—bloomed.”
from Untitled by Diana Khoi Nyugen (Ghost of, 2018)
I’m listing the collection this poem appears in because the poem doesn’t have a title. And wow, this poem. If it’s possible to spoil the premise of a book of poems, I won’t do that here, but when you read this book, when you get to these lines, it’s going to hurt.
11. “You loved and were loved/said the bee to the lily/before it buzzed off.”
from A New Dawn by Mary Ruefle
This poem appears in Dunce, and if you can, you should get this book. I love this poem so much, and these lines that state a simple truth for many of us, as played out by a bee and a lily. Poets, man.
12. “What if I want to go devil instead?”
from Late Summer After a Panic Attack by Ada Limón
Whomst among us has not wanted to devil from time to time? I, a Scorpio, can certainly relate.
13. “when it is too late to pray the end of the flood/we pray instead to survive it.”
from Child’s Pose by Brionne Janae
Janae’s recognize Janae’s and so I like this poem a lot on that front, but this line? Woo. Wipe the sweat off your brow kind of pressure. It really made me ache in a new way when I first read it.
14. “Christ bore what suffering he could and died/a young man, but you waited years to learn/how to heal.”
from Pity by Camille T. Dungy
Please come get me off this floor.
15. “whatever/returns from oblivion returns/to find a voice”
from The Wild Iris by Louise Glück
This line has come to me at some of the worst times in my life and spurred me forward. That’s the power of Glück.
16. “Tonight I think/no poetry/will serve”
from Tonight No Poetry Will Serve by Adrienne Rich
Is it cheating to choose the titular line? I don’t know, but I think about this line a lot when I’m in love and down bad and longing for someone. Because even at its best moments sometimes even poetry isn’t enough.
17. “I am less of myself and more of the sun”
from Flash by Hazel Hall
I think this was once Poem-a-day at poets dot org and one day I had a really big rough time at therapy so stopped to get an almond butter brownie at the cafe/bookstore next door, and a book of poems by Hazel Hall nearly lept off the shelf at me. Sometimes the world gives you just what you need.
18. “Be a dream, a mezzanine/sesame seeds at the bottom of the package,”
from Presence by Nikola Madzirov
Because, why not be sesame seeds? Life can be that simple if we let it.
19. “I will bear him wherever I am taken/and no one will kill him and he will not die.”
from Self-Portrait as a Door by Donika Kelly
Has the end of a poem ever made you burst into tears, because this one did it for me. This whole book is achy and devastating but this? This is another level.
20. “for the full lips swelled, a dark/fruit bloomed under my/fingers”
from When I Touched Her by Toi Derricotte
I’m sure there are a few dykes reading this so I know y’all know, but the way this poem takes me back to the first time should be studied. It so effortlessly and beautifully captures the feeling of being with someone new.
21. “Goodest grief is an orchard you know. But you have not been killed/Once. Angel, put that on everything. Self. Country. Stone. Bride.”
from Ghazal for Becoming Your Own Country by Angel Nafis
Something about “goodest grief.wp_postsSomething about poems about grieving. Something about the ghazal. The title of this poem also just speaks to me and fills me up and makes me feel like not being my own country anymore.
22. “I want to buy you/a cobalt velvet couch/all your haters’ teeth/strung up like pearls”
from Want Could Kill Me by Xan Forest Phillips
As the owner of a green velvet couch and a Scorpio (not to rehash this point), but this speaks to me. I wanna wear my hater’s teeth something serious.
23. “I’m/the Vice President of panic and the President is/missing”
from On the train, a man snatches my book by Paige Lewis
There are so many things to panic about at any given moment living in America, and this line so expertly captures that feeling that many of us have succumbed to.
24. “In the age of loss there is/the dream of loss/in which, of course, I/am alive at the center—”
from About the Bees by Justin Phillip Reed
All I can think of when I read this poem is swarm, something alive at the center, maybe not for long at the center of a swarm. It’s so vivid and makes my skin crawl and I shove my shoulders up to my ears imagining it, but in like a cool way.
25. “For hunger is to give/the body what it knows/it cannot keep.”
from On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Poets have so much to say about hunger, but I like this best.
What are your favorite lines from poems this National Poetry Month?