I discovered the sweetness of poetry when I was in class 6 or 7, at about the age 11 or 12, when on one holiday break, I came across Ecclesiastes 12 at the back of one of my brother’s books. Back then, I did not know that the text could be classified as poetry, and than in fact the chapter of Scripture itself, is a poem as it is loaded with imagery and metaphor. It was not until high school that I properly became acquainted with poetry, and by then, I had already became one at form one at the age of 14 – how that came about is a story for another day that I will tell in due time, but by the time I was done with high school, The Grass will Grow by Jonathan Kiariara was one of the poems I loved tp read and reread for its sheer simplicity and gravity.
The gap year between high school and uni saw me reading through anything and everything that I could lay my hands on, and this was the time I discovered Facebook and the Internet, and watched the phenomenal film “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, an adaptation from Ntonzake Shange’s book that goes by the same titleÂ . My reading nature and socializing with other people in the Kenyan literature scene through my years in uni was instrumental in introducing me to other poets like Emily Dickinson, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Dennis Brutus, Kadish Morris, Indigo Williams, Charles Bukowski, Tupac Shakur, Stacey Ann Chin just to cut short the list and their poetry.
I have continually discovered poems and poetry houses, like 3am Magazine
, the Paris Review
and thus my scope of poetry and literary understanding of the same has grown as such. Some Kenyan poets, like Ngawtilo Mawiyoo and Clifton Gachagua
whose poetry I enjoy reading may not make it to this list, but still, they are interesting to me. In no way does this list extensively cover all the poems I have enjoyed, but the ones in this listÂ are the ones I keep going back to, time after time, as they struck a cord so deep in me that I see myself in them, see others in them, see the world in them,Â and they are to me works of literary genius. The poems are listed in no particular order in the hierarchy of my liking them.
Note: This will be a long read, as I have shared 10 whole poems here and linked the 2 longest to my Tumblr page, and written short notes on why I like them. Therefore, if you are in the comforts of your home, it would be best if you grabbed a cup of something, made yourself cozy and then dive right in. Or if you are commuting, this will be a worthy companion, so dive in all the same.
POEMS ABOUT THE STATE OF BEING ALIVEÂ
Love After Love by Derek Walcott
“The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the otherâs welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.”
I love this poem for the fact that it speaks of self care in the face of loving another person, in the reality of how broken and distraught we can become when we are rejected or when our love is not met by the same intensity and magnitude that we give it. To love, we must first be able to love ourselves. And by no means is how another human being loves us the measure with which we should calibrate our value. Derek Walcott’s (1948-1984) poem is like a warm hug from a friend who holds you as you come to this realization.
i carry your heart in my heart by ee. cummings
“i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)”
I love this poem from the depths of my heart, and ee cummings (1894-1962) was a love poem genius.
The Second Coming by W B Yeats
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
I often turn to this poem when there are political upheavals in my home country or in the international scene. For instance, Trump or the aggressive tribalism we experience every few years even among the educated population is “mere anarchy loosed upon the world.” I find that in most social cases, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst /Are full of passionate intensity.” This poem was introduced to me by Chinua Achebe’s foreword on how he came about the Title ” Things Fall Apart” on the book that catapulted him to literary fame in the 1950s and 1960s.
POEMS ABOUT LOVE &/OR ITS LACK THEREOF
For Women Who Are Difficult to Love by Warsan Shire
“you are a horse running alone
and he tries to tame you
compares you to an impossible highway
to a burning house
says you are blinding him
that he could never leave you
want anything but you
you dizzy him, you are unbearable
every woman before or after you
is doused in your name
you fill his mouth
his teeth ache with memory of taste
his body just a long shadow seeking yours
but you are always too intense
frightening in the way you want him
unashamed and sacrificial
he tells you that no man can live up to the one who
lives in your head
and you tried to change didn’t you?
closed your mouth more
tried to be softer
less volatile, less awake
but even when sleeping you could feel
him travelling away from you in his dreams
so what did you want to do love
split his head open?
you can’t make homes out of human beings
someone should have already told you that
and if he wants to leave
then let him leave
you are terrifying
and strange and beautiful
something not everyone knows how to love.â
Often men come up to me and tell me that my assertion and character is like that of a man- that is to say, I am assertive, I refuse to be pushed around, I refuse to receive less than I should get, I choose to not be bridled by patriarchal societal norms. As if that is that something I should apologize for. To this I respond with a quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “Of course I am not worried about intimidating men. The type of man who will be intimidated by me is exactly the type of man I have no interest in.”
Questions for the Woman I was last night by Warsan Shire
“how far have you walked for men who’ve never held your feet in their laps?
how often have you bartered with bone, only to sell yourself short?
why do you find the unavailable so alluring?
where did it begin? what went wrong? and who made you feel so worthless?
if they wanted you, wouldnât they have chosen you?
all this time, you were begging for love silently,
thinking they couldnât hear you, but they smelt it on you,
you must have known that they could taste the desperate on your skin?
and what about the others that would do anything for you,
why did you make them love you until you could not stand it?
how are you both of these women, both flighty and needful?
where did you learn this, to want what does not want you?
where did you learn this, to leave those that want to stay?”
We all have that one person that we cannot un-leave no matter how much they do not want us. It happens even to the best of us, and this is what this poem is about.
The Unbearable Weight of Staying by Warsan Shire
“I don’t know when love became elusive
What I know, is that no one I know has it.
My father’s arms around my mother’s neck,
Fruit too ripe to eat, a door half way open.
When your name is a just a hand I can never hold,
everything I have ever believed in, becomes magic.
I think of lovers as trees, growing to and
from one another, searching for the same light.
My mother’s laughter in a dark room,
a photograph greying under my touch.
This is all I know how to do, carry loss around until
I begin to resemble every bad memory,
every terrible fear,
every nightmare anyone has ever had.
I ask, did you ever love me?
You say of course, of course so quickly
that you sound like someone else
I ask are you made of steel? are you made of iron?
You cry on the phone, my stomach hurts
I let you leave, I need someone who knows how to stay.”
Domestic violence, the lack thereof of love where it should be, the intricate complex nature of what we call love, love as we have seen it in our families, as we have experienced it, is all summarized in this short poem by Somali Kenyan born (1988) Warsan Shire.
Warsan Shire’s poems, not just the above mentioned, are the poems that have brought me a lot of healing when I have undergone emotional turbulence in my personal life.
POEMS ABOUT ABUSE, SELF CARE, MENTAL HEALTH & RACE
Dark Phrases by Ntonzake Shange from For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, 1975
“dark phrases of womanhood
of never havin been a girl
without rhythm/ no tune
distraught laughter fallin
over a black girl’s shoulder
it’s funny/ it’s hysterical
the melody-less-ness of her dance
don’t tell nobody don’t tell a soul
she’s dancin on beer cans & shingles
this must be the spook house
another song with no singers
& interrupted solos
are we ghouls?
children of horror?
don’t tell nobody don’t tell a soul
are we animals? have we gone crazy?
i can’t hear anythin
but maddening screams
& the soft strains of death
& you promised me
you promised me…
sing a black girl’s song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you
but sing her rhythms
sing her song of life
she’s been dead so long
closed in silence so long
she doesn’t know the sound
of her own voice
her infinite beauty
she’s half-notes scattered
without rhythm/no tune
sing her sighs
sing the song of her possibilities
sing a righteous gospel
the makin of a melody
let her be born
let her be born
“Dark phrases of womanhood/ of never havin been a girl/ half-notes scattered/ without rhythm/ no tune/ distraught laughter fallin/ over a black girl’s shoulder/ it’s funny/ it’s hysterical/ the melody-less-ness of her dance” need I say more about why I love this poem. I am an African Girl, and I feel very privileged to be educated and well into my twenties. Most girls are not as lucky – some experience early childhood marriage, FGM, beading, lip plating, ear stretching, some get raped repeatedly by their relatives. For instance, girls from the age of 14-22 attend the Reed dance in Swaziland, and one, who catches the eye of the king will get married off to him no matter her age. The sheer fact that it happens in this day and age is something that infuriates and saddens me. By no means should the efforts to emancipate the girl child and to free women from generational oppression ever stop. We have got a lot of work to do.
Sorry by Ntonzake Shange from For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, 1975
“one thing i don’t need
is any more apologies
i got sorry greetin me at my front door
you can keep yrs
i don’t know what to do wit em
they dont open doors
or bring the sun back
they dont make me happy
or get a mornin paper
didnt nobody stop usin my tears to wash cars
cuz a sorry
i am simply tired
i didnt know
i was so important toyou
i’m gonna haveta throw some away
i cant get to the clothes in my closet
for alla the sorries
i’m gonna tack a sign to my door
leave a message by the phone
‘if you called
to say yr sorry
i dont use em anymore’
i let sorry/ didnt meanta/ & how cd i know abt that
take a walk down a dark & musty street in brooklyn
i’m gonna do exactly what i want to
& i wont be sorry for none of it
letta sorry soothe yr soul/ i’m gonna soothe mine
you were always inconsistent
doin somethin & then bein sorry
beatin my heart to death
talkin bout you sorry
i will not call
i’m not goin to be nice
i will raise my voice
& scream & holler
& break things & race the engine
& tell all yr secrets bout yrself to yr face
& i will list in detail everyone of my wonderful lovers
& their ways
i will play oliver lake
& i wont be sorry for none of it
i loved you on purpose
i was open on purpose
i still crave vulnerability & close talk
& i’m not even sorry bout you bein sorry
you can carry all the guilt & grime ya wanna
just dont give it to me
i cant use another sorry
you should admit
you’re mean/ low-down/ triflin/ & no count straight out
steada bein sorry alla the time
enjoy bein yrself”
When sorry loses meaning, when the word has been abused and used as an excuse, apologies seem like a mockery. There are some who abuse the love and affection that they receive and assume that sorry is the fixing glue that patches all and makes things alright. The continual distortion of trust is painful, and there comes a time when one needs to break away to lead a more fulfilling life.
Ellen West by Frank Bidart
“…On the third day of being home she is as if transformed. At breakfast she eats butter and sugar, at noon she eats so much thatâfor the first time in thirteen years!âshe is satisfied by her food and gets really full. At afternoon coffee she eats chocolate creams and Easter eggs. She takes a walk with her husband, reads poems, listens to recordings, is in a positively festive mood, and all heaviness seems to have fallen away from her. She writes letters, the last one a letter to the fellow patient here to whom she had become so attached. In the evening she takes a lethal dose of poison, and on the following morning she is dead. âShe looked as she had never looked in lifeâcalm and happy and peaceful.
This poem is about Ellen West’s eating disorder and her eventual death. I felt so much empathy for the character, and was grateful for Frank Bidart (1939- ) who brought the real life of Ellen West, (1888 -1921) who committed suicide at the age of 33 by poisoning as she suffered from anorexia. The emotional pull in this poem is so strong, and I like the slow patient manner in which it is written.
POEMS ABOUT THE FRAGILITY OF LIFE/MORTALITY
The Grass Will Grow by Jonathan Kariara
“If you should take my child Lord
Give my hands strength to dig his grave
cover him with earth
Lord send a little rain
For grass will grow
If my house should burn down
So that the ashes sting the nostrils
Making the eyes weep
Then Lord send a little rain
For grass will grow
But Lord do not send me
I ask for tears
Do not send me moon hard madness
To lodge snug in my skull
I would you sent me hordes of horses
But do not break
The yolk of the moon on me.”
The simplicity and the usage of phrases like “moon hard madness” are what pulled me in. Jonathan (1935-1993) understood that there are things in this life that can break a person, things beyond human power, things like death and calamity and mental illness. And for this reason, he asks that in this lifetime he be spared mental illness, for it is a calamity that is like a thousand daily deaths, the insane one goes on living without really living, and carries an illness for which there is no known cure.
Ecclesiastes 12 from The H. Bible
1Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”–
2 before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain;
3when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim;
4when the doors to the street are closed and the sound of grinding fades; when men rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint;
5 when men are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets; when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags himself along and desire no longer is stirred. Then man goes to his eternal home and mourners go about the streets.
6Remember him–before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or the wheel broken at the well,
7and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
8 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Everything is meaningless!”
Like earlier said, this was my first real read of poetry, and I love it now just as I love it then. The imagery used speaks about the condition of human life, and how the body degenerates in old age. For instance, the verse “when the grinders cease because they are few,” the wise man is talking about losing teeth, and the difficulty in chewing, and when he speaks of “those looking through the windows grow dim”, he is talking about how eyes lose their strength. “the sound of grinding fades; when men rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint” because of the gradual loss of hearing. My favorite lines, that I understood much later, and whose imagery is very powerful talk about the shatter that accompanies death and they are “Remember him–before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or the wheel broken at the well..”
A timeless piece, less known, but very accurate on the nature of life.
The Love Song of J Prufrock by T.S Eliot
“…And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Reading this poem is like coming home, and finding an old friend, who knows you, and who will understand what you have lived even without much being said. T. S Eliot (1888-1965) got this published at the age of 27 but he was very much an old soul in a young body. He sees human life for what it is, a p
assage though time, and he does not reduce any of it, not even how smoke lingers upon pools of water as it leaves the fireplace and dissolves into the air.
The poem is written in simple language,, but requires concentration and a keen mind to go deeper.
What poems have you liked most in this list & why? What are some of your favorite poems?
Thank you for reading!