3 Poems You MUST Read Before You Die

I often write poetry to warm up my writing muscles. Poetry helps me practice the elements of rhythm, flow, metaphor, simile, imagery and symbolism. Although these poetic elements are not as concentrated in prose as they are in poetry, they still exist in prose and I think it is very important that writers understand how to use the core elements of poetry to improve the stories that we tell. I decided to feature works of poetry in my book recommendation series because I believe that works of great poetry are essential reading material for all writers.

Unfortunately, this is another area where I’m not an expert in. I haven’t read as much poetry as I would like and that’s why I’m excited to hear all of your picks so that I can add them to my reading list for the upcoming new year.

But before you go on recommendin’, here is my list of The 3 Poems You MUST Read Before You Die:

Poet in New York by Federico Garcia Lorca

Lorca is my most favorite poet of all time. His poems have a passion and a lyrical quality to them that is unmatched by anyone else I have ever read. His metaphors and similes practically bleed off of the page. I don’t know how he does it, but it’s astonishing. I think Americans will find his collection of poems, “Poet in New York“, more accessible than his other works, just because these poems were inspired by the Spaniard’s stay in the United States. Nonetheless, in that one stay, Lorca manages to break down The United States to its very core. He strips the country of all of its fake clothes and renders it naked, stained, bloody, beautiful, and cruel. I didn’t even mention that Lorca was also a religiously skeptical, openly gay man–and in 1920’s and 30’s Spain that was not an easy thing to do. He was even rumored to have had a fling with none other than Salvador Dalí. Lorca’s impassioned life was a burst of fire that was extinguished too quickly. Good thing he left behind his amazing poetry before he was tragically murdered during the Spanish civil war.

If by Rudyard Kipling

There are few poems you can say that can be carried with you every day of your life, and can hold within them every lesson you would ever need to confront every challenge you could ever face. That’s “If,” by Rudyard Kipling, in a nutshell.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

This poem is probably an obvious pick. But I’m not sure if the reason I picked it is so obvious. It’s important to note that Frost doesn’t say flat-out that by taking “the road less traveled by” he succeeded. The poem is not about success, it’s about willing to take a risk when others didn’t dare. It’s about carving out your own place in this world, regardless of those who tell you to follow the normal path. It’s about taking the journey, taking the adventure over the expected, day-to-day alternative of bench-sitting and people watching. It doesn’t matter where you end up, it’s about taking that uncharted road and having fun on that path. Where “the road less traveled by” takes you is besides the point, it’s the very fact that you took that unique journey, over the obvious one, that makes all of the difference.

What poems do you think everyone should read at least once before they die? You can recommend more than 3 if you like.


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

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 imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!

-Rudyard Kipling”


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24 comments on “3 Poems You MUST Read Before You Die

  1. Ollin says:

    By the way, I haven’t included Shakespeare in the list, but I assume everybody or most people have read his plays and his sonnets. If you haven’t, those are definitely required reading for every writer.

  2. u r wonderful! love your approach, after perusing your blog site. we might have some like-minded thoughts… 🙂

  3. The Road Not Taken has always been my favorite. Thanks for sharing…

  4. joyantonio says:

    My favorite is The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost! I first read that in our English Textbook.

  5. Erin says:

    Here are my three choices. Bear in mind that poetry is my passion, so some of these are perhaps less well-known but REALLY worth the effort to find, either online or support a poet by buying his/her book. The media is really quick to pronounce poetry dead, but I find it alive and well. It informs almost every aspect of my life, and this convergence of art and life is the main thrust of my blog http://www.beingpoetry.net.

    “Song” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly from the book by the same title. An eerily lovely poem about a murdered goat. Seriously, this poem will make you look at the world a different way. Things will become more magical than you could have imagine and love more sacred. Here’s a few lines from the ending, “There/ Would be a whistle, a hum, a high murmur, and, at last, a song,/ The low song a lost boy sings remembering his mother’s call./ Not a cruel song, no, no, not cruel at all. This song/ Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.”

    “Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye from the book The Words Under the Words. A poem about what it means to be connected, what it is like to be famous in the small world. Whenever I’m stymied by how little impact I seem to be having to those around me, I remember this poem. It ends with this stanza: “I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,/ or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,/ but because it never forgot what it could do.”

    “To Life” by Li-Young Lee from the book Behind My Eyes. A mysterious poem that starts with a sentiment of loss that touches the very heart of me. Li-Young Lee is an amazing poet who makes me look at the world entirely differently. This is the beginning of the poem: “Who hasn’t thought, “Take me with you,”/ hearing the wind go by?/ And finding himself left behind, resumed/ his own true version of time/ on earth, a seed fallen here to die/ and be born a thing promised/ in the one dream/ every cell of him has dreamed headlong/ since infancy, every common minute has served.”

    Oh and a bonus, read anything by Jane Hirshfield. She’ll rock your world.

    • Ollin says:

      I totally agree with you Erin. And this is the whole point of posts like this, to give a chance for my readers to share literature that is perhaps lesser known and to bring it to the light so that the rest of us can check out what we’ve been missing. So I thank you for the very detailed and well written recommendations. That Famous poem already rocked my world. That’s awesome. I seriously cannot wait to check out those poets and to check out your blog. Thank you for dropping by and sharing your insights!

      P.S. Poetry and Prose will never die. It’s just too good. 🙂

  6. 83October says:

    I am not as well read in poetry even though I do write poetry. However if i were to suggest poems to read here are some of them:

    1. Poetry by Neruda. This poem communicated to me exactly how I felt about poetry. It capture that experience, that idea of poetry coming to you as oppose to the writer being the maker of poems. I generally like neruda, if anything he was one of my first influences after my ‘trying to be shakespeare’ phase.

    2. ‘If I can stop one heart from breaking” by Emily Dickinson. It’s short and simple, but something I think is worth living by. Emily Dickinson is another poet I’ve read and re-read.

    3. The Sonnets to Orpheus by Rilke. This is a collection of Sonnets so beautifully written. I rarely get to read and appreciate a collection of poems on one theme/topic written by one poet. Knowing the story of Orpheus and reading this collection blew me aways.

    There are other poems and poets that I’ve enjoyed reading such us Robin Robertson whose collection Slow Air is incredible in image and detail.

    Interesting post Ollin. Enjoyed thinking about poems I’d love for other people to read.

    • Ollin says:

      Neruda, I read him a while back and I need to get back to reading more of him. Same thing with Dickinson. Never head of 3 so I will have to check it out. Isn’t it fun? I’m finding that tons of people really would like to know what they should read, I think they get tired of teachers and professors and book critics say are the best reads, they want to hear what their peers are recommending. Sometimes I trust my readers better than I trust the “professionals.” Thank you for the wonderful recs, 83!

  7. Nikole Hahn says:

    I love Kiplings, ‘If.’ It has been rewritten a few times for boys or little girls. I had it framed and kept it in my heart growing up. I also love Robert Frost’s poem that talks about many miles to go before I sleep. I love the sense of peace you get from that poem.

    • Ollin says:

      Really? I didn’t know it had been rewritten so many times for younger kids. It’s so powerful, isn’t it? Yes, the whole poem by Frost is beautiful and I linked it in the post above for those who are curious and want to read it again. Thanks for dropping by Nikole!

  8. Amala says:

    I remember studying The Road Not Taken in school and it’s always stayed in my head tucked away somewhere.

    Thanks for sharing If with us. That one’s joining my favourites.

    • Ollin says:

      That’s my criteria for recommendations. I only share if they have stayed with me over the years and have not gone away. I just thought of the first couple of poems that came in my head. These are the three that popped in there, and that tells you something about their power that they can be so readily remembered. I think a poem, or other work, is worth recommending only if it can get stuck in your head for a long time.

  9. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nikole Hahn, Ollin Morales. Ollin Morales said: 3 Poems You MUST Read Before You Die: http://wp.me/pPq2W-Ko […]

  10. valbrussell says:

    My three choices are these Ollin: Memory by Arthur Rimbaud, Love’s Philosophy by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Renascence by Edna St. Vincent Millay. If you had asked for five poems, I would have added Daddy by Sylvia Plath and Still I Rise by Maya Angelou 😉 Thanks for the heads up to this post Ollin, you are doing some interesting things over here and I love seeing your blog and work evolve. Much love to you young man.

    • Ollin says:

      Hey Val,

      Great picks! Still I Rise, I love Maya Angelou. Thank you Val, I try to keep it all interesting and I try top improve as much as I can. Thanks!

  11. If by Rudyard Kipling has been my favorite poem since I was a kid, and I haven’t changed my mind. I’ll pick that one — three times.

    Wendy Bertsch
    Author of Once More…From the Beginning

  12. Sean says:

    Excellent choices!
    I do love “The Road Not taken” and Robert Frost poetry in general (my son’s middle name is Frost!) My favorite right now is “Mending Wall”, mostly for the immortal line…..”Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

    Then the part of me that wishes to have the most meaning with the fewest words loves William Carlos Williams. At this time of year “Winter Trees” is worth contemplating with a hot cup of chocolate under the winter moon.

    Then we have my less serious, and somewhat bitingly sarcastic side. For this I recommend Ambrose Bierce. He is known mostly for his journalism but did write poetry as well. Much of his poetry is as biting as his journalism. He does truly live up to the nickname “Bitter Bierce.”
    Full disclosure; I am related to Bierce although somewhat distantly. My great grandmother was a Bierce.

    • Ollin says:

      Wow, that’s so interesting Sean! Great recommendations. The poems by Williams and Bierce sound fascinating. I can’t wait to read them under many winter moons.

  13. Zinnia says:

    lorca is and always will be my ultimate lyrical love poet. but i would also add e.e.cummings.

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