How shall I live? A short list of favorite poems.

this water dropping

In honor of National Poetry Month, I wanted to share some of my favorite poems – poems that have stuck with me for years, that I never get tired of re-reading. Some folks have works of religious or spiritual guidance; I have poems. How shall I live? is the question. All these poems answer: With as much kindness and wonder as you can.

I did a little research on the ethics of posting other people’s poems to one’s amateur poetry blog. Ahem. The Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry states

an online resource (such as a blog or web site) may make examples of selected published poetry electronically available to the public, provided that the site also includes substantial additional cultural resources, including but not limited to critique or commentary, that contextualize or otherwise add value to the selections.

What I have to say about these poems is “I love this” and “This makes me happy” and “Smiley-face.” So in fairness, I don’t think I should reproduce them here; follow the links instead.

Mary Oliver – “Wild Geese”

Li-Young Lee’s “The Gift”.

Ted Kooser manages to be accessible and still a subtle, inventive, and original voice. And the guy just comes off as awesome in interviews. “After Years”

I’ve already talked about Tennyson’s work – “The Splendor Falls”

And a new favorite, Mark Strand’s “The Night, the Porch,” courtesy of Knopf’s Poetry Month emails.

This Octavio Paz poem was posted all over the walls of my college when Paz won the Nobel in 1990. I took one of the copies* and memorized the poem just through constantly reading it. And I can’t find it online anywhere in its intended format (aside: Internet, we need to talk about the impulse to center-align poems that shouldn’t be center-aligned. NOT OKAY.) So I’m breaking the rules because I think reading Paz is good for the soul. Thank you, Internet Diety of Obscure References (aka, Google Books).

*I hope that was kind of what you intended, anonymous Paz-sharing member of the administration.


Más transparente
que esa gota de agua
entre los dedos de la enredadera
mi pensamiento tiende un puente
de ti misma a ti misma
más real que el cuerpo que habitas
fija en el centro de mi frente

Naciste para vivir en una isla.

English translation:


More transparent

than this water dropping

through the vine’s twined fingers

my thought stretches a bridge

from yourself to yourself

                                                    Look at you

more real than the body you inhabit

fixed at the center of my mind

You were born to live on an island

I love that Paz recognizes this quality of  soul, of being “born to live on an island.” I’ve often felt that way. But really, the whole poem is just perfect – the spare image, the haiku-like turns, the surprising conclusion. This poem is a thing I have loved for over twenty years, which is pretty incredible.

Happy National Poetry Month, all. May you find many poems to love.


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