Short, Famous Poems For Middle School

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.

Learning to understand poetry, though, can open us up to enriching and moving literature, and sharpen our analytical skills. Think how easy it will be to interpret prose after you’ve developed some ability to unravel a poem.

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.

All titles marked with * can be read at Poetry Foundation. All titles marked with # can be read at Poem Hunter.

“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- Rudyard Kipling *

Published in 1910, If is a poem of advice that advocates the “stiff upper lip” of the British upper class. It’s very easy to read and understand.

Kipling is probably best known for writing The Jungle Book.

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. Byron wrote prolifically including the 16,000+ line satiric poem Don Juan.

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 Raven- Edgar Allan Poe *

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.

When We Two Parted- Lord Byron #

“They name thee before me,/ A knell to mine ear;”

The narrator describes his feelings when parting with his beloved.

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.

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. It represents the choices people face and the indecision they show.

“When Americans say a man / takes liberties, they mean / he’s gone too far.”

Language Lesson 1976- Heather McHugh *

This poem plays with the multiple meanings and connotations of words.

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.

Let's go for a ride

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.

Although Dickinson wasn't extensively published until after her death, she's become one of the most revered American poets.

She frequently used unconventional capitalization and many dashes.

“But thy eternal summer shall not fade”

Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?)- Shakespeare *

The narrator compares his beloved to summer and preserves her beauty forever.

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.

“What does it mean when we are told / That the Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold?”

Very Like a Whale- Ogden Nash #

This comic poem mocks the use of metaphors and similes.

Nash wrote numerous poems of light verse.

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.

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.

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.

“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.”

The Unknown Citizen- W.H. Auden #

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.

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.

Dyer was highly regarded by his contemporaries, but not much of his writing has survived.

“Beauty is but a flower/ Which wrinkles will devour;”

A Litany in Time of Plague- Thomas Nashe #

This poem details the indiscriminate nature of death; it comes for everyone regardless of wealth, beauty, or strength.

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.

Read Mirror

“And I saw the flash of a white throat,/ And a double row of white teeth,”

The Shark- E.J. Pratt

The narrator describes a shark’s menacing movements.

Read The Shark

Bonsai tree
Bonsai tree

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.

Piercy is a feminist writer possibly best known for the utopian science fiction novel Woman on the Edge of Time.

“I wandered lonely as a cloud/ That floats on high o’er vales and hills,”

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud- William Wordsworth *

The narrator describes the impression that seeing a host of daffodils had on him. It is also sometimes titled Daffodils.

This is one of the best known English language poems.

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.

“Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink/ Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;”

Love Is Not All- Edna St. Vincent Millay #

The narrator enumerates many things that love isn’t or cannot do, but it ends by elevating love above all those things.

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.

“which would you save, a Rembrandt painting/ or an old woman who hadn’t many/ years left anyhow?”

Ethics- Linda Pastan

The narrator recounts an ethical question that one of her teacher’s posed to her class.

Ego-Tripping (there may be a reason why)- Nikki Giovanni

“I sat on the throne/ drinking nectar with allah/ I got hot and sent an ice age to europe/ to cool my thirst”

The narrator asserts her strength and imagines herself as a goddess.

This free verse poem celebrates ethnic heritage, pride, and empowerment.

Understanding Poems

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?

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