The best growing-up poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Previously, we’ve selected some classic poems about childhood and some poems about old age. Now, it’s the turn of adolescence and teenage years: those crucial formative years when we’re leaving childhood behind and adulthood is beginning to knock on the door. We hope you enjoy these ‘coming of age’ poems.
1. John Clare, ‘First Love’.
My face turned pale as deadly pale,
My legs refused to walk away,
And when she looked, what could I ail?
My life and all seemed turned to clay …
First love is powerful and stays with us, but it can be painful as well as joyous or liberating. Clare’s speaker tells us how he was first ‘struck’ with love, which was ‘sweet’ but also ‘sudden’. The woman (or girl?) he fell in love with was as beautiful as a sweet spring flower, and stole all of his heart away.
Note how Clare contrasts the ‘bloom’ of his beloved’s (presumably reddish, blushing) cheek with his own ‘deadly pale’ looks: love has left him pale and lovesick. He forgot how to walk: his legs seem rooted to the ground, as if made of clay. When she noticed him, he couldn’t very well explain to her what effect she had had on him, but what other explanation is there for being unable to walk away? He’s been reduced, rapidly, to a wreck.
This poem, one of John Clare’s most widely anthologised, captures this dual nature of first love and the way in which it is a loss of something – namely, innocence – as well as a gaining of something new and special.
2. A. E. Housman, ‘Oh, When I Was in Love with You’.
Oh, when I was in love with you,
Then I was clean and brave,
And miles around the wonder grew
How well did I behave …
Housman (1859-1936) has been called ‘adolescent’ in terms of the sentiments his poems convey; certainly George Orwell, a great admirer of Housman’s verse during his own adolescence, expressed such a view. And few poets of his era wrote more poignantly and keenly about the trials of growing up.
Here, Housman considers the way the ‘fancy’ of being in love can be felt intensely when we are in the first flush of youth, but that this fancy soon passes.
3. Claude McKay, ‘Adolescence’.
McKay (1889-1948) was a leading African-American poet of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s, and here he looks back on his teenage years and the freedom and carefree air he had then. A fine poem shot through with nostalgia.
4. Gwendolyn Brooks, ‘We Real Cool’.
Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000; pictured right) was inspired to write this 1959 poem when she saw a group of young boys in a pool hall when they should have been in school. How do they view themselves, she wonders?
This poem attempts to give them a voice – and in doing so, reflects the new phenomenon of the 1950s: the teenager.
The form of ‘We Real Cool’ is worth stopping to analyse, because it is integral to the poem’s rhythm and the way Brooks expertly captures the authentic ‘feel’ of the teenagers’ speech. The poem begins with the two lines in capital letters informing us who the ‘We’ of the poem’s title are: the seven pool players found at ‘The Golden Shovel’, a pool hall Brooks passed one afternoon.
As Brooks herself later explained: ‘I wrote it because I was passing by a pool hall in my community one afternoon in school time. And I saw therein a whole bunch of boys – I say here in this poem seven – and they were shooting pool. But instead of asking myself, why aren’t they in school, I asked myself, I wonder how they feel about themselves.’
We have analysed this poem here.
5. Philip Larkin, ‘This Be the Verse’.
One of Larkin’s best-known poems, with an opening line containing one of the most controversial swear words in the English language (you have been warned!), this poem is not so much about adolescence as a poem which expresses a common adolescent view: that one’s parents are to blame for everything.
However, this sulky, sweary teenager-voice which Larkin sometimes adopts at the outset of some of his best poems then gives way to a more thoughtful, sympathetic voice, which understands that each generation has inherited (in both a genetic and cultural sense) certain things from the previous generation, not all of them favourable…
6. Seamus Heaney, ‘Blackberry Picking’.
This classic Seamus Heaney poem, published in his first published volume, the 1966 book Death of a Naturalist, is simultaneously about picking blackberries in August and, on another level, about a loss of youthful innocence and a growing awareness of disappointment as we grow up.
We have offered some more words of commentary on this brilliant poem here.
7. Rita Dove, ‘Adolescence I’.
Rita Dove (b. 1952), a contemporary African-American poet, adopts an almost imagistic precision here in this short poem about a particular memory of adolescence: when she and other teenage girls first heard from their friend what it was like to kiss a boy. We love the final image of the streetlamps pinging into miniature suns, hinting at the new world that has opened up to the girls.
As the title implies, this is the first in a sequence of adolescence poems Dove wrote – the others can be found online too if you enjoy the first …
8. Carol Ann Duffy, ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’.
There aren’t many modern or contemporary poems which recall schooldays with affection, but ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’ does just that. Duffy paints a fond picture of her time at primary school and on the brink of adolescence, powerfully suggested by the poem’s final image of the sky breaking into a thunderstorm.
9. Simon Armitage, ‘You May Turn Over and Begin’.
Probably the best poem ever written about sitting the General Studies A-Level exam, ‘You May Turn Over and Begin …’ is also about sexual desire and adolescence.
It’s a quintessentially Armitigian piece, fusing wit with arrestingly original imagery (the girls being ‘long and cool like cocktails’ in the summer heat) and with the distinctive colloquial voice Armitage uses so well.
10. Adrienne Su, ‘Adolescence’.
We’ll conclude this pick of great coming-of-age poems with one titled, aptly enough, ‘Adolescence’, by the American poet Adrienne Su (born 1967). The poem wonderfully captures the uncertainties we feel when getting ready to embark upon adult life. The image of the canyon here (a variation on staring into the abyss?) is particularly powerful.
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.