poem index

Poems for Graduation

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On graduation day, parents and family often turn to poetry to express what they would like to pass on to the next generation—some small thought, a few lines of guidance, a gesture toward nostalgia, an elder’s wisdom. The familiar standards include Robert Frost’s "The Road Not Taken," the Langston Hughes poem "Dreams," and Rudyard Kipling’s poem "If—.” While these classics are popular for good reason, contemporary poets have offered many strange, funny, and lovely alternatives to these well-known verses, addressing not only the excitement and beauty of graduation, but also the prospect of changes, new beginnings, and moving forward into the next stage of life. Robert Creeley, for example, has a series of three beautiful poems written for his children’s graduations in the 1970s. In the first one, he writes:

     This walking on
     and on, this
     going and coming—
     this morning

     shines such lovely
     light on
     all of us
     we’re home.

The wisdom in this lyric is not purely in what it says, but how it is said; the circularity of life is suggested by Creeley's use of line breaks and rhythm. Yet, as he writes in the 1972 poem:

     The honor
     of being human
     will stay constant.

When the Washington Post invited Rita Dove to select a poem for its “Poet’s Choice” feature, she remembered the occasion of her daughter’s graduation from college. Overwhelmed by the prospect of making a speech, she found the Billy Collins poem “Metamorphosis” to be a great comfort:

     Ah, to awaken one morning as the New York Public Library.
     I would pass the days observing old men in raincoats
     as they mounted the ponderous steps between the lions

     carrying wild and scribbled notes inside their pockets.
     I would feel the pages of books turning inside me like butterflies.
     I would stare over Fifth Avenue with a perfectly straight face.

What new graduate would not benefit from imagining that she could transform into the act of learning itself, becoming the library, as if the books she had read were already a part of her? Emily Dickinson, in her poem "Knows how to forget! (433)," noted that the most important lessons she ever learned were not in books:

     I went to School
     But was not wiser
     Globe did not teach it
     Nor Logarithm Show

     “How to forget”!

E. E. Cummings takes on that very argument in his spirited, curmudgeonly poem, “[yonder deadfromtheneckup graduate]," in which he plays with the idiom “poeta nascitur, non fit” or “a poet is born, not made”:

     yonder deadfromtheneckup graduate of a
     somewhat obscure to be sure university spends
     her time looking picturesque under

     the as it happens quite
     erroneous impression that he

     nascitur

And, of course, graduation poems must include choices for teachers as well. Bill Knott imagines his students returning to see him in the poem “An Instructor’s Dream”:

     Many decades after graduation
     the students sneak back onto
     the school-grounds at night
     and within the pane-lit windows
     catch me their teacher at the desk
     or blackboard cradling a chalk:
     someone has erased their youth

Take a look at this curated selection of poems to celebrate the graduate in your life. To find more related poems, use the poem index and browse our collection by themes such as  ambition, beginnings, carpe diem, and more.

Traditional Graduation Poems

Life” by Charlotte Brontë
Life, believe, is not a dream …

Che Fece … Il Gran Refiuto” by C. P. Cavafy
For some people the day comes …

Beyond the Years” by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Beyond the years the answer lies …

The Choir Invisible” by George Eliot
O May I join the choir invisible …

The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood …

Invictus” by William Ernest Henley
Out of the night that covers me …

The Graduate Leaving College” by George Moses Horton
What summons do I hear?

A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Tell me not, in mournful numbers …

from Morituri Salutamus” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
How beautiful is youth! how bright it gleams ...

Up-Hill” by Christina Rossetti
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?

As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII [All the world’s a stage]” by William Shakespeare
All the world’s a stage …

Live Blindly and Upon the Hour” by Trumbull Stickney
Live blindly and upon the hour …

There was a child went forth” by Walt Whitman
There was a child went forth every day ...

To You” by Walt Whitman
Whoever you are, I fear you are walking the walks of dreams …

My Heart Leaps Up” by William Wordsworth
My heart leaps up when I behold …


 

Words for the Graduate

Be Drunk” by Charles Baudelaire
You have to be always drunk …

Ithaka” by C. P. Cavafy
As you set out for Ithaka …

"For the Graduation: Bolinas School, June 11, 1971" by Robert Creeley
Pretension has it you can't get back what's gone by...

"For the Graduation: Bolinas, 1972" by Robert Creeley
Round and round again...

"For the Graduation: Bolinas, 1973" by Robert Creeley
The honor of being human will stay constant...

It Couldn’t Be Done” by Edgar Guest
Somebody said that it couldn’t be done …

Remember” by Joy Harjo
Remember the sky that you were born under …

Dreams” by Langston Hughes
Hold fast to dreams …

If—” by Rudyard Kipling
If you can keep your head when all about you …

Next Time Ask More Questions” by Naomi Shihab Nye
Before jumping, remember …

You Can’t Have It All” by Barbara Ras
But you can have the fig tree and its fat leaves …

The Writer” by Richard Wilbur
In her room at the prow of the house …

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Poets on Beginnings

Beginnings, by C. K. Williams
In this personal essay, Williams recounts his attempts at becoming a poet after graduating college, and the inspiration, struggles, set-backs, and revelations that led him to the start of his literary career.

Attention, Solitude, and First Books: Jane Hirshfield in Conversation
In this interview with Academy Chancellor Jane Hirshfield, Hirshfield discusses her early literary discoveries; the start of her literary career with her first book, which she published in her twenties; and the new beginnings that her first book brought.

Poems about School

Knows How To Forget! (433)” by Emily Dickinson
from Pieces of Kate” by Eamon Grennan
An Instructor’s Dream” by Bill Knott

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On the Future

Relax” by Ellen Bass
"from Oracles for Youth” by Caroline Gilman
In Betweenness” by Pierre Joris
That Everything’s Inevitable” by Katy Lederer
The Future Is Here” by Bianca Stone

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On Moving Forward

Fisherman” by Kurt Brown
Testimony” by Joseph Fasano
Meeting and Passing” by Robert Frost
See it Through” by Edgar Guest
The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz
Doors opening, closing on us” by Marge Piercy
Aspiration” by Henrietta Cordelia Ray
Theories of Time and Space” by Natasha Trethewey

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