Though poetry can be full of light and laughter, it can also capture sorrow, pain, and the fragility of life. In the best cases, these dark poems give us catharsis. They verbalize the shattered mirror through which we occasionally catch glimpses of our world.
I can’t help but love poetry like this, and these dark months of winter have inspired me to share a few of my favorites. Below is a collection of full poems, excerpts, and poetry readings that walk in shadow. They contain darkness in all of its forms: grief, death, anxiety, rage, despair, loneliness, jealousy, doubt, heartbreak, and betrayal.
Though you probably shouldn’t read dark poems every day, sometimes they are exactly what you need.
Pablo Neruda, “Nothing But Death”
There are cemeteries that are lonely,
graves full of bones that do not make a sound,
the heart moving through a tunnel,
in it darkness, darkness, darkness,
like a shipwreck we die going into ourselves,
as though we were drowning inside our hearts,
as though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul.
Karinna Alves Gulias, “Forgetfulness”
Time could carry our weight
if only we could paint dice
to wait on the windowsill
Wait for a guest
Wait for a moment of your pride
And let it be
Dusty or kept
Choice of an arm
reaching as far as your hands can touch your face
Do you cry or rest
Dunya Mikhail, “Bag of Bones”
Reginald Dwayne Betts, “For the City That Nearly Broke Me”
Louise Glück, “The Myth of Innocence”
But ignorance cannot will knowledge. Ignorance wills something imagined which it believes exists.
Sara Teasdale, “If Death is Kind”
Perhaps if Death is kind, and there can be returning,
We will come back to earth some fragrant night,
And take these lanes to find the sea, and bending
Breathe the same honeysuckle, low and white.
We will come down at night to these resounding beaches
And the long gentle thunder of the sea,
Here for a single hour in the wide starlight
We shall be happy, for the dead are free.
Babeba Baderoon, “Old Photographs”
On my desk is a photograph of you
taken by the woman who loved you then.
In some photos her shadow falls
in the foreground. In this one,
her body is not that far from yours.
Did you hold your head that way
because she loved it?
Sarya Abra, “Test”
Leobogang Mashile, “Love is Elastic”
When I am closed
You are stretched at your fullest width
Ready to give
I want to jump
And feel this life
As you do
I could give as you do
I could live as you do
Vijay Seshadri, “Enlightenment”
Rumi, “A Great Wagon”
Khalil Gibran, “Joy and Sorrow Chapter VIII”
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Henrik Nordbrandt, “At the Gate”
You are gone.
Three words. And not one
exists now in any
Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, “Corpse Flower”
Frank Bidart, “Queer”
Thylias Moss, “Spilled Sugar”
I cannot forget the sugar on the table.
The hand that spilled it was not that of
my usual father, three layers of clothes
for a wind he felt from hallway to kitchen,
the brightest room though the lightbulbs
Wislawa Szymborska, “Lot’s Wife”
They say I looked back out of curiosity.
But I could have had other reasons.
I looked back mourning my silver bowl.
Carelessly, while tying my sandal strap.
So I wouldn’t have to keep staring at the righteous nape
of my husband Lot’s neck.
From the sudden conviction that if I dropped dead
he wouldn’t so much as hesitate.
From the disobedience of the meek.
Checking for pursuers.
Struck by the silence, hoping God had changed his mind…
Kahlil Gibran, “On Pain”
Danez Smith, “The Bullet Was a Girl”
Naomi Shihab Nye, “All the Names We Will Not Know”
Before dawn, trembling in air down to the old river,
circulating gently as a new season
delicate still in its softness, rustling raiment
of hopes never stitched tightly enough to any hour.
I was almost, maybe, just about, going to do that.
Marilyn Krysl, “Song of Some Ruins”
like we fought, slugging our way toward each other,
sending up flares to announce our advance. And when our city
burned, we stood in the ashes, and admired each other’s
bodies. Now I ask you: how will we manage
without the steadiness of our long unhappiness?
Anne Sexton, “The Truth the Dead Know”
TJ Jarrett, “Of Late, I Have Been Thinking about Despair”
Emily Fragos, “The Sadness of Clothes”
Li-Young Lee, “A Hymn to Childhood”
Childhood? Which childhood?
The one that didn’t last?
The one in which you learned to be afraid
of the boarded-up well in the backyard
and the ladder to the attic?
The one presided over by armed men
in ill-fitting uniforms
strolling the streets and alleys,
while loudspeakers declared a new era,
and the house around you grew bigger,
the rooms farther apart, with more and more
The photographs whispered to each other
from their frames in the hallway.
The cooking pots said your name
each time you walked past the kitchen.
And you pretended to be dead with your sister
in games of rescue and abandonment.
You learned to lie still so long
the world seemed a play you viewed from the muffled
safety of a wing. Look! In
run the servants screaming, the soldiers shouting,
turning over the furniture,
smashing your mother’s china.
Don’t fall asleep.
Each act opens with your mother
reading a letter that makes her weep.
Each act closes with your father fallen
into the hands of Pharaoh.
Which childhood? The one that never ends? O you,
still a child, and slow to grow.
Still talking to God and thinking the snow
falling is the sound of God listening,
and winter is the high-ceilinged house
where God measures with one eye
an ocean wave in octaves and minutes,
and counts on many fingers
all the ways a child learns to say Me.
The one from which you’ll never escape? You,
so slow to know
what you know and don’t know.
Still thinking you hear low song
in the wind in the eaves,
story in your breathing,
grief in the heard dove at evening,
and plenitude in the unseen bird
tolling at morning. Still slow to tell
memory from imagination, heaven
from here and now,
hell from here and now,
death from childhood, and both of them