The HyperTexts

The Best Short Poems of All Time

Which poets wrote the best short poems of all time? The best short poems include ancient Greek epigrams by poets like Sappho, haiku and tanka by Oriental masters like Basho, lyric poems by Western poets like William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, and songs old and new like "Auld Lang Syne" and "Let It Be." Some of the best modern composers of lyric poems include singer-songwriters like Adele, David Bowie, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Michael Jackson, Carole King, Prince, Smokey Robinson, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen. Famous composers of short poems include W. H. Auden, William Blake, Robert Burns, Stephen Crane, e. e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, Langston Hughes, A. E. Housman, John Keats, Walter Savage Landor, Martial, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, Ezra Pound, Sara Teasdale, Dylan Thomas, Oscar Wilde, William Wordsworth and William Butler Yeats. I have also included translations of Sappho, Rumi, Hafiz, Li Po and other poets.

compiled by Michael R. Burch, editor of The HyperTexts

Please keep in mind that this page reflects one person's opinion, for whatever it's worth ...

Lyric Poetry Definition, Origins and History

Sing, my sacred tortoiseshell lyre;
come, let my words
accompany your voice.
—Sappho, fragment 118, translated by Michael R. Burch

Lyric poetry is usually brief and expresses personal thoughts and emotions without the plot and character development common to narrative poetry, dramatic poetry, plays and novels. A great lyric poem is like a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky. If you stick with me for a few minutes, you'll have the chance to experience some of the most dazzling lightning bolts in the English language, and perhaps get struck yourself. But for now here's a quick example, by the Greek poet Sappho of Lesbos:

Eros harrows my heart:
wild winds whipping desolate mountains,
uprooting oaks.
—Sappho, fragment 142, translated by Michael R. Burch

In the ancient world, such poems were often accompanied by someone playing the lyre. Our word "lyric" has its root in the lyre. Thus lyric poems and song lyrics are closely related "kissing cousins." In fact, nearly all hit songs are rhyming poems set to music! The connection between lyric poems and song lyrics can be clearly seen in the first epigram of  Sappho above, and in this one below:

Now, I shall sing these songs
for my companions.
—Sappho, fragment 3, translated by Julia Dubnoff

Sappho fans can find other translations of her poems later on this page. Please be sure not to miss this opportunity to read some truly wonderful poems by a remarkable poet. Here's a lovely, touching epigram by another ancient poet:

Lie lightly on her, turf and dew ...
She put so little weight on you.
Marcus Valerius Martial

The lines above appear in a poem Martial wrote for a slave girl, Erotion, who died six days short of her sixth birthday. Here's a short poem by a contemporary poet I believe Sappho would admire and sympathize with:

Loving me isn’t easy,
I have sharp edges,
I have missing parts.
—Donte Collins

Here's another poem, by an American Sappho:

Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit—Life
—Emily Dickinson

I just love the wisdom and spirit of Hafiz in this subversive (pardon the pun) little poem. I can see Trump putting refugees in cages, while Hafiz goes around letting them out for a moondance!

Dispensing Keys
by Hafiz
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The imbecile
constructs cages
for everyone he knows,
while the sage
(who has to duck his head
whenever the moon glows)
keeps dispensing keys
all night long
to the beautiful, rowdy,
prison gang.

Here's a poem that questions racism on earth and in heaven:

She thinks that even up in heaven
Her class lies late and snores,
While poor black cherubs rise at seven
To do celestial chores.
Countee Cullen "A Lady I Know"

Here's a very touching poem about the loss of love:

I know what my heart is like
since your love died;
it is like a hollow ledge
holding a little pool
left there by the tide,
a little tepid pool,
drying inward from the edge.
—Edna St. Vincent Millay "Ebb"

Here's a somewhat similar poem:

And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
                  Not shaking the grass.
—Ezra Pound, "And The Days Are Not Full Enough"

This poem reminds us of man's capacity for inhumanity:

by Ko Un
translation by Michael R. Burch

At Auschwitz
piles of glasses
mountains of shoes
returning, we stared out different windows.

Here's a poem that seems to be something of a cross between a lullaby and an elegy:

Here a pretty baby lies 
Sung asleep with lullabies: 
Pray be silent, and not stir 
Th' easy earth that covers her. 
—Robert Herrick "Another: Upon a Child"

Here's a much happier poem:

I caught the happy virus last night
When I was out singing beneath the stars.
It is remarkably contagious—
So kiss me.

Here's a little zinger:

Write it in fire across the night:
Some men are more or less all right.
—Wendy Cope

Here's a poem by Langston Hughes called "Impasse" ...

I could tell you
If I wanted to,
What makes me
What I am.

But I don't
Really want to—
And you don't
Give a damn.
—Langston Hughes

Here's a very different poem by the same poet called "Quiet Girl" ...

I would liken you
To a night without stars
Were it not for your eyes.
I would liken you
To a sleep without dreams
Were it not for your songs.
—Langston Hughes

Sometimes a poet writes a brief poem about another brief poem:

... lifting my cup,
I asked the moon
to drink with me ...
—Li Po

And if Li Po had
got the moon in his mitts
what would he have done with it?
—Cid Corman

I dedicated the poem below to the love of my life, but you are welcome to dedicate it to the love of yours, if you like it. The opening lines were inspired by a famous love poem written by e. e. cummings.

don’t forget ...
by Michael R. Burch

don’t forget to remember
that Space is curved
(like your Heart)
and that even Light is bent
by your Gravity.

Rumi is now the best-selling poet in the United States:

When I am with you, we stay up all night.
When you're not here, I can't go to sleep.
Praise God for these two insomnias!
And the difference between them.
―Jalaluddin Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks

And while T. H. White is much better known today for his novel The Once and Future King, which inspired the musical Camelot and Disney's animated classic The Sword in the Stone, he was also a poet who in four lines expressed what it means to be a poet:

A bitter heart lay here and yet
It was not bitter to the bone.
It made what Time does not unmake
All hopeful, and alone.
―T. H. White

Differences Between Lyric, Dramatic and Narrative Poetry

Dramatic poetry is meant to be spoken: for instance, the soliloquies of Hamlet, Lear, Othello and Macbeth. Narrative poems tell stories: for instance, "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" and the wonderfully haunting poetic ghost story "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes. Epic poems are generally longer narrative poems, such as "Beowulf" and "Paradise Lost." Ballads also tell stories; for instance, "Sir Patrick Spens." But a lyric poem may exist merely or primarily to convey an image, feeling, thought or impression, as in ancient Greek epitaphs (a form of epigram). By way of example, here are my modern English "interpretations" of gravestone inscriptions attributed to various Greek masters:

Mariner, do not ask whose tomb this may be,
but go with good fortune: I wish you a kinder sea.
Michael R. Burch, after Plato

Does my soul abide in heaven, or hell?
Only the sea gull
in his high, lonely circuits may tell.
Michael R. Burch, after Glaucus

tell the Spartans we lie
dead at their word,
obedient to their command.
Have they heard?
Do they understand?
Michael R. Burch, after Simonides

NOTE: Simonides was speaking about the band of heroic Spartans who died to the last man defending the "hot gates" of Thermopylae.

Here he lies in state tonight:
great is his Monument!
Yet Ares cares not,
neither does War relent.
Michael R. Burch, after Anacreon

NOTE: Ares was the Greek god of war; he was equivalent to Mars, the Roman god of war.

Blame not the gale, or the inhospitable sea-gulf, or friends’ tardiness,
mariner! Just man’s foolhardiness.
Michael R. Burch, after Leonidas of Tarentum

The Method of Lyric Poetry: How Does it Work?

Lyric poems often strike chords in readers and set them resonating instantaneously by "invoking" things common to all humanity: the fear of death, the sadness of lives cut short, the sorrow of parting, etc. But of course lyric poems can also strike sweet, highly positive chords as well: love, friendship, companionship, etc. Here's a moving example of a lyric poem that blends sweet and sad chords beautifully, and well:

Bread and Music
by Conrad Aiken

Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread;
Now that I am without you, all is desolate;
All that was once so beautiful is dead.

Your hands once touched this table and this silver,
And I have seen your fingers hold this glass.
These things do not remember you, belovèd,
And yet your touch upon them will not pass.

For it was in my heart you moved among them,
And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes;
And in my heart they will remember always,—
They knew you once, O beautiful and wise.

Mary Elizabeth Frye is, perhaps, the most mysterious poet who appears on this page, and perhaps in the annals of poetry. Rather than spoiling the mystery, I will present her poem first, then provide the details ...

Do not stand at my grave and weep
by Mary Elizabeth Frye

Do not stand at my grave and weep:
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starshine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry:
I am not there; I did not die.

This consoling elegy had a very mysterious genesis, as it was written by Mary Elizabeth Frye, a Baltimore housewife who lacked a formal education, having been orphaned at age three. She had never written poetry before. Frye wrote the poem on a ripped-off piece of a brown grocery bag, in a burst of compassion for a Jewish girl who had fled the Holocaust only to receive news that her mother had died in Germany. The girl was weeping inconsolably because she couldn't visit her mother's grave to share her tears of love and bereavement. When the poem was named Britain's most popular poem in a 1996 Bookworm poll, with more than 30,000 call-in votes despite not having been one of the critics' nominations, an unlettered orphan girl had seemingly surpassed all England's many cultured and degreed ivory towerists in the public's estimation. Although the poem's origin was disputed for some time (it had been attributed to Native American and other sources), Frye's authorship was confirmed in 1998 after investigative research by Abigail Van Buren, the newspaper columnist better known as "Dear Abby." The poem has also been called "I Am" due to its rather biblical repetitions of the phrase. Frye never formally published or copyrighted the poem, so we believe it is in the public domain and can be shared, although we recommend that it not be used for commercial purposes, since Frye never tried to profit from it herself.

The Beautiful Changes
by Richard Wilbur

One wading a Fall meadow finds on all sides
The Queen Anne’s Lace lying like lilies
On water; it glides
So from the walker, it turns
Dry grass to a lake, as the slightest shade of you
Valleys my mind in fabulous blue Lucernes.

The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.

Your hands hold roses always in a way that says
They are not only yours; the beautiful changes
In such kind ways,
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.

At the Window
by D. H. Lawrence

The pine-trees bend to listen to the autumn wind as it mutters
Something which sets the black poplars ashake with hysterical laughter;
While slowly the house of day is closing its eastern shutters.

Further down the valley the clustered tombstones recede,
Winding about their dimness the mist's grey cerements, after
The street lamps in the darkness have suddenly started to bleed.

The leaves fly over the window and utter a word as they pass
To the face that leans from the darkness, intent, with two dark-filled eyes
That watch for ever earnestly from behind the window glass.

The Sheaves
by Edward Arlington Robinson

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled,
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as by some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly into gold.
Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.

So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay –
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

Haiku and Epigrams Are Related Forms of Lyric Poetry

Haiku can be quite similar to the best Greek epigrams: short and sweet, or (more often) short and bittersweet. Here are my translations of two wonderful haiku by Oriental masters:

The butterfly
perfuming its wings
fans the orchid
— Matsuo Basho, translated by Michael R. Burch

Oh, fallen camellias,
if I were you,
I'd leap into the torrent!

— Takaha Shugyo, translated by Michael R. Burch

The fact that the ancient Greek masters and ancient Oriental masters adopted similar methods may indicate that lyric poetry may rise from a wellspring of common humanity.

Attributes of Popular Lyric Poetry and Song Lyrics

Lyric poems do not require rhyme or regular meter, although many lyric poems do rhyme, have a discernable "beat" and/or have been set to music. Some of the best-known songs of all time are lyric poems that were set to music: for instance, "Auld Lang Syne" by the Scottish poet Robert Burns and "To Celia" by the English poet Ben Jonson:

To Celia
by Ben Jonson

Drink to me, only, with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I'll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise,
Doth ask a drink divine:
But might I of Jove's nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.

I sent thee, late, a rosy wreath,
Not so much honouring thee,
As giving it a hope, that there
It could not withered be.
But thou thereon didst only breathe,
And sent'st back to me:
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
Not of itself, but thee.

Traditional songs like "Greensleeves," "Shenandoah" and "Danny Boy" are other examples of lyric poems set to music, as are most of the best-loved hymns. Some of the best-known contemporary songwriters are lyric poets. In fact, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Jewel have published books of poems, while Paul Simon wrote some of his most famous songs as poems, then set them to music later:

I Am a Rock
by Paul Simon; performed by Simon & Garfunkel

A winter's day
In a deep and dark December;
I am alone,
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

The History of Lyric Poetry, Spoken-Word Poetry and Performance Poetry

Lyric poetry has a long history, with a good degree of "cross pollination" down the years. (Indeed, the song above seems to be a young, unhappy poet's refutation of the lyric poet John Donne's assertion that "no man is an island.") Aristotle mentioned lyric poetry (kitharistike, played to the cithara, a musical instrument similar to the lyre, and the forerunner of the modern guitar) in his Poetics, along with drama, epic poetry, dancing, painting and other forms of mimesis. Archaic and classical Greek lyric poetry involved live performances accompanied by stringed instruments, so lyric poetry may be the first "performance poetry" that didn’t require a stage, actors and a chorus. If the poet was also the musician, he could be a "one man band," so the first lyric poets were probably the Bob Dylans of their day. Here's one of the earliest lyric poems to have been written in the English language (although the original poem is virtually unreadable today, resembling ancient German more than modern English):

Wulf and Eadwacer
anonymous ballad, circa 960-990 AD
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The outlanders pursue him as if he were game.
They will kill him if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.

Wulf is on one island; I, on another.
That island is fast, surrounded by fens.
There are fierce men on this island.
They will kill him if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.

My thoughts pursued Wulf like a panting hound.
Whenever it rained and I woke disconsolate
the bold warrior came: he took me in his arms.
For me, there was pleasure, but its end was loathsome.
Wulf, O, my Wulf, my ache for you
has made me sick; your infrequent visits
have left me famished, but why should I eat?
Do you hear, Eadwacer? A she-wolf has borne
our wretched whelp to the woods.
One can easily sunder what never was one:
our song together.

This short poem by the most popular poet in his day reminds me of some of those eerie early ballads from the dawn of English poetry:

The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The tide rises, the tide falls,...
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveler hastens toward the town,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
Efface the footprints in the sands,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls
Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;
The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveler to the shore,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Here's another eerie short poem:

Prodigal Son
by Witter Bynner

What was given...
Me at birth
Was not Heaven,
It was Earth.

Though some other
House be fine,
Strange old Father,
This is mine.

Lyric Poetry was the Province of the First Great Female Poets

"Wulf and Eadwacer" has been one of my favorite poems since the first time I read it. In fact, I liked the poem so much that I ended up translating it myself. This is quite possibly the first extant English poem by a female poet. It is also one of the first English poems to employ a refrain, and its closing metaphor of a loveless relationship being like a song in which two voices never harmonized remains one of the strongest in English literature.

One of the best and most famous lyric poets of antiquity was a woman, Sappho. Sappho was born on the island of Lesbos around 620 BC. According to the Parian Marble, Sappho was exiled to Sicily sometime between 604 and 594. Cicero mentioned that a statue of her stood in the town hall of Syracuse, so she was famous in her own day, or not long thereafter. “She is a mortal marvel,” wrote Antipater of Sidon, before proceeding to catalog the Seven Wonders of the World. It is because of the homoerotic nature of some of Sappho's poems that "lesbian" and "sapphic" have their current  sexual denotations and connotations. Most of Sappho's poetry has been lost, but her reputation has endured through surviving fragments, many of them fleshed out by other poets who sought to "fill in the blanks." (Of the 189 known fragments of her work, twenty contain just one readable word, thirteen have only two, and nearly half have ten or fewer.) Major poets like Ben Jonson, T. S. Eliot, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Lowell and Lord Byron either translated her work, or wrote poems in response to hers, so she has been (and remains) obviously influential ...

Sappho, fragment 58
translated by Mary Barnard

Pain penetrates
Me drop
by drop

Sappho, fragment 155
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

A short transparent frock?
It's just my luck
your lips were made to mock!

Sappho, fragment 156
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

She keeps her scents
in a dressing-case
and her sense?
In some undiscoverable place.

Sappho, fragment 39
"Songs of the Springtides"
by Charles Algernon Swinburne

The tawny sweetwinged thing
Whose cry was but of Spring.

The Most Popular Form of Western Lyric Poetry Historically: the Sonnet

Historically the most popular form of lyric poetry in the Western tradition has been the sonnet, most commonly Petrarchan or Shakespearean, but with many other varieties, such as unrhymed blank verse sonnets; the curtal, sprung-rhythm sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins; the free verse sonnets of e. e. cummings with their eclectic phrasing, capitalization and typography; and basically "the kitchen sink," or everything in between ...

Sonnet 147
by William Shakespeare

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest.
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen's are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed,
  For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
  Who art as black as Hell, as dark as night.

Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets are generally written in iambic pentameter (ten syllables per line, with a fairly regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables: for I have SWORN thee FAIR and THOUGHT thee BRIGHT) with a predefined rhyme scheme. For instance, a Shakespearean sonnet has the rhyme scheme: abab cdcd efef gg. But metrical variation is allowed in such sonnets, and even the poets who made up the "rules" sometimes broke them: Shakespeare, for instance. In fact, Shakespeare had to break the existing rules of his day in order to create the form that is now named after him. As Anthony Hecht pointed out in his article on the sonnet for Encyclopedia Britannica, canonical forms like the sonnet demand innovation from poets who wish to become original artists in their own right.

Other Popular Forms of Lyric Poetry

Lyric poetry also appears in a wide variety of other forms, including ballades, canzones and villanelles:

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

by Dylan Thomas

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.

"Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" is the best-known villanelle in the English language, and justifiably so.

The Free Verse Lyric

But today the most common form of lyric poetry is unrhymed, metrically ad-hoc free verse:

A Noiseless Patient Spider
by Walt Whitman

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

But the lines easily blur, as in the magnificent poem below, which has elements of both formal blank verse and free verse:

Those Winter Sundays
by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

Robert Hayden is probably an unknown or undervalued poet to most readers today, but every reader should be intimately familiar with this wonderful poem. "Those Winter Sundays" illustrates how one poem can make a poet immortal. I may never remember another poem by Hayden, but I will certainly never forget this one.

Light Verse and Doggerel

Another popular form of poetry is humorous verse, often called light verse and/or doggerel. Limericks and nursery rhymes are two well-known forms of light verse.

Edward Lear helped popularize the limerick:

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, "It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!"
Edward Lear

The most common form of the limerick is a stanza of five lines, with the first, second and fifth lines rhyming with each another and having three feet of three syllables each, while the third and fourth lines rhyme with each other, but are shorter, having only two feet of three syllables. The metrical "foot" employed is usually the anapest, (ta-ta-TUM), but limericks can also be amphibrachic (ta-TUM-ta).

There was a young lady named Bright
who traveled much faster than light.
She set out one day
in a relative way,
and came back the previous night.

I find it interesting that one of the best explanations of the weirdness and zaniness of relativity can be found in a limerick. The limerick above inspired me to pen a rejoinder:

Einstein, the frizzy-haired,
claimed E equals MC squared;
thus ALL mass decreases
as activity ceases ...
not my mass, my ass declared!
Michael R. Burch

Here is a well-known nursery rhyme, also called nonsense verse:

Hey diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle.
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such sport
And the dish ran away with the spoon.
—Mother Goose

Here's another of my all-time favorites, which illustrates how punning wordplay can spice up limericks:

A wonderful bird is the pelican;
His beak can hold more than his belican.
He can hold in his beak
Enough food for a week,
Though I’m damned if I know how the helican!
—Dixon Lanier Merritt (often incorrectly ascribed to Ogden Nash, but there are a number of Ogden Nash poems later on this page)

The clerihew is a whimsical, four-line biographical poem invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley. The first line is the name of the poem's subject, usually a famous person portrayed in an absurd light. The rhyme scheme is AABB. The line length and meter are irregular. In 1983, Games Magazine ran a contest titled "Do You Clerihew?" The winning entry was:

Did Descartes
With the thought
"Therefore I'm not"?

Rene Descartes is, of course, famous for the observation: "I think, therefore I am."

The double dactyl is a verse form invented by Anthony Hecht and Paul Pascal in 1961. Like the limerick, it has a specific structure and is usually humorous. There must be two stanzas, each comprising three lines of dactylic dimeter followed by a line consisting of just a choriamb. The two stanzas must rhyme on their last lines. The first line of the first stanza is repetitive nonsense. The second line of the first stanza is the subject of the poem, a proper noun. The name must itself be double-dactylic. There is also a requirement for at least one line of the second stanza to be entirely one double dactyl word. Some purists still follow Hecht and Pascal's original rule that no single six-syllable word, once used in a double dactyl, should ever be knowingly used again.

Emily Dickinson
Liked to use dashes
Instead of full stops.

Nowadays, faced with such
Critics and editors
Send for the cops.
—Wendy Cope

Ad-hoc light verse can take just about any form, from one-line epigrams, to heroic couplets (or unheroic?), to free verse, to epic-length poems like Lord Byron's "Don Juan" ...

Little strokes fell great oaks.
―Ben Franklin

Write it in fire across the night:
Some men are more or less all right.
―Wendy Cope

Guess Who
by John Streeter Manifold

From billabong or pond 
he serenades the moon 
upon his small bassoon; 
the moon does not respond 
but in the hope she might 
he keeps it up all night. 

Other Influences on Lyric Poetry and its Continuing History

English poetry has its roots ancient Greek lyric poets like Sappho, but other later European poets were also highly influential, as were Oriental masters like Basho and Li Po, once Western poets discovered their work. In Italy, Petrarch developed the sonnet form he inherited from Giacomo da Lentini and which Dante had used in his Vita Nuova. In 1327, the sight of a woman named Laura in the church of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon inspired Petrarch to celebrate her in Rime sparse ("Scattered rhymes"). Later, Renaissance poets who copied Petrarch's style named his collection of  poems Il Canzoniere ("Song Book"). Petrarch's love poems were both the culmination of medieval courtly love poetry and the origin of the Renaissance love lyric.Shortly thereafter English poets like Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare helped popularize the sonnet with their readers ...

They Flee from Me
by Thomas Wyatt

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle tame and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
And therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, "Dear heart, how like you this?"

It was no dream, I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness
And she also to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Thomas Wyatt lived during the reign of King Henry VIII. Wyatt's "Whoso List to Hunt" may have been written to Anne Boleyn, the mistress of Henry who became his queen, only to be beheaded. Another wonderful poem of this period is "Sweet Rose of Virtue" by the Scottish poet William Dunbar:

Sweet Rose of Virtue
by William Dunbar [1460-1525]
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Sweet rose of virtue and of gentleness,
delightful lily of youthful wantonness,
richest in bounty and in beauty clear
and in every virtue that is held most dear―
except only that you are merciless.

Into your garden, today, I followed you;
there I saw flowers of freshest hue,
both white and red, delightful to see,
and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently―
yet everywhere, no odor but bitter rue.

I fear that March with his last arctic blast
has slain my fair rose of pallid and gentle cast,
whose piteous death does my heart such terrible pain
that, if I could, I would compose her roots again―
so comforting her bowering leaves have been.

William Dunbar's magnificent "Sweet Rose of Virtue" is one of my favorite poems from the early days of English poetry. I chose to translate it myself, to make it more accessible to modern readers.

In France, Pierre de Ronsard, Joachim du Bellay and Jean-Antoine de Baïf led the way. Ronsard influenced the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, as we can see in his loose translation of a poem by Ronsard:

When You Are Old

by William Butler Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Spanish devotional poetry adapted the lyric for religious purposes. Notable Spanish poets include Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Garcilaso de la Vega and Lope de Vega. Although better known for his epic Lusiadas, Luís de Camões is also considered the greatest Portuguese lyric poet of the period.

Lyric was the dominant poetic idiom in 17th century English poetry from John Donne to Andrew Marvell. The best poems from this period are usually short, rarely tell a story and are intense in expression, often in a metaphysical vein. Other notable lyric poets of this era include Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick, George Herbert, Aphra Behn, Thomas Carew, John Suckling, Richard Lovelace, John Milton, Richard Crashaw, and Henry Vaughan.

Assorted Short Poems and Epigrams

Heart, we will forget him
by Emily Dickinson

Heart, we will forget him,
You and I, tonight!
You must forget the warmth he gave,
I will forget the light.

When you have done pray tell me,
Then I, my thoughts, will dim.
Haste! 'lest while you’re lagging
I may remember him!

A charm invests a face
by Emily Dickinson

A charm invests a face
Imperfectly beheld.
The lady dare not lift her veil
For fear it be dispelled.

But peers beyond her mesh,
And wishes, and denies,
Lest interview annul a want
That image satisfies.

by W. H. Auden

Lost on a fogbound spit of sand
in shoes that pinch me, close at hand
I hear the splash of Charon's oar
that ferries no one to a happy shore.

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
by Randall Jarrell

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

The Hourglass
by Ben Jonson

Consider this small dust here running in the glass,
By atoms moved;
Could you believe that this the body was
Of one that loved?
And in his mistress' flame, playing like a fly,
Turned to cinders by her eye:
Yes; and in death, as life, unblessed,
To have it expressed,
Even ashes of lovers find no rest.


Treason doth never prosper; what's the reason?
For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.
—Sir John Harrington

The Errors of a Wise Man make your Rule
Rather than the Perfections of a Fool
—William Blake

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord, [you see that dandy called a lord]
Wha struts, and stares, and a’ that;
Though hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that: [he's but a fool, for all that]
For a’ that, and a’ that,
His riband, star, and a’ that,
The man of independent mind,
He looks and laughs at a’ that.
—Robert Burns

a politician is an arse upon
which everyone has sat except a man
—e. e. cummings

This Humanist whom no beliefs constrained
Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.
—J. V. Cunningham

Is all that we see or seem
but a dream within a dream?
—Edgar Allen Poe

The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
—from the "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam"

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
—Langston Hughes

Whoever fights monsters should take care
that in the struggle he does not become another monster.
For if you gaze too long into an abyss,
the abyss also gazes into you.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, translation by Michael R. Burch

The world of knowledge takes a crazy turn
When teachers themselves are taught to learn.
—Bertolt Brecht

'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Here lies my wife: here let her lie!
Now she's at rest—and so am I.
—John Dryden

Whatever the mind can conceive
and believe,
the mind can achieve.
—Napoleon Hill

Light Verse and Doggerel

Then there is light verse: poetry too un-serious about itself and its aims to assume literary airs. In its silliest and least "literary" forms, light verse is called doggerel. Masters of English light verse include Lord Byron, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear and my personal favorite, Ogden Nash:

Reflection on Ingenuity

Here’s a good rule of thumb:
Too clever is dumb.
—Ogden Nash

The Parent

Children aren’t happy with nothing to ignore,
And that’s what parents were created for.
—Ogden Nash

Samson Agonistes

I test my bath before I sit,
And I’m always moved to wonderment
That what chills the finger not a bit
Is so frigid upon the fundament.
—Ogden Nash

A Word to Husbands

To keep your marriage brimming
With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
Whenever you’re right, shut up.
—Ogden Nash

Lines On Facing Forty

I have a bone to pick with Fate.
Come here and tell me, girlie,
Do you think my mind is maturing late,
Or simply rotted early?
—Ogden Nash

The Eel

I don’t mind eels
Except as meals.
And the way they feels.
—Ogden Nash

The Fly

The Lord in His wisdom made the fly,
And then forgot to tell us why.
—Ogden Nash

Epigrammatic Poems about Poets and Writing:

Poets aren't very useful
Because they aren't consumeful or produceful.
—Ogden Nash

Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

My writings oft displease you: what’s the matter?
You love not to hear truth, nor I to flatter.
—Sir John Harrington

Booksellers laud authors for their novel editions
just as pimps praise their whores for exotic positions.
—Thomas Campion, composed in Latin, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I'm tired of Love: I'm still more tired of Rhyme.
But Money gives me pleasure all the time.
—Hilaire Belloc

Readers and listeners praise my books;
You swear they're worse than a beginner's.
Who cares? I always plan my dinners
To please the diners, not the cooks.
Marcus Valerius Martial, translated by R. L. Barth

Tea Party Madness
by Michael R. Burch

for Connor Kelly

Since we agree,
let’s have a nice tea
with our bats in the belfry.

This short poem of mine attempts to describe "poetic vision" ...

What the Poet Sees
by Michael R. Burch

What the poet sees,
he sees as a swimmer underwater
watching the shoreline blur
sees through his breath’s weightless bubbles ...
Both worlds grow obscure.

And here is a poem of mine about the inevitability of death, written as a teenager in high school ...

by Michael R. Burch

Black waters,
deep and dark and still . . .
all men have passed this way,
or will.

Other notable short poems and prose epigrams include:

In the Desert by Stephen Crane
I Saw a Man Pursuing the Horizon by Stephen Crane
Song by John Donne
A Red, Red Rose
by Robert Burns
Music When Soft Voices Die (To
) by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Song by Christina Rossetti
Excerpts from "More Poems," XXXVI by A. E. Housman
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death by William Butler Yeats
The Garden
by Ezra Pound
by D. H. Lawrence
in Just- by e. e. cummings
Acquainted With The Night  by Robert Frost
The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens
The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad by Wallace Stevens
Song For The Last Act by Louise Bogan
Choice by J. V. Cunningham
Haiku by Basho
Epigrams by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker

If you made it this far, I thank you for your time and attention, and I hope you were hit by a few lightning bolts from out of the blue, along the way.

Related pages: The Best Sonnets, The Best Villanelles, The Best Ballads, The Best Sestinas, The Best Rondels and Roundels, The Best Kyrielles, The Best Couplets, The Best Quatrains, The Best Haiku, The Best Limericks, The Best Nonsense Verse, The Best Poems for Kids, The Best Light Verse, The Best Poem of All Time, The Best Poems Ever Written, The Best Poets, The Best of the Masters, The Most Popular Poems of All Time, The Best American Poetry, The Best Poetry Translations, The Best Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs, The Best Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings, The Best Old English Poetry, The Best Lyric Poetry, The Best Free Verse, The Best Story Poems, The Best Narrative Poems, The Best Epic Poems, The Best Epigrams, The Most Beautiful Poems in the English Language, The Most Beautiful Lines in the English Language, The Most Beautiful Sonnets in the English Language, The Best Elegies, Dirges & Laments, The Best Poems about Death and Loss, The Best Holocaust Poetry, The Best Hiroshima Poetry, The Best Anti-War Poetry, The Best Religious Poetry, The Best Spiritual Poetry, The Best Heretical Poetry, The Best Thanksgiving Poems, The Best Autumnal Poems, The Best Fall/Autumn Poetry, The Best Dark Poetry, The Best Halloween Poetry, The Best Supernatural Poetry, The Best Dark Christmas Poems, The Best Vampire Poetry, The Best Love Poems, The Best Urdu Love Poetry, The Best Erotic Poems, The Best Romantic Poetry, The Best Love Songs, The Ten Greatest Poems Ever Written, The Greatest Movies of All Time, England's Greatest Artists, Visions of Beauty, What is Poetry?, The Best Abstract Poetry, The Best Antinatalist Poems and Prose, Early Poems: The Best Juvenilia, Human Perfection: Is It Possible?, The Best Book Titles of All Time

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