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Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiatvia

Ten poems to change your life

From Patti Smith to Jean-Michel Basquiat, we suggest the most memorable pieces of work from a diverse group of artists to read for National Poetry Day

National Poetry Day was founded in 1994 by William Sieghart, a bloke who said, “There are millions of talented poets out there and it’s about time they got some recognition for their work. They shouldn’t be embarrassed about reading their work out aloud. I want people to read poetry on the bus on their way to work, in the street, in school and in the pub.” It sort of worked pretty well as a way of promoting the art form, both through spoken word and the written page - although, unfortunately we’re not spitting verses on our daily commute. Give it another 21 years.

If you haven’t read these already, enjoy. If you have, enjoy again.


You show me the poems of some woman
my age, or younger
translated from your language

Certain words occur: enemy, oven, sorrow
enough to let me know
she's a woman of my time


with Love, our subject:
we've trained it like ivy to our walls
baked it like bread in our ovens
worn it like lead on our ankles
watched it through binoculars as if
it were a helicopter
bringing food to our famine
or the satellite
of a hostile power

I begin to see that woman
doing things: stirring rice
ironing a skirt
typing a manuscript till dawn

trying to make a call
from a phonebooth

The phone rings endlessly
in a man's bedroom
she hears him telling someone else
Never mind. She'll get tired.
hears him telling her story to her sister

who becomes her enemy
and will in her own way
light her own way to sorrow

ignorant of the fact this way of grief
is shared, unnecessary
and political


gerard de nerval 
death by hanging 
fear of sun snow 
wear dark glasses 

thought about a rabbit today 
wearing dark glasses 
thought about a rabbit today 
thought about blind rabbit 

it hurts just to think about 
singing I try to work it out 
dead in winter two calico shirts 
they cut the rope that cut him down 
hurts just to think about 
wonder how he schemed it out 
and how I'll do without him 

metronome song 
how pleasant to swing like a rabbit 
how pleasant to slip 
from the slip knot string 
the kick thump moan 
and everything swings 
back like a timepiece 
tolls back everything 
swings back like a rabbit 
grey fluff on a string


where will we be when we win the war i bet we'll be
alone i bet we'll be in a laundromat with an old red sign
without any socks with only vests and pimples hair
like the 1950s freud without the wheelchair i bet
there'll be a supermarket with cars outside 
with l'oreal products all over the dashboard 
there'll be an actress playing now we're in 
the newsroom and that's an aeroplane and 
everyone's screaming i know we're in a video 
because everyone's dancing the hall is vomiting
and alone in the middle of it i bet you're telling me
just how you love me i bet you're holding me
and your arms are shaking you can't say
anything apart from love me look i'm
pregnant sweating screaming imagine
you giving birth the movie's over

let's watch it again hiding behind the sofa
thinking about that time when hand in hurting
hand we held each other in the middle of the
road when we sunk into the tarmac when
mouth full of concrete the truck came with
its eyes like headlights hollering whispering
i want you you’re secret secreting into me i
hurt you you tell me you love me probably
there’s a child in a room in kosovo
somewhere there’s a child next to this child
with a mobile phone there’s sirens playing
a bomb went off it’s beautiful you jump right
off it’s beautiful the waves are crashing yes
someone’s singing i watch these videos every
day it was always supposed to be this way
i bet there’s no one watching us we jump

remember where we were when we won the war
when we walked right down the street there was no
smoke there was no sound no one else even knew
we had our t-shirts on the ones that said we won
we went to that bit in the city where we first made
love i took you i touched you i fucked you you came
we bought popcorn we sat and watched the day go
by you look just like your mother you curdle like milk
you know i’ve got a button i can press and you glow
the building crumbles at the knees it falls like a dancer
it folds we hold it all the other buildings look on
this building’s ours we are so naked and we cradle
it you have a spot below your armpit you have a
scar where no one can see your secret’s safe
with me let’s go the movie’s over now


our backs

tell stories

no books have

the spine to



The day after a blizzard.
Among the uncollected trash bags
there’s a mop planted by the curb,
proud flag staking claim to its grey peak.
We stay inside and talk fathers.
Chrístopher says dealing
requires the patient willingness
to be deficient.
It’s how I say
Please, Charlie, they,
and mine says
Police, fascist, grammar,
until we’re screaming
in the still snow of the street,
not yet waiting for patience.

In my dream David and I travel through Alaska
speeding, unbounded, open to everything
as if on an invisible train.
We come to a glacial crest
and from its height suddenly see
the gleaming mountains
we’ve passed through unnoticing.

It’s been our way,
in our continuous parting,
grasping each other loosely,
yet we still hold over
and over, so I’m reminded
knowing isn’t done once.

means telling your father
if this continues
he may never know you
and letting him
make his decision;
letting your throat go soft
beneath its scarves;
turning to leave; it means
holding yourself,
the swan lying
on the frozen pond
tucking its neck over its back
like an arm over someone
else’s shoulder; it means
waiting to see. 



The winter evening settles down

With smell of steaks in passageways.

Six o’clock.

The burnt-out ends of smoky days.

And now a gusty shower wraps

The grimy scraps

Of withered leaves about your feet

And newspapers from vacant lots;

The showers beat

On broken blinds and chimney-pots,

And at the corner of the street

A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.


And then the lighting of the lamps.



The morning comes to consciousness

Of faint stale smells of beer

From the sawdust-trampled street

With all its muddy feet that press

To early coffee-stands.

With the other masquerades

That time resumes,

One thinks of all the hands

That are raising dingy shades

In a thousand furnished rooms.



You tossed a blanket from the bed,

You lay upon your back, and waited;

You dozed, and watched the night revealing

The thousand sordid images

Of which your soul was constituted;

They flickered against the ceiling.

And when all the world came back

And the light crept up between the shutters

And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,

You had such a vision of the street

As the street hardly understands;

Sitting along the bed’s edge, where

You curled the papers from your hair,

Or clasped the yellow soles of feet

In the palms of both soiled hands.



His soul stretched tight across the skies

That fade behind a city block,

Or trampled by insistent feet

At four and five and six o’clock;

And short square fingers stuffing pipes,

And evening newspapers, and eyes

Assured of certain certainties,

The conscience of a blackened street

Impatient to assume the world.


I am moved by fancies that are curled

Around these images, and cling:

The notion of some infinitely gentle

Infinitely suffering thing.


Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;

The worlds revolve like ancient women

Gathering fuel in vacant lots.


last night i cried for no discernible reason
in an apartment that doesn’t belong to me
in front of a person who also doesn’t belong to me
(because people can’t own other people)

i say that i don’t like owning things
but i’m not sure if that’s entirely accurate

i used to only cry alone
i have cried more in front of people in the last 6 months
than in the last 5 years of my life combined

crying seems funny, to me

i am on a very crowded train
passing grand central station
it is 9:01AM and i am officially late for work

i am late for work because i slept 15 minutes past my alarm
then i had sex 
then i stopped for coffee

i am late to work every day 
when you’re an intern nobody cares what you do

the main thing I am learning at my internship
is how to look busy when i’m not doing anything 
also, i am very good at making photocopies now
and putting labels on things

today i got an email from a woman in human resources
she was upset because i haven’t gone to any of the ‘intern events’
because the ‘intern events’ count as your lunch break
and i want to eat lunch alone
i have become very good at avoiding other interns

at 5pm i will take a crowded train to my second job
at my second job i have learned how to answer phones
and transfer calls to the appropriate extensions 
and smile at people
and bring people coffee
and call the car service
and process fed ex packages

today my brother emailed me while having a good drug experience 
i want to have fun when i take drugs
but it’s difficult, sometimes

also, i want to lose 20 pounds
but i think that is an unrealistic goal
considering i don’t exercise
and my diet is terrible 
and i am unmotivated

i think i would like to go to mexico and just hang out for a while
my dad says I have 50 cousins in mexico but i have never met them

would they let me leave work early
if i got hit by a car but wasn’t seriously injured


You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you? 
Why are you beset with gloom? 
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken? 
Bowed head and lowered eyes? 
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you? 
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you? 
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs? 

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise. 


Your daughter is ugly.
She knows loss intimately,
carries whole cities in her belly.
As a child, relatives wouldn’t hold her.
She was splintered wood and sea water.
They said she reminded them of the war.
On her fifteenth birthday you taught her
how to tie her hair like rope 
and smoke it over burning frankincense.
You made her gargle rosewater
and while she coughed, said
macaanto girls like you shouldn’t smell
of lonely or empty.
You are her mother.
Why did you not warn her,
hold her like a rotting boat
and tell her that men will not love her
if she is covered in continents,
if her teeth are small colonies,
if her stomach is an island
if her thighs are borders?
What man wants to lay down 
and watch the world burn 
in his bedroom? 
Your daughter’s face is a small riot,
her hands are a civil war,
a refugee camp behind each ear,
a body littered with ugly things
but God, 
doesn’t she wear
the world well.