13 Poems for ESL Students

Whether you liked them or not, you might have assumed that English poems are best for native English speakers.

But that is simply not true.

Poems can be unique and powerful tools to learn English.

Below, I will get you started with 13 of my all-time favorite poems (with links to the written versions in the subheadings) and tell you exactly how to practice English with poetry.


13 Lovely English Poems to Study and Admire

1. “This Is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams

About the Poem

“This is Just to Say” was published in 1934 and written by one of the most significant modern American poets, William Carlos Williams.

Williams was inspired by another American poet, Walt Whitman, who started a movement to write poetry that reflected the poet’s life and did not follow strict rules. Williams liked this idea and decided to write poems about his everyday life. He was particularly interested in what life was like in the American suburbs (the neighborhoods outside of a city).

“This Is Just to Say” was based on a note Williams left on the refrigerator for his wife. The note let his wife know that he had eaten the plums she was probably planning to eat later.

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You can listen to the poet himself reading his poem in the video below.

Poetic Notes

Some readers have considered whether there is a metaphor (a literary device where one object or idea represents another) behind this poem that goes beyond the plums. For example, many think the sweet fruit could be another way of talking about Williams’ affairs outside of his marriage—meaning he had romantic relations with women other than his wife.

Readers should also pay attention to the lack of punctuation and the type of details provided in the poem, as these keep the poem true to its original nature: a simple note on the fridge.

Practice and Learn

This is a wonderful poem for practicing identifying adjectives, as the plums are described with three different words—see if you can find them!

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It is also an extremely short poem, so you can try and memorize it first.

Lastly, listening to Williams read his poem is a great way to learn about the natural pauses in English. The fact that this poem comes from an ordinary situation (leaving a note on the fridge) means that it reflects natural speech and writing.

Try reciting the poem with the same pauses and intonation that Williams, a native English speaker, uses.

2. “The Chaos” by Gerard Nolst Trenité

About the Poem

Gerard Nolst Trenité was a Dutch traveler and writer.

Trenité’s very popular poem highlights the difficult spelling and pronunciation of some English words. Its focus is the English language itself, making it perfect for language learners.

You can listen to the poem using the YouTube video below. Note that a few stanzas (groups of lines that form verses) are skipped in the audio. It is a very long poem and almost all recordings leave out a few.

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Poetic Notes

Consider the tone of the poem and whether you think the speaker is being funny or is actually frustrated.

Note the rhymes at the end of each line and the abundance of alliteration (words that start with the same letter), both of which help shape the tone.

Practice and Learn

This poem is, of course, fantastic for learners, its intended audience. You have countless words in the poem to aid you in pronunciation and spelling.

The whole point of the poem is to show the different letter combinations in English and what they look and sound like.

Apart from this more obvious takeaway, you will also be exposed to tons of great new vocabulary words.

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3. “January” by John Updike

About the Poem

Walk through any bookstore that stocks English books, and chances are you will come across at least one work by John Updike. Although he is best known for his Rabbit Angstrom novels, Updike was also a prolific writer (producing a lot) of short stories, literary criticism and poetry.

In fact, “January” is actually part of a poetry collection called “A Child’s Calendar,” which has 12 poems—each for every month of the year told from a family’s point of view. 

Below is one good reading of this poem.

Poetic Notes

January marks both the start of the year and the beginning of the winter season.

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Indeed, the poem conjures up (to make something appear) a lot of winter imagery: the shorter days, the snow-covered footprints and the radiator (a heating appliance) making a purring sound, indicating that it is turned on and keeping the poem’s narrator (and their family) warm.

But there are other striking images in the poem as well. Can you give a few?

Practice and Learn

Like “The Chaos,” “January” (and pretty much all of Updike’s calendar poems) are great for pronunciation practice.

And because they are quite short, they are great for memorization and recitation, especially for intermediate level learners.

Finally, if you decide to read “A Child’s Calendar” from beginning to end, you can also review the months in English.

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4. “A Pizza the Size of the Sun” by Jack Prelutsky

About the Poem

Jack Prelutsky is one of the most well-known American contemporary children’s poets. “A Pizza the Size of the Sun” comes from a book of poetry he published under the same name in 1996.

The poem is about exactly what its title suggests: the speaker making an enormous pizza.

You can listen to one reading of the poem on YouTube below.

Poetic Notes

Take some time to think about what each of the metaphors in this poem means. Then come up with some other metaphors you could use instead to depict the same ideas.

Practice and Learn

This poem is great for beginners since it was written for a kid’s English level. Not only is the concept simple, but the metaphors and vocabulary are also easy to understand.

The poem’s simplicity and its easy rhymes make this an excellent choice for memorization practice.

It would also be a good poem from which to copy the style and write your own piece about a type of food. The sheer number of food vocabulary words in the poem will help you get started with ideas for your own piece.

5. “How Doth the Little Crocodile” by Lewis Carroll

About the Poem

Lewis Carroll is perhaps best known for the children’s books “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and its sequel (the next one in a series) “Through the Looking-Glass.” In fact, “How Doth the Little Crocodile” (sometimes just called “The Crocodile”) appears in Chapter 2 of the first book mentioned above.

The poem is recited by the main character, Alice, as she tries to remember another poem called “Against Idleness And Mischief” by Isaac Watts. That being the case, you can also study Watts’ poem alongside Carroll’s and compare and contrast them.

In the meantime, you can listen to the poem recited aloud below from 0:05.

Poetic Notes

Because it is recited by a child, “How Doth the Little Crocodile” is fairly short and uses simple words.

You also feel a childlike sense of wonder from the narrator through phrases like “shining tail” and “golden scales,” and the imagery conjured by a cheerful (sharp-toothed) grin and neatly spread claws. Of course, all of that only highlights the danger posed by the scaly creature!

Practice and Learn

“How Doth the Little Crocodile” is great for studying rhymes. After you have read and listened to the poem, try to answer these questions:

  • In which line is the first rhyme?
  • Is it a true rhyme or a slant rhyme?
  • Where’s the second rhyme? Is it the same or different than the first?
  • What’s the rhyme scheme?
  • What do you think the modern translation of “doth” is in the first line?
  • List as many synonyms for “grin” (first line, second stanza) as you can.
  • Can you find all three adverbs in the poem?

6. “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks

About the Poem

“We Real Cool,” published in 1960, is arguably the most famous of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poems.

Brooks was the first African American poet to win a Pulitzer Prize and was a truly brilliant writer. Her poems gave a voice to the everyday urban life of American Blacks in the 20th century. “We Real Cool” has such incredible rhythm that it will give you chills, meaning you will be so impressed that goosebumps will appear on your arms.

The poem is written from the perspective of two young teens who are skipping school to hang out (spend time together) at a pool hall.

You can listen to a reading of it by Brooks in the  video below. Brooks first talks about her inspiration for the poem, then the poetry reading begins at 1:46.

Poetic Notes

Here’s another poem that is perfect for memorization due to its short length and rhymes. This rhyme combines with alliteration like “Jazz June,” and assonance (words with the same vowel sound) like “Thin gin” to create a smooth, musical poem that is easy to remember.

Consider how these sounds reinforce (support) the content in the poem and how certain words may have deeper meanings for the poem’s speakers.

Practice and Learn

This poem is absolutely perfect for practicing English vowel sounds, which can be difficult for learners to distinguish at first. (Just think about how easy it is to be misunderstood when pronouncing the vowels in words like “bat,” “bit,” “but” and “bet.”)

So many English words differ only by their vowel sound and this poem contains a ton for you to practice.

See if you can use the rhyming to match these sounds and find which combinations and placements of these vowels produce them.

7. “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou

About the Poem

Like Brooks, Maya Angelou was an African-American writer who wrote heavily about the experiences of blacks (as well as women) in the United States. She was also a civil rights activist, which meant that she fought to help gain equal rights for groups who were ignored or mistreated by the rest of society. 

As a result, her works (like the poem you are about to listen to in the video below) are often raw, powerful and convey the brutal realities of being a marginalized (treated as not important) person.  

Poetic Notes

The poem uses birds as metaphors for a “free” person and a “caged” one.

The “free” person is allowed to do anything they want, like daring to “claim the sky” or achieve lofty goals. On the other hand, the “caged” person only experiences pain and suffering as conveyed by his “bars of rage,” clipped wings and tied feet.

Still, the “caged” person hopes for a better life despite all odds (his tune is heard/on the distant hill/for the caged bird/sings of freedom).

Read the poem carefully and think about what makes it so impactful for the reader—word choices, the way these words are arranged, etc.

Practice and Learn

The poem has plenty of repetition and uses simple words, making it perfect for activities like fill-in-the-blanks.

You can do it the straightforward way (memorize the poem and fill in the blanks) or the creative way (replace some of the words with different ones to give a whole new meaning to the poem).

8. “Eating Poetry” by Mark Strand

About the Poem

Mark Strand is a poet known for using surreal (dreamlike) imagery and carefully chosen language to convey his poignant (causing deep emotion) messages.

The poem “Eating Poetry,” first published in the 1960s, describes a speaker who is literally eating poetry.

Strand himself reads the poem in the video below.

Poetic Notes

Probably the biggest thing to consider when understanding this poem is the metaphor behind the act of eating a poem. Think about what the poet is trying to convey by this idea of happily eating a poem.

There is also some rhyming used (see if you can find it) and a lot of sharp imagery—from ink running down the speaker’s mouth to dogs rolling their eyeballs and a librarian stamping her legs (picking up her legs and then pressing them hard onto the ground). Think about why Strand used these devices and how they change the poem and its meaning.

Practice and Learn

This poem is a great choice for learners who need help with English verbs. It contains many colorful action words that you may not have heard before like “snarl,” “romp” and “stamp.”

See if you can identify all of the verbs and then use context clues to figure out what they mean before looking them up in a dictionary.

Additionally, this poem is great for beginners to get an idea of how to form simple sentences. Strand uses proper punctuation, and many of his sentences are short and sweet, highlighting one of the most common types of simple English sentences: subject, verb, object.

9. “So you want to be a writer?” by Charles Bukowski

About the Poem

Charles Bukowski was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century.

In his poem “So you want to be a writer,” the speaker details exactly what they think makes a real writer, and the poem is a fantastic example of Bukowski’s style.

You can listen to an audio recording of the poem on YouTube below.

Poetic Notes

The most striking part about this poem is the amount of imagery used. Consider which images have the most impact on the speaker’s message and why you think the poet chose to include them. My personal favorite is the writer hunched over the typewriter searching for words.

There are also many great metaphors and similes (where one idea is compared to another with the word “like” or “as”). One example is when the poet talks about words coming “out of your soul like a rocket.”

These devices work together with the repetition in the poem to create a strong tone. In other words, the speaker sounds very powerful, and it is clear that they completely believe in their message.

Practice and Learn

Bukowski’s poem is the ultimate choice for learners who need to practice the imperative (commands), interrogative (questions) and conditional (the if/then structure).

The poem is really just a compilation of these three types of sentences, and learners will greatly benefit from identifying these and trying to imitate their intonation based on the audio recording.

Additionally, the poem is full of good vocabulary for English learners, with rich, intermediate level words like “consumed,” “madness” and “gut.”

10. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” by Emily Dickinson

About the Poem

Most people have heard of Emily Dickinson, the famous American poet whose works were published posthumously (after her death) starting in 1890.

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant” is one of her most important pieces. It is a complicated poem about the concept of not telling the truth directly.

There is an audio recording of the poem on YouTube you can listen to below.

Poetic Notes

Dickinson’s poem has many unique elements. For starters, there’s her use of the punctuation mark called the “dash,” which can be interpreted in various ways.

She also capitalizes certain words throughout the poem and uses metaphors. Whenever considering what Dickinson means in a poem, readers must always consider the form of the poem itself, something that she was very focused on throughout her writing.

Practice and Learn

This poem, along with all of Dickinson’s work, is definitely for the more advanced English learner.

It is an excellent poem with which to practice reading comprehension at a higher level so you can begin deciphering more difficult texts.

You want to try to figure out exactly what Dickinson means when she talks about the truth being told “slant” and developing an argument as to whether you think that concept is right or wrong.

Practicing with difficult ideas such as this one will help you better understand English arguments and participate in discussions of complex ideas.

11. “The Tyger” by William Blake

About the Poem

“The Tyger” is part of William Blake’s poetry collection “Songs of Innocence and (Songs) of Experience.” Blake is another famous name in the English literary world, so expect to see more of his work as you move along in your language studies. 

Unlike many of the poets on this list, Blake lived from between the mid-18th century to the early 19th century. That explains the use of archaic (no longer used) words such as thy (your), thine (your) and thee (you).

You can listen to a dramatic reading of the poem below, starting at the 0:23 mark.

Poetic Notes

If you have ever seen a tiger, you know what a beautiful and dangerous animal it is.

The poem brilliantly conveys both the tiger’s beauty and the danger it poses in the first stanza (What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?). The narrator is clearly awed by both, and wonders how the one who created the tiger could also create a lamb or young sheep, which is not dangerous at all (Did he who made the Lamb make thee?).

Also, why do you think Blake used the spelling “tyger” instead of “tiger?”

Practice and Learn

This is another poem that works best with advanced learners. It has plenty of examples of personification or giving human qualities to objects (When the stars threw down their spears/And water’d heave with their tears) and alliteration (Tyger Tyger, burning bright).

Can you spot all the other literary devices the poet used?

12. “There Was an Old Man with a Beard” by Edward Lear

About the Poem

Edward Lear was a 19th century poet. He was known for playful works that seem to make no sense on the surface but can make you laugh nonetheless—like this poem, for example.

You can skip to the 0:05 mark for the reading below. The great thing about this particular reading is that it repeats the poem twice—so that it gives you twice the amount of laughs.

Poetic Notes

“There was an Old Man with a Beard” seems simple enough: it only consists of one four-line stanza.

And yet somehow, it makes quite an impact! Maybe it is because you expect it to be something else from the start, only for it to be entirely different by the end. Maybe it is the absurdity (the state of being ridiculous or not making any sense) of the birds staying in the old man’s beard. Maybe because it begs two questions: how did the birds end up in the man’s beard, and what did he mean by “It is just as I feared!”?

At any rate, this poem will certainly bring a smile to your face.

Practice and Learn

This poem is an example of a limerick, a funny and short poem that follows the rhyming scheme AABBA. Thus, it is best reserved for advanced students.

If you dare, try writing a limerick of your own!

13. “My Favorite Things” by Oscar Hammerstein II (from “The Sound of Music”)

About the Poem

Some would say this is more of a song than a poem. But if you think about it, songs are essentially poems set to music.

You have probably come across “The Sound of Music” at some point in your studies. One of my favorite songs from the movie version is the aptly-named “My Favorite Things” because it is an entire English language lesson packed in just a little over two minutes.

The song starts at the 0:15 mark in the video below.

Poetic Notes

This song has everything: rhymes (whiskers on kittens/warm woolen mittens), alliteration (raindrops on roses/satin sashes), repetition (these are a few of my favorite things) and fun imagery (wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings), among others.

Have fun spotting all the figurative language used in this one!

Practice and Learn

For students who are not yet at the advanced stage, this may be a less intimidating poem to study. Try to write a new verse or two of your favorite things, following the rest of the poem’s structure.

Why Should English Learners Read Poetry?

Poetry helps learners improve their speaking, writing, reading and listening skills in many different ways.

For starters, poetry can teach you tons of new vocabulary. Not only will you encounter many new words, but many poems rhyme as well, which offers an incredible memory boost.

Poetry will also teach you the art of word choice. Poems are very different from prose (how language is normally written, like in this post), because they must convey a powerful message within a small amount of space, so every word must count. By paying attention to a poem’s word choice, you can learn how to choose the best possible English word to convey your own thoughts in both speaking and writing.

Furthermore, poets pay special attention to the stress and intonation of words and sentences. If you want to improve these areas of your English speech, poetry is one of the best ways to do it.

Punctuation is also an important part of poetry. It changes the way the poem sounds when read aloud, and it can even alter the poem’s meaning. Reading poetry will help you learn exactly what punctuation conveys and how to use it correctly.

Want your English reading comprehension to improve? Poems will teach you about literary devices in English, which are creative writing techniques. Often, the author will discuss something in a figurative (non-literal or unrealistic) way. Examples of literary devices are metaphors, allegories and symbolism.

If you can begin to identify these through poetry, you will have a better understanding of most things you read in English. You will not get confused by interpreting something too literally.

For advanced learners, reading English poetry is one of the biggest ways you can learn to experiment with the English language. Poetry is famous for breaking English language rules. Knowing how to successfully bend these grammatical rules to convey meaning is part of mastering English.

Finally, reading poetry is a fun way to gain insight into English-speaking cultures and history since literary works reveal a lot about society.

How to Turn Any English Poem into a Language Lesson

Believe it or not, there is so much you can do with poetry that goes beyond simply reading it.

  • Get your highlighter. The first thing you can do is take notes about any language elements that seem crucial to the sound of the poem. For example: words that you think should be stressed, words that rhyme, etc.
  • Listen to the poem. After marking it, listen to an audio or video recording of the poem. Not only will you practice your listening skills, but you can also see whether the speaker follows the patterns you have marked. Did you put the word stress in the right place? How is the rhythm of the poem different than what you expected?
  • Recite the poem aloud. Mimic (Copy or do the same thing as) what you heard in the audio recording. As I mentioned earlier, poetry is so concerned with stress and sound that it is like a bite-sized (short) lesson in learning to speak English naturally.
  • Take this a step further and try memorizing the entire poem. Most poems are small enough that you can achieve this in a short time—another benefit of learning with poetry. Memorizing a small poem is a fantastic way to learn new vocabulary. That is because you are not just memorizing the words and their definitions—you also have context for the words, which makes memorization easier.
  • Note down and look up interesting vocabulary and phrases. You cannot always trust a poem to be literal (exact in meaning), as many tend to be figurative (symbolic). Poems use words in a unique way because they can use context to greatly change their meanings. See if you can spot any interesting usages of familiar vocabulary or expressions, then look them up to understand.
  • Write your own poem. Finally, you can benefit enormously from trying to write your own poem using the same form or style as the poem you have just read. Writing your own poem is the ultimate way to master what you have learned. Poems are usually short, so you can quickly get a sense of the writing style. Then, try to imitate the style in your own poem. There are so many different poetic forms that you will never run out of writing types to try.

To understand poems, it helps to be familiar with natural English speech, which includes a lot of idioms and figurative language. You can practice by consuming English media made for and by native speakers, such as books, movies and TV shows.

Another resource is the language learning program FluentU. It has a library of English videos equipped with interactive subtitles that explain words, slang and expressions in context.

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I hope you enjoyed these few poems and that you will not stop here. English poetry is a vast and diverse genre that keeps growing every day. Who knows? Maybe you will even be the next famous English-language poet!

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