10 Poets Share the Poem That Changed Their Lives

Poetry has the power to heal, inspire, and even change a life. In honor of National Poetry Month, I asked 10 poets to share a poem that changed them, and why. Now more than ever, readers are finding hope and escape in words. Read on to see which poems these poets turn to time and time again, and then join in the month-long celebration of this art form in April! Visit the National Poetry Month homepage on Poets.org to find activities, resources, and suggestions for ways to celebrate.

“You Reading This, Be Ready” by William Stafford

“William Stafford’s poem ‘You Reading This, Be Ready’ is one of the poems I have read and reread most often across the past 27 years or so. He wrote it only a few days before his very sudden death in 1993. Graywolf Press printed it on a postcard, so it was easy to share. It now appears in Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems by William Stafford. I love this poem, because it reminds us to wake up and pay better attention. It suggests that what we remember might be as modest as sunlight moving across a floor, or a scent. It reminds us that we shouldn’t dillydally to do whatever we can. My favorite line is ‘Are you waiting / for time to show you some better thoughts?’ because usually, I think we are. We are waiting. We’ll be smarter tomorrow. We’ll do this assignment then. It reminds us of the preciousness of every moment, each day we are alive. ‘What can anyone give you greater than now, / starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?’ It puts us back into our bodies and breath. It’s for all of us, at all ages.” —Naomi Shihab Nye, Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate and author of Cast Away: Poems for Our Time

“Dreams” by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes’ magnificent poem ‘Dreams’ gave me wings when I was in fifth grade. Since then, this simple, musical poem, as easy to memorize as breathing, has been my compass. The first stanza carries the joy of youth, the second—not referenced as often—is a warning about adulthood. Taken together, they are a prophecy about the road under our feet and the road that lies ahead. ‘Dreams’ was on a poster in my bedroom when I was young. I saw it before I fell asleep and when I woke. Today, I carry it in my heart.” —Laurie Halse Anderson, author of SHOUT

“There’s a certain Slant of light (258)” by Emily Dickinson

“‘There’s a certain Slant of light’ is not only one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems but one of my favorite poems ever. In my eyes, it is about depression and just how isolating and hopeless it can feel. Rather than making me sad, the poem makes me feel less alone, knowing that even Emily was feeling this way in her own era.” —amanda lovelace, author of break your glass slippers

“Elena” by Pat Mora

“When I was on a nine-month tour with a company called Poetry Alive!, my touring partner and I had to learn over 70 poems. Sometimes poems would be split between us—sometimes we performed a poem by ourselves. Well, there was a poem that she performed called ‘Elena’ by Pat Mora. It was about a Mexican mother—now living in America with her family—learning English in her bathroom, away from her husband because he was fearful she was going to be smarter than him in learning a new language. The last lines are: ‘Sometimes I take my English book and lock myself in the bathroom, say the thick words softly, for if I stop trying, I will be deaf when my children need my help.’ I saw middle school students of different races in different parts of our nation weeping. The humanity found in the specificity of this poem touched them on a soul level. That’s when I first understood beyond a doubt the power of poetry. If you open your heart to this genre, you’ll never be let down. Guaranteed.” —Charles Waters, author of Dictionary for a Better World

“The Journey” by Mary Oliver 

“‘The Journey’ must have changed thousands of lives. I read it when I was at a crossroads in my life, with difficult decisions to make. Decisions are particularly difficult when they involve impacting others and once a decision is taken, acting on it is doubly difficult. The poem opens with ‘One day you finally knew/what you had to do, and began’, which is a clear call to action. And it ends with the assertion that you can only save your own life, despite what others would have you believe. Ultimately, ‘Please fit your own mask first.’” —Sarah Crossan, author of Being Toffee

 “A Secret Life” by Stephen Dunn

“For many years writing was my secret life. When I found this poem with its assurances of how important a secret life is to being a human, it stoked my ‘small fire/ in a clearing.’ All my secret efforts were validated, and the radiant truths in this poem eventually helped me to find the courage necessary to share my poems and stories with others. More than a dozen published books later, I still find comfort and inspiration in these words.” —Irene Latham, author of Nine: A Book of Nonet Poems and Dictionary for a Better World

“Further in Summer than the Birds (895)” by Emily Dickinson

“Emily Dickinson’s ‘Further in Summer than the Birds’ is a poem that means a great deal to me. It is a poem about evanescence, a precise moment in time in which one state of being ends and another begins—in this case, the stroke of high noon at the exact end of summer. This very difficult verbal challenge is met with brilliant success. I know of no other poem that expresses so well the estrangement of man from nature and the sense of loneliness that estrangement involves. This poem is a great celebration of language.” —N. Scott Momaday, author of The Death of Sitting Bear

“What the Living Do” by Marie Howe

“I was a first-year college student when I encountered Marie Howe’s ‘What the Living Do,’ in her collection of the same name. The poem found me at a time in my life when I was learning how to be a writer, but also how to be away from home for the first time, how to move through the world, how to live. ‘What the Living Do’ is a poem about grief—and surviving it. Following her brother’s death, the speaker is learning to live again in the everyday world—dealing with groceries, spilled coffee, a clogged sink—but all the while, the loss is right there with her. As a young adult navigating love and heartbreak and losses of my own, Howe’s words resonated deeply. They invited me to examine the world critically, and also to be grateful for every moment that I was alive in it. Years later, at times of deep uncertainty and anxiety, I find it centering to return to ‘What the Living Do.’ It is a poem of emotional extremes and daily life, co-existing. It captures how the world feels at this moment.” —Kit Frick, author of I Killed Zoe Spanos

“Snow and Dirty Rain” by Richard Siken

“‘Snow and Dirty Rain’ by Richard Siken is not the kind of poem that changes your life all at once. It’s the kind of poem that teaches slowly. Someone reads it to you over the phone, from a book full of highlights and dog-eared pages. And even when you don’t think about that person anymore, you still think about that poem: All the lines that don’t end when you expect them to. All the mess. All the emotion. A literary reminder that to work through loss, you don’t have to be understood, but you do have to be heard.” —Trista Mateer, author of When the Stars Wrote Back

Vietnamese ca dao

“For thousands of years, Vietnamese mothers have nursed their children with ca dao songs. Ca dao is our folk poetry, passed orally from one generation to the next—a tradition that has helped sustain, nourish and keep Vietnamese people alive through our long and turbulent history. During and after the Vietnam War, my mother raised me with ca dao songs. She compensated for our lack of food with an abundance of beautiful lyrics and images via our folk poetry so that one day I would continue to sing the songs of my ancestors; songs that refuse to sleep.” —Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, author of The Mountains Sing

Kelly Gallucci

Kelly Gallucci is the Executive Editor of We Are Bookish, where she oversees the editorial content, offers book recommendations, and interviews authors and NetGalley members. When she's not working, Kelly can be found color coordinating her bookshelves, eating Chipotle, and watching way too many baking shows.

  1. Poignant selection! Nice to identify the poem and the person who finds it forceful (and why). I always admire “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold because of the tension between faith and the faltering of faith; between true love and a world in chaos.

  2. Hi Kelly. I read poetry every day–to keep me grounded in what feels real when the world around me, especially these days, fees unreal. I appreciate being introduced to some new (to me) poets and poems, and to see some old favorites. Thank you.

  3. Poetry can be powerful to it’s readers. Just reading how particular poems have changed people lives is amazing. I’ve written hundreds of poems and people get in contact with me to let me know how the poems have helped them in life. This is a great article, thanks for sharing these beautiful words.

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