Diving into poetry for inspiration? Narrative’s Library offers all kinds of amazing poems to kick-start your reading and writing. Here we suggest some of our favorites. You will find poems that center on love, grief, politics, pop culture, and more—in other words, something for everyone and every mood. —Mimi Kusch, managing editor
The Traveling Onion
by Naomi Shihab Nye
When I think how far the onion has traveled
just to enter my stew today, I could kneel and praise
all small forgotten miracles,
crackly paper peeling on the drainboard,
pearly layers in smooth agreement,
the way the knife enters onion
and onion falls apart on the chopping block,
a history revealed.
And I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or its traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,
Then, It Was So
by Javier Zamora
after my father
To tell my wife I was leaving
I waited and waited,
rethinking first sentences in my sleep,
I didn’t sleep,
and my heart was a watermelon
split each night. Outside,
3:00 a.m. was the same as bats
and my wife was a kerosene lamp.
we were in that day, hiding
from bullets in sugarcane, my chest
pressed against the gossamers
stuck to your thighs,
when stars swam inside you.
and I can’t forget one centimeter.
To kiss each cheek,
your lips, your forehead.
I miss our son. I miss the faint wick
on his skin. How I held him
and how I wanted to then, though
I didn’t wake him.
and running water. That dawn
I needed to say
you remind me of my father
and that leaving is a whirlpool. It was so
quiet when I looked into
your sandalwood eyes and swam
from your salted shore.
by Richard Jones
Valentine’s Day breakfast at Baker’s Square:
Laura drinks coffee while I watch Andrew,
who refuses to sit but chooses instead
to stay in the restaurant’s vestibule where
he opens and closes the big double doors
over and over again, as if he’s practicing
a grand entrance—entering, crossing
the threshold, and letting the doors
close behind him. I’m thinking,
piggyback through the woods to a waterfall;
wasn’t long ago I kissed Laura for the first time;
wasn’t long ago I lived in the house with my dog
and sat with my notebook at the kitchen table
on Sunday morning after working all night—
sipping burnt coffee and scratching out lines,
lighting my hundredth cigarette, starting over
again, determined to write a love poem.
by Leila Chatti
I never found myself in any pink aisle. There was no box for me
with glossy cellophane like heat and a neat packet of instructions
in six languages. Evenings, I watched TV like a religion
I moderately believed. I watched to see how the others lived, not knowing
I was the Other, no laugh track in my living room, no tidy and punctual
resolution waiting. I took tests in which Jane and William had
so many apples, but never a friend named Khadija. I fasted
through birthday parties and Christmas parties and ate leftover tajine
at plastic lunch tables, picked at pepperoni from slices like blemishes
and tried not to complain. I prayed at the wrong times in the wrong
tongue. I hungered for Jell-O and Starbursts and margarine, could read
mono- and diglycerides by five and knew what gelatin meant, where it came from.
When I asked for anything good, like Cedar Point or slumber parties,
I offered a quick Inshallah, as in Can Jordan sleep over this weekend, Inshallah?,
peeking at my father as if he were a god. Sometimes, I thought
my father was a god, I loved him that much. And the news thought
this was an impossible thing—a Muslim girl who loved her father—
assumed every Muslim girl-heart was a bomb, her love
suspicious. But what did they know of my heart, or my father
who knew it and so drove fifty miles to buy me a doll like a Barbie
because it looked like me, short brown hair underneath her hijab, unthreatening
breasts and feet flat enough to carry her as far as she wanted
to go? In my games, she traveled and didn’t marry, devoured any book
she could curl her small, rigid fingers around. I called her Amira
because it was a name like my sister’s, though I think her name
was supposed to be Sara, that drawled A so like sorry,
which she never, ever was.
by Natalie Diaz
1. My Dad, Sisyphus, and My Brother
The phone rings—my brother was arrested again.
Dad hangs up, gets his old blue Chevy going,
and heads to the police station.
It’s not the first time. It’s not even the second.
No one is surprised when my brother is arrested again.
The guy fell on my knife was his one-phone-call explanation.
(He stabbed a man five times in the back is the official accusation.)
My brother is arrested again and again. And again our dad, our Sisyphus,
pushes his old blue heart up to the station.
2. God, Lionel Richie, and My Brother
God told him Break into Grandma’s house and Lionel Richie gave him
that feeling of dancing on the ceiling.
My dad said At 2 a.m., God and Lionel Richie don’t make good friends.
Ring, ring, ring at 2 a.m. means meth’s got my brother by the balls again.
With God in one ear and Lionel in the other, who can win?
Not my brother, so he made a meth pipe from the lightbulb and smoked
Ring, ring, ring at 2 a.m. means my brother’s tweaked himself into jail
It wasn’t his fault, not with God guiding his foot through the door and
honey-voiced Lionel whispering Hard to keep your feet on the ground
with such a smooth-ass ceiling.
3. My Brother, Geronimo, and Jimi Hendrix
for 2-6-7 and 4-15.
The 10-15 they got is my brother, a Geronimo-wannabe who thinks he’s holding
out. In his mind he’s playing backup for Jimi—
he is an itching, bopping head full of “Fire.” Mom cried, Stop acting so crazy,
but he kept banging air drums against the windows and ripped out
all the screens.
This time, we called the cops, and when they came we just watched—we
have been here before and we know 2-6-7 and 4-15 will get him 10-15.
His eyes are escape caves torch-lit by his 2-6-7 of choice:
Finally, he’s in the back of the cop car, hands in handcuffs shiny
and shaped like infinity.
Now that he’s 10-15, he’s kicking at the doors and security screen, a 2-6-7 fiend
saying, I got desires that burn and make me wanna 4-15.
His tongue is flashing around his mouth like a World’s Fair Ferris wheel—but he’s
no Geronimo, Geronimo would find a way out instead of giving in
by Jericho Brown
Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us. Stargazer.
Foxglove. Summer seemed to bloom against the will
Of the sun, which news reports claimed flamed hotter
On this planet than when our dead fathers
Wiped sweat from their necks. Cosmos. Baby’s Breath.
Men like me and my brothers filmed what we
Planted for proof we existed before
Too late, sped the video to see blossoms
Brought in seconds, colors you expect in poems
Where the world ends, everything cut down.
John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.
by Maria Hummel
They died in fire.
They died to prove the might of an empire.
They did not have time to flee or
shield the weak. No moments or months
to see what was coming.
Their trees and fields died with them.
Their hugest mountains and sunny seas.
The cities died as quickly as the towns.
The towns died as quickly as a single house,
a house like ours, lit gold within,
with chairs and beds and a table and children.
In the distance, a plot begins
and that’s all we are: a loss.
The princess weeps at her window of stars.
by Matthew Dickman
More than putting another man on the moon,
more than a New Year’s resolution of yogurt and yoga,
we need the opportunity to dance
with really exquisite strangers. A slow dance
between the couch and dining room table, at the end
of the party, while the person we love has gone
to bring the car around
because it’s begun to rain and would break their heart
if any part of us got wet. A slow dance
to bring the evening home. Two people
rocking back and forth like a buoy. Nothing extravagant.
A little music. An empty bottle of whiskey.
It’s a little like cheating. Your head resting
on his shoulder, your breath moving up his neck.
Your hands along her spine. Her hips
unfolding like a cotton napkin
and you begin to think about
how all the stars in the sky are dead. The my body
is talking to your body slow dance. The Unchained Melody,
Stairway to Heaven, power-chord slow dance. All my life
I’ve made mistakes. Small
and cruel. I made my plans.
I never arrived. I ate my food. I drank my wine.
The slow dance doesn’t care. It’s all kindness like children
before they turn four. Like being held in the arms
of my brother. The slow dance of siblings.
Two men in the middle of the room. When I dance with him,
one of my great loves, he is absolutely human,
and when he turns to dip me
or I step on his foot because we are both leading,
I know that one of us will die first and the other will suffer.
The slow dance of what’s to come
and the slow dance of insomnia
pouring across the floor like bath water.
When the woman I’m sleeping with
stands naked in the bathroom,
brushing her teeth, the slow dance of ritual is being spit
into the sink. There is no one to save us
because there is no need to be saved.
I’ve hurt you. I’ve loved you. I’ve mowed
the front yard. When the stranger wearing a sheer white dress
covered in a million beads
slinks toward me like an over-sexed chandelier suddenly come to life,
I take her hand in mine. I spin her out
and bring her in. This is the almond grove
in the dark slow dance.
It is what we should be doing right now. Scraping
for joy. The haiku and honey. The orange and orangutan slow dance.
by W. S. Merwin
The first morning
I woke in surprise to your body
for I had been dreaming it
as I do
leaves touched the early light
your breath warm as your skin on my neck
your eyes opening
A Separate Set of Signs
by Jenny M. Xie
A woman boards the overnight train,
hawthorne and bouillon cubes.
A bulb in the station leaks its weak light.
Does she glow from toothache
or the loose sea winds,
is she heading to the capital
with no papers or is she someone’s
negligent daughter, the youngest of three?
Is she me having stayed behind,
a parallel life with a separate set of signs
and a diet of more rice, less white meat?
Is she dreaming of the rivers
soft with codling in her hometown;
when she wakes on the train car
mattress is her shadow straighter?
Does she feel a body larger
than her own dilated boundaries,
and when she looks out of the window does
she sense the city as closer than it is,
the light having met the smokestacks,
and her hunger small and neat?
No One Knows the Way to Heaven
by Ocean Vuong
but we keep walking anyway.
When you get here it will be
but we will use the same words.
You will look & look—& see
only the world. Well here’s
the world, sweetheart. One
as small & large as a father.
Why are my hands always
when touching those I love?
Lately, I wear black
to the keep the night in my eyes.
I tried to speak this
but the voice only went so far
as my fingers. Can you see it
For the first time in weeks
I saw my own
reflection in the cup of coffee
& kept drinking
Strange, what a face can do
to a face. Like
once, after days of clouds
the color of torn
wolves, I let a man spit in my mouth
because my eyes wouldn’t
after Evan shot himself
in his daddy’s December
barn. The word faggot a shard
of light growing into a
hole in his skull. Someone screaming
silent as a snow
I had been looking for a word to change
the light in the
But all I could find was a man,
his bright spit. I lifted my
tongue as he stood above me.
My jaw a ransacked
I said Please, sweetheart,
because I was
& I thought every bit
of warmth should be
& savored. Don’t worry,
no one can hurt us now.
the speaker in this poem. I am wrong
to forget you. You
who are not yet born.
who will always be what
after I fashion my god
out of everything I
Because when a man & a man
walk hand in hand into
a bar the joke’s on us.
Because a man & a man make
indistinguishable from rain.
Rain. To give something a
just to watch it fall. What
will I name
Are you a boy or a girl or a translation
hours? It doesn’t matter. Even extinction
Rain as it touches ground.
Hey, I’m right here.
is right here. I will leave
this page open so you can
& when you get here, I’ll tell you everything.
When you get
I’ll show you what incredible things
we can do to
just by standing there.
Am Looking For
by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram
coupons & 14
egg cartons are
offered; I need
men’s ties, a
carrier for found
stroller and baby
gates; will trade
for sofa, extra
long: a few
am looking for
N____ A ____:
flea bombs, a
of a brief history
of time, time,
and tie or whole
suit would be
me for an ant
farm & various
to good home.
Bugkiller and pool
need a couch
and wood stain,
am in desperate
am in desperate
need for 2
by Sharon Olds
Did you know T. S. Eliot wore eye shadow
sometimes, I asked Stanley, and he chuckled—one
gurgle in the bubble chamber
of the spirit level—and his eyes had that sensual
brightness, and his big, fleshless, elegant
hand lifted, and soared over, and dropped,
a couple of times, on the back of my hand, like
being patted by matter. I didn’t
know that, he musicalled up.
Someone said he’d dust his lids
with green, so someone would say, “Are you
okay, Tom,” and Stanley said,
It’s a hard way to go about doing that,
and I rubbed the heel of my hand over the rough
nest-material of Stanley’s tweed
sleeve, and said, You have a generous heart, I
sometimes laugh at Eliot for that, like some
kind of revenge on his politics—
what about you, Stanley, what were your
feelings about him? And Stanley
drew on time, and space, he drew on
his powers, and their sleep, and their dreams, he worked,
like God not resting on the sixth day,
and then, when his thought was done, he turned his
long, loping engine toward the task
of telling it, word by word. He said, I was,
and paused—I love to pause with him, on the
long boat, our hands trailing in the
water of a hundred years—I was,
pause, pause, we breathe in,
we breathe out, I was fortunate
in my marriage, he said, and we went, again,
out into the empyrean
of quiet, beyond the atmosphere,
overboard, and then the return,
and then the refrain, I was fortunate,
I think, and I rubbed his invisible weaving
with my thumb, and said, You were, you were—
you loved and were loved. He nodded, his arms and
body still, he wondered as he wandered,
out under the sky, I was fortunate
in my marriages, I think, he said,
But still, there was all that sorrow, he turned his
face to me, I petted the wool like a
stanch made of spider wodge with some
roots and twigs in it, over his
forearm, he looked into my eyes with that stalwart look,
I put my hand on the mastodon
of his buoyant hand, which was resting, now,
as a swimmer at the end of a stroke may glide,
may glide, desire, desire, rest,
desire. When I
had let myself in,
he’d been facing the other way, signing
books, and I had put the huge
stargazer lily over his shoulder, like
a horse looking over a stall gate, and he’d
turned and seen it, in surprise and pleasure, and
recognized it, and took its head in his
hands and softly rubbed its five ears.
I Carried My Father Across the Sea
by Gbenga Adesina
I Carried My Father Across the Sea
He was the shaft of a Long-tailed Astrapia. He was a forest
He wore the black suit
was still full of his vows.
his burdens and vows had bled out of him.
with the responsibility of the dead.
leaves his father
I lifted and propped him up with my frame.
The feet stuck in sea sand, his weak knees,
As the currents rose, the collar on his broken neck
The gash the surgeon’s knife left on his head
I put my nose to his nose.
I tied his IV tubes, now a human gill, around our waists
of the water.
“A son carries a father.”
It is where I hear you most clearly.
leaves his father’s body
I carried my father on my back.
on the skin of my spine.
he promised to open to me.
out his vows.
She wrapped herself in a black shawl. She,
to his side, put her
is yours, you
throats in its skin. She,
to my father’s ear,
which is mine, by name,
How can a body the whole length
traveled with your tongue close itself to you.
and breath and his body became
they wheeled him down the stairs,
She cried out:
inside his tongue. I need to get it back.
Thirteen Ways of Naming My Father’s Body
thorn on his flesh.
it was my father’s body
I wear it like loneliness.
my father’s body joins me. He brings in night as his
I shouted at my father to stay back indoors. I told him
not to come out of my body.
my father’s body back to the night he was born.
His body is a sigh. Where I come from, rain
leads home the father’s body.
my hand wanted to find a way to hold the night. The
purr of the electric guitar was my father’s body.
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