Best poems from the 21st Century: 3 lessons in how to write a book

Many prominent novelists have also been poets: the Canadian author Margaret Atwood has been a prolific writer of not only novels but poetry and essay collections too. Poetry tends to have a smaller readership, but the best poems provide insights into how to be creative with image, style and line:

Many prominent novelists have also been poets: the Canadian author Margaret Atwood has been a prolific writer of not only novels but poetry and essay collections too. Poetry tends to have a smaller readership, but the best poems provide insights into how to be creative with image, style and line:

1. Atlantis – a Lost Sonnet by Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland, a prize-winning poet born in Dublin, Ireland, wrote this poem using the myth of Atlantis – a fictional island, the sinking of which Plato wrote about to critique the hubris of nations. Boland uses the myth to reflect on nostalgia (the longing for a lost time or place). Note how she moves between reflecting on the grand-historical and the personal and intimate, and how the two add layers of meaning to each other:

How on earth did it happen, I used to wonder

that a whole city – arches, pillars, collonades,

not to mention vehicles and animals – had all

one fine day gone under?

Boland follows this with vivid descriptions of a remembered city, addressing a ‘you’ that is presumably a lover, given the intimacy of the description:

I miss our old city – 

white pepper, white pudding, you and I meeting

under fanlights and low skies to go home in it.

The poem’s ending conveys the pathos of the loss of a loved place/person while also suggesting the function of storytelling or making narratives as something that helps us cope with any inescapable sadness:

Maybe what really happened is

this: the old fable-makers searched hard for a word 

to convey that what is gone is gone forever and

never found it. And so, in the best traditions of

where we come from, they gave their sorrow a name

and drowned it.

Here are some takeaways from reading Boland’s poem to think about when writing long-form fiction:

  • How does the personal fit in with the larger myths – the bigger narratives – of society? How can a backdrop of specific historical or mythical events  contribute to conveying the mood and emotion you want to evoke?
  • In writing about romance, how can place and setting be used to evoke intimacy? Does your characters’ environment change over the course of your novel and will this change their relationship?

As you can see, reading the best poems from the 21st Century (those included here are only some suggestions out of countless others) will help inspire you to think about important elements of novel-writing such as character and setting.

2. Litany by Billy Collins

Billy Collins, who served as American Poet Laureate between 2001 and 2003, wrote this romantic and humourous parody poem. It moves between clichéd and fresh imagery to create a tribute that gently pokes fun at a grandiose passage by the Belgian poet Jacques Crickillon: ‘You are the bread and the knife,/The crystal goblet and the wine’.

Collins starts out by using the original quote:

You are the bread and the knife

The crystal goblet and the wine. 

He proceeds in this way, adding:

You are the dew on the morning grass

and the burning wheel of the sun.

Collins introduces humour and a sense of surprise by departing from this repetitive structure and using the negative, ‘you are not’:

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,

the plums on the counter, 

or the house of cards.

And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.

There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

The colloquial (casual) tone (‘there is just no way’) and the change in construction from ‘you are’ to ‘you are not’ creates a sense of surprise. Surprise and repetition are two common ingredients of comedy.

The speaker of Collins’ poem proceeds to list what he is:

It might interest you to know,

speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,

that I am the sound of the rain on the roof.

Collins ends the poem with the speaker reassuring the addressee that despite all the lovely things he is (‘I also happen to be the shooting star… and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table’) the loved one is still the most important, ‘the bread and the knife’:

But don’t worry, I’m not the bread and the knife.

You are still the bread and the knife.

You will always be the bread and the knife,

not to mention the crystal goblet and — somehow — the wine. 

Here are some takeaways from Collins’ poem that may be particularly useful if you are wondering how to write a book using comedic or romantic elements without lapsing into cliché:

  • Unexpected changes between the highbrow and the colloquial can create interest, as well as humour where such changes border on the absurd.
  • It’s fine to borrow from other writers, but expand on what they have said in your own voice and enter into dialogue with their ideas. This is what distinguishes drawing on influences from plagiarism.
  • Just as much as another writer’s work can inspire your novel, you can also find inspiration for a novel in your frustration with the grandiosity or other traits of other writers and their works.
  • In writing romance, don’t just stick to accepted flowery descriptions and metaphors – think of scenes and sights that convey intimacy. Collins’ reference to ‘the boots in the corner’ is one such image of intimacy, suggesting cosy cohabitation.

3. My Blue Hen by Ann Gray

Ann Gray is a poet and editor and this poem was one of the recipients of the Forward Prize for best single poem, 2015. The Forward Prize is one of the most prestigious annual prizes for poetry by UK and Irish writers. Her winning poem shows how even potentially clichéd images (such as the heart as the seat of emotion) can work when supported by more striking imagery. It also shows how parallel construction (sentences having the same, repetitive structure) can work in some instances:

Gray begins by describing a pet hen’s loss of her mate:

I sing to my blue hen. I fold her wings

against my body. The fox has had her lover,

stealing through the rough grass,

the washed sky. 

Gray proceeds with a series of lines that begin ‘I tell her’:

I tell her, I am the blue heron 

the hyacinth macaw. 


I tell her there are

things even the sea can’t do, like come in when

it’s going out.

Gray collects a discrete array of beautiful images that increase the poem’s tenderness and pathos.

The poem ends by introducing an unexpected ‘you’ which seems to suggest that the hen’s lost love is only a metaphorical projection for the speaker’s own:

I stroke her neck. She makes a bubbling sound,

her song of eggs and feathers. I tell her you were

a high note, a summer lightning storm of a man.

There are several elements of Gray’s poem that might help you in the process of writing poetry or fiction:

  • Gray’s sentence construction (‘I tell… I tell…’) creates a continuous, suspended time, and prolongs a sense of the intimacy of the act of giving comfort. Language and structure can be used in this way to great emotional effect.
  • Gray tells it slant: the poet leaves in ambiguities. Who is the ‘you’ she refers to?
  • The poem is full of striking ideas and imagery (‘there are things even the sea can’t do’, ‘a dog can be a lighthouse’, ‘stealing through rough grass’).

If you’re ready to start your novel and create a blueprint that will help you finish, start the Now Novel process here.


By Bridget McNulty

Bridget McNulty is a published author, content strategist, writer, editor and speaker. She is the co-founder of two non-profits: Sweet Life Diabetes Community, South Africa's largest online diabetes community, and the Diabetes Alliance, a coalition of all the organisations working in diabetes in South Africa. She is also the co-founder of Now Novel: an online novel-writing course where she coaches aspiring writers to start - and finish! - their novels. Bridget believes in the power of storytelling to create meaningful change.

5 replies on “Best poems from the 21st Century: 3 lessons in how to write a book”

Thanks for putting these excellent works on display, and for the thorough and interesting breakdowns. My first time on the site but I’ll be coming back if all of the content intrigues me as much as this!

My pleasure, Colin. Glad you enjoyed them. Please do! And thanks for commenting, I love to hear feedback of any kind.

Thank you for introducing me here to some striking poems and poets I hadn’t yet encountered. And your commentaries are insightful and elegant.

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