Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
The poetry of the everyday has come to the fore in the last century or so. Movements such as imagism and modernism, in particular, helped to make poetry focusing on everyday life and the ordinariness of modern urban living not only possible, but meaningful: in just a few lines, these poems dealing with very normal scenarios manage to contain significance that goes way beyond the ‘ordinary’ and often touches upon the revelatory. Here’s our pick of ten of the very best poems about everyday life.
Thomas Hood, ‘The Song of the Shirt’. First published in 1843, ‘The Song of the Shirt’ takes its title from the song the woman sings to herself as she works hard at her stitching, making shirts from dawn till dusk (in fact, even beyond dusk).
Work! work! work!
While the cock is crowing aloof!
And work — work — work,
Till the stars shine through the roof!
All day, every day, the woman slaves away at her stitching, yet she remains in ‘poverty, hunger, and dirt’. Given the exploitation of cheap labour still occurring around the world, this poem remains all too topical, and captures the mundane drudgery of a life of work.
Anon, ‘On a Tired Housewife’.
Here lies a poor woman who was always tired,
She lived in a house where help wasn’t hired:
Her last words on earth were: ‘Dear friends, I am going
To where there’s no cooking, or washing, or sewing …’
This has become a popular comic poem, but its origins appear to have been in tragedy and it is perhaps more sad than comical: the unknown charwoman who wrote it in 1905 effectively penned it as her suicide note, citing extreme fatigue from her daily chores as her reason. Writing in a letter to Lady Robert Cecil about the poem, Virginia Woolf said that the jury at the coroner’s inquest found the charwoman to have been mad, ‘which proves once more what it is to be a poet in these days’. If the title of this poem is unfamiliar to you, the last line may ring some bells: shouldering the emotional and domestic labour may leave many women longing for the relative comfort of oblivion.
A. E. Housman, ‘Yonder see the morning blink’.
Yonder see the morning blink:
The sun is up, and up must I,
To wash and dress and eat and drink
And look at things and talk and think
And work, and God knows why …
Getting up every morning and going to work every day can seem like a drag sometimes (often?), and where does it get you? ‘Ten thousand times I’ve done my best / And all’s to do again’ is the grim assessment of the wonderfully lugubrious A. E. Housman.
John Davidson, ‘Thirty Bob a Week’. Notable for its attempt to capture ordinary London speech and its influence on T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, this poem is spoken by a lowly clerk in late Victorian London, discussing his life, his work, and his wages:
And set the blooming world a-work for me,
Like such as cut their teeth – I hope, like you –
On the handle of a skeleton gold key;
I cut mine on a leek, which I eat it every week:
I’m a clerk at thirty bob as you can see …
Ezra Pound, ‘In a Station of the Metro’. In some ways the archetypal imagist poem, this two-line (yes, just two lines!) poem by the American-born modernist Ezra Pound captures the meeting-point between the sublime and the mundane, as the poet notices the beautiful faces of the commuters in the Paris Metro.
T. S. Eliot, ‘Preludes’. Divided into four sections, this early poem by Eliot (1888-1965) comprises, essentially, four snapshots of modern urban life: going home from work in the evening, heading out to work the following morning, passing a restless and sleepless night, and then the coming of the following evening. Thus we get a circadian or daily cycle in four mini-poems: not just a poem of the everyday, but a poem that could almost be about any day.
Richard Aldington, ‘Evening’. This imagist poem focuses on one of the most mundane and domestic chores imaginable: doing the dishes. At least, this is what we assume the speaker of the poem is doing, as he stands over the kitchen sink and admires the moon in the evening sky, likening it to the Roman goddess of love, posing awkwardly. Scroll down the link provided to read this poem.
Hope Mirrlees, Paris: A Poem. The link we’ve provided here takes you to a pdf scan of the original printing of this remarkable poem from 1919 (published in 1920 by Virginia Woolf’s own Hogarth Press), provided on the Hope Mirrlees website. Foreshadowing T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (and possibly influencing it), Mirrlees’ poem focuses on a female wanderer’s tour around the city of Paris just after the end of the First World War, taking in everyday sights from advertisements to the Metro to street vendors and night clubs, all offered to us in a sort of textual collage.
Philip Larkin, ‘Afternoons’. Although not Larkin’s best-known poem, this is one of his finest poems focusing on the mundane and ordinary quality of most people’s lives as they experience them: here, mothers take their young children to ‘the new recreation ground’ to play on swings and in sandpits, and Larkin detects a faint sense that something is pushing the women ‘to the side of their own lives’.
Wendy Cope, ‘The Orange’. This poem by one of England’s finest and most popular contemporary poets tenderly captures the joy of starting a new relationship and being in love – but does so by focusing on the speaker’s ordinary day at work, how she bought a huge orange and shared it among her colleagues, and how each of these things is made joyous by being in love. A lovely note on which to end this selection of the best poems of everyday life.
Discover more classic poetry with these birthday poems, short poems about death, and these classic war poems. We also recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.