All poems are either linked to or cited from a particular book that is listed in the Resources section. If you are having trouble tracking down a copy of a particular poem, comment below for help and I’ll get back to you ASAP. These poem lists are not full modules, but suggestions of poems that could be good to work with, with some jumping off points for philosophical inquiry. If you would like me to write up more suggested questions and activities for an Example Module for a specific poem below, feel free to request! If you would like to write up a module for a poem, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for guidelines for submission, and I would be delighted to feature your work on the site. List in progress. Please feel free to suggest poems using the Comment box below! Thank you!
“Magic Words,” ancient Inuit poem, translated by Edward Field
From the first line of the poem, we are challenged to think about the nature of time in an unconventional way. What does it mean for something to happen “in the very earliest time?” Could something have come before that?
Furthermore, in “Magic Words,” the speaker asserts that a very, very long time ago, the world worked differently than it seems to today. Human and non-human animals could change their form at will, which makes us wonder what the essential and accidental properties of humans and non-human animals are. The speaker also explains that words had the power to change the physical world. Of course, many of us might say that words still possess strong powers! A whole discussion might be had on whether it is our words themselves that hold the power to change the world, or whether words serve only as inspiration for actions that humans must take.
“The Birth of a Stone,” Kwang-kyu Kim (South Korea), translated by Brother Anthony – printed in This Same Sky, p. 111
This poem raises the age old questions about what may or may not exist beyond our own awareness. “I wonder if there are stones/that no one has visited?” the speaker wonders. This brings to mind the classic problem of the tree falling alone in the forest. Over the first two stanzas, the speaker muses about what this ancient stone could have endured over millions or billions of years, outside the realm of human experience. At the end, the speaker concludes with a bold claim, that the stone in fact came into existence as soon as it was observed – “was only born/the moment I first saw it.”
This poem may also raise the epistemic questions around the “tree falls in a forest” conundrum: If I see/hear a tree fall but no one else does, how do I know it really happened? Should anyone else believe me that it really happened? Why or why not?
“What is it that upsets the volcanoes?,” by Pablo Neruda (Chile), translated by William O’Daly, This Same Sky, p. 129
This short poem, comprised of four couplets with one line standing on its own in the middle, asks five unconventional questions about the nature of the natural world. Some of its questions also may dip into psychology. It begins, “What is it that upsets the volcanoes/that spit fire, cold, and rage?” Can a natural phenomenon that lacks a brain and nervous system be “upset?” What does it mean to be “upset?” Is it always an emotion? The volcano is described as spitting “cold,” but we know that lava is scalding. Can something be “hot” and “cold” at the same time in different ways? What would that mean?
“The Ship’s Whistle,” Tarapada Ray (India), translated by Shyamasree Devi and P. Lal, This Same Sky, p. 155
Here, there is more potential for discussion on the nature of Time. The poem sketches a scene of people getting ready to leave on a long journey. “Your old paper flowers still in that vase/Forever fresh—forever, what does that mean?” What does forever mean? Can we experience it? Is a paper flower always fresh? Can something be forever fresh that never was alive? Though in fact, the paper itself used to be a living tree, which was killed and preserved into an inanimate object. However, of course, all paper will decay and disintegrate someday, and become again part of the earth. Does this have any implication for the idea of “forever?”
“Halfway Down,” A. A. Milne, When We Were Very Young, p. 83
This is a lovely little sketch of the special spot right in the middle of things, halfway down (or halfway up, depending on how you look at it) the middle of a staircase. For the child speaker of this poem, it is a particularly special place, unlike any other, where “all sorts of funny thoughts/Run round my head.” After trying to put a label on it and giving only a list of places it is not, the child concludes, “It isn’t really/Anywhere!/It’s somewhere else instead!”
- Is it possible to not be anywhere at all?
- If you aren’t anywhere, do you still exist? How do you know?
- Where is the “halfway” point on a long staircase? If there are twenty steps, is it on the tenth? (really less than exactly half) Or the eleventh? (really more than half) Does it count if you’re on the ninth? How do you decide?
“Day-Dream,” Samarendra Sengupta (India), translated by Lila Ray, This Same Sky, p. 52
“Day-Dream” takes us into a vivid scene of a boy flying a kite alone. With no other people around, the kite takes on a life of its own. When the kite meets another kite in the air, the reader may wonder who, if anyone, is on the other end of the second kite. The line “Space is calligraphic in the clouds” prompts us to think about communication. “The boy/understands although no one else may read it.” What does it mean to communicate something to another person? Is he awake or dreaming?
We can also bring the discussion to epistemic questions.
- What does the boy understand?
- How does he know?
- If you learn something in a dream, is it still true when you wake up?
- How does the boy know whether he is awake or dreaming?
Finally, this poem can also be used to discuss multiculturalism. Children’s kite-flying is an important piece of Indian culture. A philosophy discussion around “Day-Dream” could easily be incorporated into a primary school unit on sharing different cultural activities and traditions.
Ravikovitch, Dahlia. “Magic.” Israel. translated by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch, This Same Sky, p. 57
“Magic” begins “Today I’m a hill/tomorrow a sea.” Like “Magic Words,” “Magic” brings up more questions on fluid transformation in the natural world. As the poem cycles through a first person description of changing form, the poem can also prompt discussion of identity formation. Who do you think the speaker is?
Holman, Felice. “Possibilities.” At the Top of My Voice, p. 37
Another great poem to get kids thinking and wondering about what is and is not possible. This is a fun read-aloud with repetition and rhyming that feels fantastic to swirl around in your mouth, and a whimsical Gorey illustration that shows ideas and words as clouds emitting from a child’s consciousness.
Holman, Felice. “Voices.” At the Top of My Voice, p. 53
“The Ships of Theseus,” Steve Gehrke
The Ship of Theseus is an ancient philosophical paradox about a beloved ship made entirely of wooden boards. As the ship begins to fall into disrepair, Theseus has each board replaced as soon as it breaks, until every board of the ship has been replaced. The paradox comes when we ask the question, is it still the same ship? A paradox occurs when two or more answers to a question seem equally plausible. There is a strong case for saying it is not the same ship: Every board is completely different! If the ship had been assembled by taking all of the new boards and putting them together at once, and the original ship simply destroyed, we would have no problem agreeing it there were two ships. However, there is also a strong case for the ship being the same: If it is a different ship now, when did it stop being the original ship? When the very last board had been replaced? When more than half the boards had been replaced? The moment the first board was replaced? If this is the case, then what does this tell us about similarly seemingly inconsequential changes in our possessions, or changes in ourselves? Like “Halfway Down” and its accompanying activity, this is another poem that can stimulate discussion of essential and accidental properties: How much can change about a thing or being before it/she/he becomes something/someone entirely new?
“If A Tree Falls,” Laura Purdie Salas, Bookspeak! Poems About Books
Most of us have heard of the philosophical quandary, “If a tree falls in a forest, does it still make a sound?” In this short and sweet poem that is part of a brilliant collection of poems bringing fiction to life, Salas takes the same idea to investigate the philosophy of fiction: If a book is never read, “does it still embrace a story?” Are stories real? What makes a story real?
Using the -ish sound to great effect, “Colors” describes the rainbow that makes up the outside of one person, concluding with the intriguing line, “And all the colors I am inside/Have not been invented yet.” What does it mean to invent a color? If no one had ever seen the color red, would it not exist at all? See if you can relate this to “If A Tree Falls” by Laura Purdie Salas. How do we know if something exists or not? (You can see how this line of inquiry can also lead into epistemic questions.) Also filed under Social & Political Philosophy Poems.