A List of Poems For Every Unit
One resource that I have always wanted as a teacher is a list of poems arranged by theme so I could easily find a great piece to add to any unit. Well, here’s that list.
If you see a link in the title to the poem, that’s because I sell a resource for teaching that poem. (Think about it as a great choice if it’s nine o’clock on a Wednesday night and you’d rather go to bed than sit up writing questions, but you’d really really like to teach that poem tomorrow morning to your first period class.)
Looking over this list of themes, you will probably realize where my interests lie. If you’re looking for rhyming poetry about twinkling stars or odes to car racing, you’ve come to the wrong place.
I have found great success with all of these poems in my own classes—they are teacher tested and kid-approved. These are the pieces that I come back to year after year.
Poems on the Family
“My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke is one of my all-time favorite poems to teach. It’s about a father who may or may not have abused his son, and the son, who may or may not still blame himself for that abusive behavior. It’s my absolute favorite poem for teaching syntax, which is usually really difficult for students to grasp.
“Elena” by Pat Mora is an accessible and powerful poem about an immigrant mother’s attempt to communicate with her children; a great choice for teaching speaker, voice, and POV.
“The Victims” by Sharon Olds is about a woman’s changing perspective on her parents marriage and divorce; it’s a great choice for teaching shifts, diction, syntax and POV.
“To My Dear And Loving Husband” by Anne Bradstreet is a great choice if you want an older, challenging poem that is not by a dead white male. (She’s a dead white female, but whatev.) About the speaker’s love for her husband, this poem is a great choice for teaching form, diction, and ambiguity.
“Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden, about a son looking back on his somewhat inscrutable father, is a great poem for teaching ambivalence and complexity and nuance and also for teaching about love.
“Daddy” by Sylvia Plath is a poem that speaks to every teenager who has felt extreme anger or extreme love for their parents (read: every teenager). This long poem is a great choice for teaching tone, imagery, illusion, and structure.
“This Is Just To Say” by Williams Carlos Williams is, to me, all about the dynamics of living and sharing with other human beings. The poem about someone who has eaten all the plums is snarky, and also just plain hilarious; it’s my favorite poem for teaching tone, and it’s also a great choice for teaching diction.
“Mid-Term Break” by Seamus Heaney is about a boy who comes home for the funeral of his younger brother. I have found success dictating this poem to my classes, line by line, as the ending comes as somewhat of a shocker. Great poem for teaching shifts, imagery, and diction.
Poems About Struggle
“The Writer” by Richard Wilbur is, like all of the other poems that I’ve read by this poet, subtle and complex and nuanced. This story of the speaker watching and his daughter struggle to write her own work is a great choice for teaching metaphor, especially extended metaphor, as well as for teaching diction, syntax, and imagery.
“Invictus” by William Ernest Henley is not subtle or nuanced, but it is incredibly powerful and inspiring; this is a great choice for teenagers who need a little push to be to work harder to achieve their dreams and to become the master of their fate.
“If and When Dreams Come True” by W.S. Merk is a nice addition to any discussion of hard work and dreams; the poem suggests that getting what we want isn’t necessarily as great as we imagine it will be; a nice choice for teaching imagery and diction especially.
Poems About Childhood
“The Fury of Overshoes” by Anne Sexton is a poem that does a great job remembering what it’s like to be a kid. My classes full of teenagers who might look like adults but often wish they could curl up with their stuffed animals again, love this poem and really get it. This is also a great great choice for trying poem imitations.
“A Sudden Journey” by Tess Gallagher is another poem that does a great job getting into the point of view of a young child. The imagery is beautiful, and the tone is lovely but also a little sad; a great choice for teaching POV, shifts, and imagery.
“Hanging Fire” by Audre Lorde is a super popular poem about a girls’ point of view; great for teaching voice, repetition, and POV.
Poems on the American Experience
“I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman is a full-bodied, fun, fantastic poem that glorifies the working class; this poem is a great choice for teaching repetition, tone, and imagery (there is not actually much alliteration as is perhaps suggested by my description).
“I, Too” is Langston Hughes response to Whitman’s perhaps overly rosy portrayal of this nation. My classes have always loved every Hughes poem we have studied, and they have also found them challenging and thought provoking. This poem is a great choice for teaching about anger and pride.
“Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes is a great choice for teaching ambiguity and complexity of ideas, as well as for teaching repetition, diction, and imagery. (Did I mention how much I love Langston Hughes?) It is my absolute favorite poem for getting students to try a poem imitation.
“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus is the poem from which the famous statue of liberty quote was taken. This poem is a great one for sparking discussion on our ideals and goals as a country, and the reality that we have today. It’s also a good choice for teaching form and diction, though parts of the poem seem a little dated today.
“La Migra” by Pat Mora is about the power dynamics between an immigration officer and a person who is trying to cross through to the U.S.; the poem is accessible but also quite powerful, and it is a great choice for teaching diction, voice, and shifts.
Poems About Love
“Love is Not All” by Edna St Vincent Millay is probably my favorite poem in which the speaker is basically lying to herself; like Millay’s other sonnets, it is formal yet vulnerable, and a big favorite with many of my students.
“The Art of Losing” by Elizabeth Bishop is another great poem to show the ways that the speaker can embody confusion in a poem. This poem about love and loss and sorrow and life is also a great choice for teaching diction and syntax.
“[Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds]” aka sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare is another great poem for talking about how what we say isn’t always what we think. It appears that when it comes to love poetry, I like my poems to be ambivalent. Since this poem has an almost completely opposite meaning when you read to the line breaks than it does when you read to the punctuation, it’s a great choice for teaching enjambment and line breaks; also great for diction, and imagery… and everything else that a poem might have. (That Shakespeare guy knew what he was doing.)
“[That Time of Year Though Mayst In Me Behold]” is another Shakespeare sonnet; this is my absolute favorite poem for teaching metaphor, and I always always have students draw the three different metaphors for aging and death.
Poems About Getting Outside and Nature
“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver is probably my favorite nature poem by this contemporary poet, but almost everything she writes challenges me to get outside and appreciate something wild. This poem is also a great choice for teaching imagery, diction, and tone. It was a huge hit with my homeschool co-op elementary class.
“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman is about the speaker’s experience in a lecture hall and then alone with the actual night sky; this poem is simple and straightforward, and it is also a favorite with students (who spend many hours a day listening to experts talk). It’s a great choice for teaching diction, imagery, and syntax.
Poems About Gender or Women
“Sonnet: The Lady’s Home Journal” by Sandra Gilbert is a feminist poem that’s great for teaching all of the ambivalence, complexity, and ambiguity of being a woman in any century. This conflicted love poem to glossy women’s magazines is also a great choice for teaching diction, enjambment, tone, shifts, and imagery.
“[My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun]” by Emily Dickinson is, to me, the rockstar of all poems. How badass is it that Dickinson was writing from the perspective of a loaded gun—as a woman born over 150 years ago? This poem is a great choice to teach ambiguity and complexity and nuance and everything that makes poetry challenging and frustrating and super wonderful. Also, great for teaching students that they might not get the answers they want—ever.
“Siren Song” by Margaret Atwood, which takes a new view on the Sirens that call to Odysseus, is a fun poem to teach after a unit on The Odyssey and another poem with a fun and fascinating twist in the end. It’s also a good poem for teaching students not to overestimate their understanding of the themes of poetry.
Poems About Race
“Harlem: A Dream Deferred” by Langston Hughes is basically an iconic poem at this point; it’s super short and also super powerful. It’s a great choice for students who feel that they don’t like or don’t get poetry, and a nice choice for teaching repetition, diction, structure, and imagery.
“Theme For English B” by Langston Hughes is a poem about the speaker’s attempt to describe his life to a teacher who most likely won’t understand it; it’s a great choice for students who have had an assignment to write about themselves (read: all students). It’s another long, powerful, memorable piece.
“Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem” by Helene Johnson is a great poem to challenge students; Johnson’s views on success and the American Dream are not always what a reader might expect. This poem is also a great choice for looking at the ways that poets innovate with traditional forms.
Poems About Other Poets or Poetry
“A Supermarket in California” by Allen Ginsberg is about the speaker’s search for the meaning of life and for Walt Whitman in a supermarket one night. This poem is long and challenging and won’t give many answers, and it is a great choice for teaching allusion and poetic tradition.
“Variations on a Theme by Williams Carlos Williams” by Kenneth Koch is a hilarious parody of “This is Just to Say” (see family section above). This poem is a great choice for teaching tradition and humor and the ways that poets respond to each other.
“Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins is a fun addition to any unit on poetry. This is another good choice for kids who claim that they “don’t like” or “don’t get” poetry. The best way that I have seen this poem taught is to talk about who the “they” is—teachers, students, critics, readers?
Poems About Insanity
“[Much Madness is Divinest Sense]” by Emily Dickinson is probably my favorite poem to start off a unit on how to read poetry. This short, powerful poem about conformity and insight is a great choice for teaching diction, syntax, and structure.
“Kubla Kahn” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a real trip; supposedly inspired by an Opium dream, this long, rambling, vivid poem is a great choice for discussing how poets are inspired to write, and when we read the author’s preface to the poem, for discussing how poets might want to represent their work.
Poems About War
“2000 lbs” by Briar Turner is a vivid poem about a bombing attack in a busy marketplace; while Turner himself was deployed in the Iraq war, this poem is more of a comprehensive look at the experiences of everyone involved, including the bomber himself. There are a few videos available online of Turner himself reading and introducing the poem, which make the experience even more relevant for students; a great choice for teaching about the difference between listening to a poem and reading it.
“Dulce Et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen is pretty much a masterpiece when it comes to war poetry or any kind of poetry. The jarring images of the reality of war are hard to forget. This is also a great poem for teaching the effectiveness of sounds in a poem, with the harsh “k” sounds that recall machine gun fire.
“War is Kind” by Stephen Crane is a poem inspired by the brutalities of the American Civil War; it’s a great poem for teaching irony and tone especially, as well as for teaching repetition and structure.
“Letters in the Family” by Adrienne Rich is a poem about war that focuses on the women who fight; additionally, all of the letters in the poem are inspired by real people. This is one of my absolute favorite poems for teaching speaker, and it’s also a great choice for imagery, tone, and theme.
“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell is very short and very memorable; it’s also confusing and vague and a nice choice to challenge students who want answers to their questions.
I’m sure that there is are many many wonderful poems that I have left off this list. What are they? Leave a comment below and help me find some new great pieces!