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Photo illustrations, Mental Floss. Backgrounds: iStock. Covers: courtesy of the publisher.
Photo illustrations, Mental Floss. Backgrounds: iStock. Covers: courtesy of the publisher.

25 Amazing Books by Women You Need to Read

Photo illustrations, Mental Floss. Backgrounds: iStock. Covers: courtesy of the publisher.
Photo illustrations, Mental Floss. Backgrounds: iStock. Covers: courtesy of the publisher.

It's time to do some spring cleaning, dust off the bookshelf, and plot which stories to add to your reading list. Whether you're looking to discover a new author or find an unread title by an old favorite, these 25 books by women would be welcome additions to your collection.

1. BAD FEMINIST // ROXANE GAY

BAD FEMINIST, ROXANE GAY

Roxane Gay is a New York Times best-selling author who has written everything from novels to cultural essays to comic books—in short, she's a badass. Bad Feminist—a term she uses for herself—is her collection of personal essays (backed up with external sources) about the daily conflicts that women encounter being feminists in our complicated, culture-consuming world. She approaches each topic with a healthy balance of humor and criticism, acknowledging the messy, flawed nature of trying to live by an ever-changing set of feminist principles.

Find It: Amazon

2. MEN WE REAPED // JESMYN WARD

MEN WE REAPED, JESMYN WARD

After Jesmyn Ward's second novel, Salvage the Bones, took home the National Book Award for Fiction in 2011, she turned to her own life for the 2013 memoir Men We Reaped. It's a devastating account of black lives lost to drugs, accidents, or suicide, all in her tiny Mississippi hometown. Telling the stories of five men she knew in reverse chronological order while weaving in chronological chapters about her own childhood and coming of age, it all leads to the heartbreaking death of her brother.

Find It: Amazon

3. TEXT ME WHEN YOU GET HOME: THE EVOLUTION AND TRIUMPH OF MODERN FEMALE FRIENDSHIP // KAYLEEN SCHAEFER

TEXT ME WHEN YOU GET HOME, KAYLEEN SCHAEFER

Kayleen Schaefer admits early on in Text Me When You Get Home that she is a reformed mean girl. As someone who used to view other women solely as competition, her book about the incredible, complicated bonds of female friendship is relatable, familiar, and subverts the false notion that women are predisposed to hating each other.

Find It: Amazon

4. LIKE THE SINGING COMING OFF THE DRUMS // SONIA SANCHEZ

LIKE THE SINGING COMING OFF THE DRUMS, SONIA SANCHEZ

Sonia Sanchez's 1998 collection of love poems is romantic and sexy. Her poems take various forms, including tanka and haiku, and with lines like "I breathe you and become high," Sanchez invites you to bask in their lovely brevity while entreating you to turn the page to the next one. The musicality of her poems ("i dreamt i was tangoing with / you, you held me so close / we were like the singing coming off the drums") is kinetic and shows why The New York Times once referred to her as "the spiritual mother of spoken word for a hip-hop generation." (Sanchez did, after all, dedicate this book to Tupac Shakur and his activist mother, Afeni Shakur.)

Find It: Amazon

5. DIVING INTO THE WRECK // ADRIENNE RICH

DIVING INTO THE WRECK, ADRIENNE RICH

Adrienne Rich's collection of poems feels as relevant today as it must have when it was released in 1973. When it was announced she would split the National Book Award for poetry with Allen Ginsberg, Rich declined the award as an individual and instead accepted it on behalf of all women, speaking to the deeply feminist and political nature of her work. Her 2012 New York Times obituary called her "a poet of towering reputation and towering rage"; after reading the titular poem, it would be impossible to disagree.

Find It: Amazon

6. SATAN SAYS // SHARON OLDS

Sharon Olds won a Pulitzer for 2012's Stag's Leap, but her first collection of poetry, Satan Says, from 1980, set the tone for her acclaimed career as a writer of incredibly personal poems who can tackle themes like sex, trauma, and abuse with honesty and aplomb. Fellow award-winning poet Marilyn Hacker called it "a daring and elegant first book," and its straightforward prose and frankness quickly made Satan Says college curriculum material.

Find It: Amazon

7. PACHINKO // MIN JIN LEE

Min Jin Lee's epic Pachinko was one of the most celebrated books of 2017, and with good reason. This novel, Lee's second, chronicles the lives of four generations of a Korean family who immigrate to Japan. Owning pachinko parlors, a slot-machine-style game popular in Japan, is one of the only ways for the Korean immigrants to rise in economic standing. Lee's ability to keep the reader captivated through each new generation is a testament to her ability to craft detailed and nuanced characters who resonate.

Find It: Amazon

8. HOMEGOING // YAA GYASI

Yaa Gyasi's historical novel begins in the 18th century with two African sisters and follows the lives and struggles of multiple generations of their descendants. The family progresses forward one chapter at a time, each focusing on a different generation and contextualizing their lives based on where their family line was headed—one sister married a British official and stayed in Africa, while the other was captured and sold into American slavery. Each subsequent character is so incredibly well developed that closing their chapter and leaving them behind hurts a little every time.

Find It: Amazon

9. THE ANIMATORS // KAYLA RAE WHITAKER

The Animators, Kayla Rae Whitaker's 2017 debut novel, joins the pantheon of books about complex female friendship. The story focuses on the bond between two talented and creative women who meet in college and become successful collaborators as adults. The relationship between Sharon and Mel is as intense and messy as it is funny and inspirational, and their artistic failures and achievements can sometimes feel like a third friend.

Find It: Amazon

10. A LITTLE LIFE // HANYA YANAGIHARA

Over the course of Hanya Yanagihara's 2015 novel, an unlikely crew of college friends—Jude, Willem, Malcolm, and JB—become such indelible characters that you'll be thinking about them long after you've finished reading. While each of the boys becomes wildly successful in his own field, there is a darkness that looms due to a mysterious past trauma suffered by Jude. Yanagihara, who uses this book to examine the role of male friendship, once described the novel as "a fairy tale set in a contemporary time and place"—but consider this fair warning: She is referring more to classic Grimm than Disney.

Find It: Amazon

11. THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET // SANDRA CISNEROS

Acclaimed Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street came out in 1984. A coming of age story about a young Latina girl named Esperanza ("in Spanish my name means hope, in English it means too many letters") in Chicago, the book format follows Esperanza from her teenage years to adulthood. Cisneros weaves in stories about the robust Latin neighborhood around Esperanza, painting a vivid picture of life on Mango Street.

Find It: Amazon

12. WHAT IT MEANS WHEN A MAN FALLS FROM THE SKY // LESLEY NNEKA ARIMAH

The National Book Awards named Nigerian writer Lesley Nneka Arimah one of their 5 Under 35 in 2017. The very first story in this debut collection, "The Future Looks Good," is so brilliantly crafted around the family history of a girl who is fumbling to open a locked door, it's nearly impossible to catch your breath until the spectacular end. Each subsequent story has a distinctive voice. NPR called her writing "defiantly original" with a range that goes from "nightmare fairy tale" to "post-apocalyptic hope."

Find It: Amazon

13. ELEANOR & PARK // RAINBOW ROWELL

If it were possible to bottle up the feeling of first love and put it into word form, Eleanor & Park would be the result. It's set in the '80s—meaning mixtapes on cassettes and having to wait to see your crush because there are no cell phones. Rowell writes beautifully about the first flutters of love. Her other books vary in theme from a fanfic writing college student to gay magicians, but her ability to capture that first love feeling remains one of her most magical qualities across all her books.

Find It: Amazon

14. FAR FROM THE TREE // ROBIN BENWAY

Robin Benway's novel about a pregnant, adopted teen searching for her biological siblings could have easily veered into the after-school special territory. Instead, its realistic dialogue and beautiful prose make this book a smart, "big-hearted and uplifting" read, and made it last year's National Book Award winner for young people's literature.

Find It: Amazon

15. THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING // JOAN DIDION

THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING BY JOAN DIDION

The Year of Magical Thinking is the painfully honest chronicle of Joan Didion's life the year following the sudden death of her husband. Known for her novels, screenplays, and essay collections like Slouching Towards Bethlehem, this deeply personal book is a raw glimpse into the realities of grief. Didion adapted Magical Thinking into a play that debuted on Broadway in 2007.

Find It: Amazon

16. TO ALL THE BOYS I'VE LOVED BEFORE // JENNY HAN

To All the Boys I've Loved Before

Jenny Han's first book in the series about teen Lara Jean Song Covey is so charming it's no wonder it's being adapted into a movie. Han writes incredibly authentic sister relationships: Lara Jean keeps the love letters she's written to the boys she's crushed on in a hat box, and when her younger sister mails them out, it sets off a series of perfect rom-com events.

Find It: Amazon

17. THE MOTHERS // BRIT BENNETT

THE MOTHERS BY BRIT BENNETT

Brit Bennett's 2016 debut novel, The Mothers, is about a young woman, Nadia, whose grief over her mother's recent suicide sends her down a path where she makes life-altering decisions that change the course of her future. Her ongoing relationships with her best friend, Aubrey, and the pastor's son, Luke, remind Nadia of what could have been had she made different choices.

Find It: Amazon

18. THE ROUND HOUSE // LOUISE ERDRICH

THE ROUND HOUSE BY LOUISE ERDRICH

Celebrated Native American writer Louise Erdrich has written 14 novels, including the 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist The Plague of Doves. In her 2012 novel The Round House—which was called "haunting" and "powerful" when it won the National Book Award for Fiction that year—the narrator shares the story of his struggle to make sense of and seek justice after the violent rape of his mother when he was 13 years old.

Find It: Amazon

19. TENDER AT THE BONE // RUTH REICHL

TENDER AT THE BONE BY RUTH REICHL

Former New York Times restaurant critic and Gourmet magazine editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl's 1998 memoir is infused with a lot of humor and truth telling. She writes openly about her mother's manic depression (and penchant for quirky culinary creations) and includes recipes throughout the book, which takes the reader through the various people who shaped her palate. Kirkus aptly described Tender as "A perfectly balanced stew of memories: not too sweet, not too tart."

Find It: Amazon

20. WE ARE NEVER MEETING IN REAL LIFE // SAMANTHA IRBY

WE ARE NEVER MEETING IN REAL LIFE BY SAMANTHA IRBY

Four years after her first book, Meaty, comedian Samantha Irby returned with a new collection in 2017. We Are Never Meeting in Real Life is filled with 20 candid and moving essays which Bust called "so vulnerable and fearless that they'll stop you in your tracks." Chronicling decidedly unfunny moments, like spreading her father's ashes or dealing with a sick pet, Irby manages to inflect her curmudgeonly humor and warmth into every scenario, leaving you unsure if you should laugh or cry.

Find It: Amazon

21. IN THE COUNTRY // MIA ALVAR

IN THE COUNTRY BY MIA ALVAR

The nine stories in Mia Alvar's 2015 debut collection center around the life of Filipinos, those in the Philippines as well as those who moved to the U.S. or Bahrain for work, as she and her family had in her childhood. "Many of Mia's stories are so plausible," BuzzFeed reviewed, "it's easy to forget her book is a work of fiction." One story, about an expat woman who begins to tutor a severely impaired young girl, provides such insight into the morally gray area that so many people find themselves in that you'll find yourself thinking about it long after you've set the book aside.

Find It: Amazon

22. AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE // TAYARI JONES

AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE BY TAYARI JONES

Tayari Jones's fourth novel, An American Marriage, was quickly chosen by Oprah as her next book club selection after it was released earlier this year. The novel is told from the alternating points of view of a newlywed couple, Celestial and Roy, and the man who introduced them, Andre. When Roy is falsely convicted and sent to prison, it irreparably damages their marriage. Jones's masterful storytelling is gripping, and as Oprah describes it, "It's a love story that also has a huge layer of suspense."

Find It: Amazon

23. CRAZY SALAD // NORA EPHRON

CRAZY SALAD BY NORA EPHRON

This 1975 collection by legendary screenwriter Nora Ephron is hilarious and very much of the time. Prior to writing and/or directing classic movies like When Harry Met Sally …, Sleepless in Seattle, and You've Got Mail, Ephron was a journalist and essayist. Crazy Salad includes the famous "A Few Words About Breasts," which is Ephron's humorous musing on how different her life would be if her breasts were larger. The essays, described by Entertainment Weekly as "coiled with crabby wit and snide intelligence," offer a glimpse into the women's movement in the '70s.

Find It: Amazon

24. THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR // NICOLA YOON

THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR

This dreamy YA novel published in 2016, Nicola Yoon's follow-up to her debut, Everything, Everything, is about a matter-of-fact teenage girl who doesn't believe in fate or magic, but meets a winsome teen boy who shows her otherwise. With two POC protagonists tackling topics like deportation and the unique pressure of being the child of immigrants, this book manages to feel both current and timeless.

Find It: Amazon

25. MS. MARVEL // G. WILLOW WILSON

MS. MARVEL

When Marvel decided to make Ms. Marvel a Muslim, Pakistani-American teenager who lives in New Jersey—and had G. Willow Wilson, a Muslim woman, write the series—the world took notice. (The novel won the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story in 2015.) Part My So-Called Life, part classic Peter Parker origin story, Wilson makes Kamala Khan's adventures balancing school, family, and her superpowers feel like the universal teen experience.

Find It: Amazon

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12 Things You Might Not Know About Beverly Cleary
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Moving, relatable, and frequently hilarious, Beverly Cleary’s stories have been captivating readers of all ages for more than 60 years. From Ramona Quimby to Socks the Cat, Cleary's characters—and the tales they inhabit—are still going strong all these decades later. Here’s what you might not know about one of the world’s favorite children’s authors, who turns 102 years old today.

1. SHE'S A FORMER LIBRARIAN.

After graduating in 1939 from the University of Washington with a Library Science degree, Cleary worked as a children’s librarian in Yakima. 

2. SHE HELPED IMPROVE THE LEAVE IT TO BEAVER FRANCHISE.

Cleary once wrote a pair of original Leave It to Beaver tie-in stories starring Wally and The Beav which, according to several letters she received, many fans found much more enjoyable than the series’ film adaptation. (Her explanation? “I cut out dear old Dad’s philosophizing.”)

3. YOU CAN VISIT THE BEVERLY CLEARY SCULPTURE GARDEN IN PORTLAND, OREGON.

Many of Cleary’s best-known stories were partially set in Portland’s Grant Park (she grew up nearby) and, as a loving nod, the city unveiled statues of Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, and Ribsy the dog at the park in 1995.

4. SHE'S ALWAYS SYMPATHIZED WITH STRUGGLING READERS.

Getting put into the lowest reading circle in first grade almost made young Cleary resent books. Phonic lists were a drag and being force-fed Dick & Jane-style narratives was flat-out excruciating. “[We] wanted action. We wanted a story,” she lamented in her autobiography. It was an experience Cleary never forgot. Since then, she claimed to have always kept children who might be undergoing similar trials in mind while writing.

5. SHE'D WRITE AND BAKE SIMULTANEOUSLY.

Many authors crank up their favorite tunes during scribing sessions, but Cleary had a different approach. “I used to bake bread while I wrote," she once explained. "I’d mix the dough up and sit down and start to write. After a while, the dough would rise and I’d punch it down and write some more. When the dough rose the second time, I’d put it in the oven and have the yeasty smell of bread as I typed.”

6. THERE'S AN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL NAMED IN HER HONOR.

Beverly Cleary Elementary is an Oregon K-8 school with three campuses in Portland, Oregon.

7. DESPITE HER PARENTS' OBJECTIONS, CLEARY ELOPED WITH THE MAN SHE LOVED.

“Gerhart” is the pseudonym her memoirs give to the fellow Beverly’s folks actually tried setting her up with, though the pair shared virtually no chemistryClarence Cleary, her future husband, was a kind-hearted economics and history student she met in college. He was also Roman Catholic, which didn’t sit well with her Presbyterian parents. Undaunted, Beverly Atlee Bunn eloped and became Beverly Cleary in 1940. The couple would remain together until Clarence’s death in 2004.

8. HARPER COLLINS PUBLISHING CREATED A HOLIDAY FOR HER BIRTHDAY.

Kids reading outdoors
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It's called D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything And Read), and though they encourage you to celebrate all the time, April 12 is the official date in honor of Cleary's birthday.

9. THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS DECLARED HER A "LIVING LEGEND."

This award is exclusively granted to “artists, writers, activists, filmmakers, physicians, entertainers, sports figures, and public servants who have made significant contributions to America’s diverse cultural, scientific, and social heritage.” Cleary received her title in 2000, joining the ranks of Judy Blume, Muhammad Ali, and Madeleine Albright.

10. SHE HAS A VERY WISE WRITING MANTRA.

When she was still a little girl, Cleary’s mother, an ex-teacher, gave her this advice: “The best writing is simple writing. And try to write something funny. People enjoy reading anything that makes them laugh.” Another tip that stuck with her came from a college professor, who often said, “The proper subject of the novel is the universal human experience.”

11. SHE'S A CAT LOVER.

Cleary has owned several cats over the years, one of whom used to resent having to compete with her typewriter for attention and would sit on the keys in protest.

12. SHE HAS A THEORY ABOUT WHY KIDS LOVE RAMONA QUIMBY SO MUCH.

“Because [Ramona] does not learn to be a better girl. I was so annoyed with the books in my childhood, because children always learned to be ‘better’ children and, in my experience, they didn’t. They just grew, and so I started Ramona … and she has never reformed. [She’s] really not a naughty child, in spite of the title Ramona the Pest. Her intentions are good, but she has a lot of imagination, and things sometimes don’t turn out the way she expected.”

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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The Stories Behind 15 Poems We All Learned in School
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Poetry can seem impenetrable for many readers, but the best examples usually have a simple message behind all the flowery language and symbolism. Whether they're tragic or funny, romantic or frightening, the timeless ones are always anchored in the real world—you might just have to give them a careful read to find the meaning.

Part of the reason why certain poems can endure for centuries is because the poets themselves are inspired by the same types of issues we endure every day: love, loss, fear, rage. The best of these works have a backstory that's just as interesting as the verses themselves; here's the story behind 15 poems we all learned in school.

1. "INVICTUS" // W.E. HENLEY

Perhaps no other poet on this list put their struggles down on paper as succinctly as W.E. Henley did with "the age of Invictus." At 12, Henley was diagnosed with arthritic tuberculosis, which eventually required the amputation of one leg during his late teens, and the possibility of losing the other. Refusing this fate, when Henley was in his mid-twenties, he instead turned to Dr. Joseph Lister, who performed an alternative surgery that saved the leg.

It was during the years spent in the hospital that Henley wrote "Invictus," a stark proclamation of his resistance against life's trials and tragedies. "Out of the night that covers me," it starts, "Black as the pit from pole to pole/I thank whatever gods may be/For my unconquerable soul." The poem famously ends with "I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul."

It's a poem that endures across all races and cultures. It was an inspiration to Nelson Mandela during his imprisonment and has been referenced in countless movies, television shows, and books ever since its publication in 1888.

2. "THE RED WHEELBARROW" // WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS

A picture of a red wheelbarrow
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It was originally published without a title—simply known by the number XXII—but "The Red Wheelbarrow" has grown into one of the most memorable short poems of the 20th century. It sprung from the mind of William Carlos Williams, whose day job was as a doctor in northern New Jersey. It's only 16 words, but it paints an unforgettable picture:

"so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens."

Williams had said that the imagery was inspired by a patient of his that he had grown close to while making a house call. "In his backyard," Williams said of the man, "I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing."

It took some research and census records, but William Logan, an English professor at the University of Florida, finally discovered in 2015 that the man was Thaddeus Lloyd Marshall Sr. of Rutherford, New Jersey.

3. "IF—" // RUDYARD KIPLING

Rudyard Kipling portrait
Elliott & Fry, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There may be no more fitting national mantra for the British people than Rudyard Kipling's "If—." The poem, which champions stoicism, is routinely one of the UK's favorites in polls, with lines like "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same" and "If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew/To serve your turn long after they are gone" serving as a rallying cry for the stiff-upper-lip crowd.

For everything that Kipling put on the page, the story behind the poem is just as notable. Kipling was inspired by the actions of Leander Starr Jameson, a politician and adventurer responsible for leading the infamous Jameson Raid, a failed attempt over the 1895-96 New Year holiday to incite an uprising among the British "Uitlanders" in South Africa against the Boers, or the descendants of early, chiefly Dutch, settlers.

The raid was a catastrophe, and Jameson and his surviving men were extradited back to England for trial as the government condemned the attempt. He was sentenced to 15 months (though he was released early), but his actions had gained the respect of the people of England—Jameson was punished, but it was felt that he was betrayed by his own government, including Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, who was widely suspected of having supported the raid during the planning but denounced it when it failed.

This theme can be read in Kipling’s words "If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you" and "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."

4. "JABBERWOCKY" // LEWIS CARROLL

Statue of Alice in Wonderland
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Long before Lewis Carroll introduced the nonsensical "Jabberwocky" in 1871's Through the Looking-Glass, he wrote a rough version of the poem in 1855 under the title "Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry." It appeared in the periodical he created to amuse his friends and family called Mischmasch.

The poem featured the stanza: "Twas bryllyg, and the slythy toves/Did gyre and gymble in the wabe/All mimsy were the borogoves;/And the mome raths outgrabe," which would remain (though slightly tweaked) in Looking-Glass years later as both the first and final stanzas.

When he wrote Looking-Glass, Carroll returned to the basic foundation of the poem, but he added the five middle stanzas that introduced the Jabberwock. The inspiration behind the monster itself has been said to be anything from Beowulf to a local folk monster called the Sockburn Worm from the village of Croft-on-Tees, where Carroll wrote.

So where did Carroll get the name Jabberwock from? The author himself later explained it by saying "The Anglo-Saxon word 'wocer' or 'wocor' signifies 'offspring' or 'fruit'. Taking 'jabber' in its ordinary acceptation of 'excited and voluble discussion,' this would give the meaning of ‘the result of much excited discussion.'"

If all that still sounds like nonsense to you—well, that's probably how he wanted it.

5. "WE REAL COOL" // GWENDOLYN BROOKS

A picture of a pool table
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Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and became "Poet Laureate" in the 1985–86 term (back when the position was properly called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress). Despite all the accolades, Brooks might be best known to casual readers for the poem "We Real Cool," a brief, four-verse piece that depicts the lives of young people playing pool, drinking gin, and "singing sin."

Brooks was inspired to write the poem when she was walking through her neighborhood and noticed seven young boys at the local pool hall during school hours. As she said during a live reading of the poem, she wasn't so much concerned with why they weren't in school, she was more curious with "how they feel about themselves."

Apparently the answer is "real cool."

6. "THE RAVEN" // EDGAR ALLAN POE

The front of Edgar Allan Poe house
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A lot of real-life inspiration went into Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." First, there was the fact that his wife was deathly ill with tuberculosis during the time of writing and publication. Then, the raven itself was partly inspired by one owned by Charles Dickens, who had also been inspired to include it in his own book, Barnaby Rudge. (Rudge's raven even coaxes a character to exclaim "What was that? Him tapping at the door?" Similar to Poe's "rapping at my chamber door" raven.)

But while so many great works have backstories that are more legend than fact, Poe detailed his writing process of "The Raven" in the essay "The Philosophy of Composition." Here he revealed in meticulous detail how he came up with the tone, rhythm, and form of the poem, even going as far as to claim he decided on the refrain of "nevermore" because "the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant."

7. "THE ROAD NOT TAKEN" // ROBERT FROST

Poet Robert Frost posing for a photo
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

For "The Road Not Taken," poet Robert Frost found inspiration in his friend, English literary critic Edward Thomas. It was originally conceived as sort of an inside joke at Thomas's expense, a callback to the fact that Thomas would always regret whatever path the two of them would take when out walking together.

It's a very human instinct to regret or overthink our choices and wonder—often in vain—what the alternative would be like. While many people tend to think the poem is about the triumph of individuality, some argue that it's really about regret and how we either celebrate our successes or blame our misfortunes on our seemingly arbitrary choices.

When you read it like that, saying "And that has made all the difference" smacks of a bit more irony than it did back when you first read it in high school.

8. "THE NEW COLOSSUS" // EMMA LAZARUS

An image of the Statue of Liberty
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When Emma Lazarus wrote "The New Colossus" in 1883, it was only meant to be part of an auction to raise money for the foundation for the Statue of Liberty. It sold for $1500—not bad for a 105-word sonnet written in two days—but though it was printed in some limited-release pamphlets by the fundraising group, the poem wasn't read at the dedication of the statue in 1886.

Unfortunately, Lazarus never got to see how far and wide her words would resonate—when she died in 1887, her New York Times obituary didn't even mention the poem. It was only well after the statue had been completed that "The New Colossus" was added to its base, thanks to the urging of Lazarus's friend and admirer Georgina Schuyler. Then, slowly, "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" entered the public lexicon and became ingrained as part of America's national identity.

9. "O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!" // WALT WHITMAN

A photograph of Walt Whitman
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Walt Whitman witnessed the Civil War up close. Though he was already in his forties during the fighting, he volunteered at hospitals in the Washington, D.C. area—sometimes he would bring food and supplies to the soldiers, other times he just kept them company.

Seeing the schism the war had caused, Whitman began to take a genuine interest in, and found a deep respect for, the burden President Abraham Lincoln was dealing with. When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Whitman channeled his grief into a number of poems, the most famous being "O Captain! My Captain!"

The poem was a metaphor for what the country had just been through—America itself as the ship that had just weathered a great storm, and Lincoln as the fallen captain, whose "lips are pale and still."

10. "SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY" // LORD BYRON

A row of books by Lord Byron
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The story behind the lyrical poem "She Walks in Beauty" is as lovely as the verse Lord Byron weaved. In June 1814, Byron attended a London party where he first saw Anne Wilmot, his cousin's wife. She was wearing a striking black mourning dress that was adorned in spangles, and her beauty inspired Byron's poem, most famously its first four lines:

“She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes.”

Some have interpreted the "cloudless climes and starry skies" as a description of the famous dress that drew Byron's attention to Mrs. Wilmot.

11. "THE NEGRO SPEAKS OF RIVERS" // LANGSTON HUGHES

Poet Langston Hughes

He was just 19 when he published this poem, but Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is one of his most well-known works. The idea came to him while he was traveling by train to Mexico City to visit his father—specifically, as he was crossing the Mississippi River near St. Louis, Missouri.

In the poem, the narrator speaks of rivers—how they're ancient, older than humans themselves. He also says, despite this, he knows rivers. "My soul has grown deep like the rivers." He's bathed in the Euphrates, built a hut on the Congo, looked upon the Nile, and heard the singing of the Mississippi. These rivers have important links to human history, to new societies, to African Americans, and to slavery. And all it took was a simple train ride to find the ties that bind them all together.

12. "TULIPS" // SYLVIA PLATH

A field of red and white tulips
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"Tulips" has a simple enough backstory—it was inspired by a bouquet of flowers Sylvia Plath received while in the hospital recovering from an appendectomy. But Plath turned the event into one of her most renowned poems, beginning with the line "The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here."

Sprinkled throughout are visuals of the red tulips and the white, sanitary hospital, staffed with a never-ending army of nurses.

"The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds."

So much of Plath's life and work revolved around tragedy, and "Tulips" is one of the most discussed windows into her personality.

13. "OZYMANDIAS" // PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY

A crumbling statue
iStock

Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley traveled in an elite literary circle that included the likes of Lord Byron and John Keats. So what would a group of young intellectual writers do to stimulate their interest and spark their creativity? Well, they'd compete, of course.

One of Shelley's most famous poems, "Ozymandias," was likely born out of a competition between himself and writer Horace Smith (very similar to the 1816 competition between Shelley, his soon-to-be wife Mary Shelley, Byron, and physician John Polidori over who could write the best horror story—Mary's Frankenstein was the winner there). The goal was to write dueling poems on the same concept—the description of a statue of Ramses II (also known as Ozymandias) from the works of Greek historian Diodorus Siculus. Most important was the statue's inscription: "I am Osymandias, king of kings; if any would know how great I am, and where I lie, let him excel me in any of my works."

Shelley described Siculus's same statue but in decay, a boastful monument now left to rot. This would serve as a warning that no matter how powerful one may think themselves to be, we're all helpless to the scourge of time. For a political writer such as Shelley, the imagery was too perfect.

Shelley's version of "Ozymandias" appeared in The Examiner in 1818 almost a month before Smith's, which, by the rules of these arbitrary competitions, likely led to Shelley being victorious.

14. "DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT" // DYLAN THOMAS

Poet Dylan Thomas
Gabriel Hackett, Getty Images

In one of the most cherished poems about mortality, Dylan Thomas urged his dying father to fight back against the inevitability of death and immortalized the refrain "Do not go gentle into that good night." Published in 1951, the poem focuses on a son urging his father to be defiant ("Rage, rage against the dying of the light") and arguing that while all men eventually die, they don't have to do so resignedly. The poem was released shortly before Thomas's own death in 1953 at the age of 39 and is still studied in schools and referenced in popular culture.

15. "A VISIT FROM ST. NICHOLAS" // DISPUTED

Santa Claus leaving presents
iStock

Everyone knows the poem—"'Twas the night before Christmas" and all that—but scholars can't quite agree on the author. Some say it was a poet and professor named Clement Clarke Moore, who allegedly wrote the piece for his kids before his housekeeper sent it in to New York's Troy Sentinel for publication in 1823 without his knowledge.

On the other side is Henry Livingston, Jr., whose family said they were reciting this poem 15 years before it was published in the Sentinel. Unfortunately, any proof they had was gone when their home—which allegedly contained handwritten versions of the poem that predate Moore's—burned down.

For now, it's Moore who officially gets credit for the cherished poem, but it's not without a bit of holiday controversy.

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