Celebrating World Poetry Day with Poems from Diverse Cultures

"Poetry is the mainstay of oral tradition and, over centuries, can communicate the innermost values of diverse cultures." This extract explains UNESCO's decision recognising the most treasured form of linguistic expression. In 1999 UNESCO proclaimed 21 March as World Poetry Day, opens a new window. Since then, countries have been celebrating World Poetry Day annually with various activities and progammes.

Poetry in different societies and cultures

The term of poetry in ancient Greek means “I create” (ποιεω, poieo). It is characterized with its artform of human language creating aesthetic qualities and evoking imagination of experiences and emotions. Although the origin of poetry is unknown, it is believed that poetry plays a crucial role in different societies. In pre-literate societies, poetry was used to record oral history, storytelling and even genealogy. It arose in magic spells recited to ensure a good harvest in agricultural societies. In more recent times, the advancement of information and communication technologies has facilitated the rise of performance poetry so poetry and other artforms are integrated.  

As a unique form of literature, poetry serves as a firm cultural root and has a great influence on societies. For example, in the Western world, The Odyssey, opens a new window, written around 700 BCE, is one of the oldest and most well-known poems. It is believed that The Odyssey is fundamental to the modern Western canon including high culture literature, music, philosophy and art works. Similarly, the first collection of Chinese poetry, The Book of Songs, opens a new window, created between the 11th century and 2nd century BCE, has a lasting influence on Chinese civilisation, including education, politics, diplomacy, moral instruction, and communal life. 

International and local poetry resources

Poems recommended by the Staff from Christchurch City Libraries

To celebrate World Poetry Day, the staff from Christchurch City Libraries recommended poems from their culture and country.

Prologue by Yun Dong-ju (1917 – 1945),  a Korean poet known for lyric poetry
Recommended by Kowoon Byun | Hapori, Level 1, Tūranga


서시(序詩)/ 윤동주

죽는 날까지 하늘을 우러러
한 점 부끄럼이 없기를,
잎새에 이는 바람에도
나는 괴로워했다.
별을 노래하는 마음으로
모든 죽어 가는 것을 사랑해야지.
그리고 나한테 주어진 길을

오늘 밤에도 별이 바람에 스치운다.

“하늘과 바람과 별과 시” (정음사, 1948)

English translation


by Yun Dong-ju

Until the day I die

I long to have no speck of shame
when I gaze up toward heaven,
so I have tormented myself,
even when the wind stirs the leaves.
With a heart that sings the stars,
I will love all dying things.
And I will walk the way
that has been given to me.

Tonight, again, the wind brushes the stars.

Respeito by Manoel de Barros, a Brazilian poet

Recommended by Debora Fernandes | Fendalton Library, Te Kete Wānanga o Waimairi


by Manoel de Barros

Dou respeito às coisas desimportantes
e aos seres desimportantes.
Prezo insetos mais que aviões.
Prezo a velocidade
das tartarugas mais que a dos mísseis.
Tenho em mim esse atraso de nascença.
Eu fui aparelhado
para gostar de passarinhos.
Tenho abundância de ser feliz por isso.
Meu quintal é maior do que o mundo.

LALITHAM  by PP Ramachandran.

Recommended by Remadevi Gopalakrishnan | Hornby Library, Te Kete Wānanga o Te Urumanu

LALITHAM is a short but beautiful Malayalam poem.The poet attempts to narrate the complexity of human life compared to the simplicity of the lives of birds and animals around us. Human beings have a lot to learn from nature in terms of how to live a simple life.


English translation

How Simple

by P P Ramachandran

A sweet chirp would suffice

To let it be known

That I am here

A dropped feather would suffice

To let the world know

That I was here

The warmth of brooding would suffice

To testify

That I will be here

How else do birds

Articulate life

With greater simplicity?

Mr Week by Jan Brzechwa (15 August 1898 – 2 July 1966), a Polish poet, author and lawyer, known mostly for his contribution to children's literature

Recommended by Beata Kumagai | Tuakiri, Level 2, Tūranga

This poem is about The Week. Probably, to help children to learn and remember the week's names.

Tydzień dzieci miał siedmioro:
"Niech się tutaj wszystkie zbiorą!"
Ale przecież nie tak łatwo
Radzić sobie z liczną dziatwą:
Poniedziałek już od wtorku
Poszukuje kota w worku,
Wtorek środę wziął pod brodę:
"Chodźmy sitkiem czerpać wodę."
Czwartek w górze igłą grzebie
I zaszywa dziury w niebie.
Chcieli pracę skończyć w piątek,
A to ledwie był początek.
Zamyśliła się sobota:
"Toż dopiero jest robota!"
Poszli razem do niedzieli,
Tam porządnie odpoczęli.
Tydzień drapie się w przedziałek:
"No a gdzie jest poniedziałek?"
Poniedziałek już od wtorku
Poszukuje kota w worku -
I tak dalej...

English translation

Mr Week

Mr Week had days of seven,
“Come here all!”, he called from heaven.
His head, though, was much too dizzy
As they would not gather easy.
Monday has been busy looking
For the cat in baggy hooking.
Tuesday grabbed Miss Wednesday tightly,
“Shall we get some drink unsightly?”
With a needle Thursday fiddles,
How to sew the sky, he riddles.
Friday meant to have work ready
But it never started steady.
Saturday was all reflective,
“This work is no way effective!”
They all went to visit Sunday,
Where they spent a total fun-day.
Mr Week scratches his parting,
“Where is Monday? Went he darting?”
Monday has been busy looking
For the cat in baggy hooking.
And so on, and so forth…

You Foolish Men by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695), a Mexican poet 

Recommended by Steffi Marshall | Upper Riccarton Community and School Library, Te Kete Wānanga o Pūtaringamotu

This is a poem by Mexican Poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. “She is one of the most important and renowned poets in Mexico, if not the world. She was born Juana Ines de Asbaje y Ramirez and started writing at the age of eight and became as self-taught scholar, student of scientific thought , philosopher, composer and poet of the baroque school . Well ahead of her time, she has also been called the first feminist of the new World ”. I think every single Mexican in the world knows at least the first few lines!

Letra de Hombres Necios Que Acusáis         

Hombres necios que acusáis
a la mujer sin razón,
sin ver que sois la ocasión
de lo mismo que culpáis.

Si con ansia sin igual
solicitáis su desdén,
¿por qué queréis que obren bien
si las incitáis al mal?

Combatís su resistencia
y luego con gravedad
decís que fue liviandad
lo que hizo la diligencia.

Parecer quiere el denuedo
de vuestro parecer loco
al niño que pone el coco
y luego le tiene miedo.

Queréis con presunción necia
hallar a la que buscáis,
para pretendida, Tais,
y en la posesión, Lucrecia.

¿Qué humor puede ser más raro
que el que, falto de consejo,
él mismo empaña el espejo
y siente que no esté claro?

Con el favor y el desdén
tenéis condición igual,
quejándoos, si os tratan mal,
burlándoos, si os quieren bien.

Opinión ninguna gana,
pues la que más se recata,
si no os admite, es ingrata,
y si os admite, es liviana.

Siempre tan necios andáis
que con desigual nivel
a una culpáis por cruel
y a otra por fácil culpáis.

¿Pues cómo ha de estar templada
la que vuestro amor pretende,
si la que es ingrata ofende
y la que es fácil enfada?

Mas entre el enfado y pena
que vuestro gusto refiere,
bien haya la que no os quiere
y queja enhorabuena.

Dan vuestras amantes penas
a sus libertades alas
y después de hacerlas malas
las queréis hallar muy buenas.

¿Cuál mayor culpa ha tenido
en una pasión errada:
la que cae de rogada
o el que ruega de caído?

¿O cuál es más de culpar,
aunque cualquiera mal haga:
la que peca por la paga
o el que paga por pecar?

¿Pues para qué os espantáis
de la culpa que tenéis?
Queredlas cual las hacéis
o hacedlas cual las buscáis.

Dejad de solicitar
y después con más razón
acusaréis la afición
de la que os fuere a rogar.

Bien con muchas armas fundo
que lidia vuestra arrogancia,
pues en promesa e instancia
juntáis diablo, carne y mundo.

English translation

You Foolish Men

Silly, you men-so very adept
at wrongly faulting womankind,
not seeing you're alone to blame
for faults you plant in woman's mind.

After you've won by urgent plea
the right to tarnish her good name,
you still expect her to behave—
you, that coaxed her into shame.

You batter her resistance down
and then, all righteousness, proclaim
that feminine frivolity,
not your persistence, is to blame.

When it comes to bravely posturing,
your witlessness must take the prize:
you're the child that makes a bogeyman,
and then recoils in fear and cries.

Presumptuous beyond belief,
you'd have the woman you pursue
be Thais when you're courting her,
Lucretia once she falls to you.

For plain default of common sense,
could any action be so queer
as oneself to cloud the mirror,
then complain that it's not clear?

Whether you're favored or disdained,
nothing can leave you satisfied.
You whimper if you're turned away,
you sneer if you've been gratified.

With you, no woman can hope to score;
whichever way, she's bound to lose;
spurning you, she's ungrateful—
succumbing, you call her lewd.

Your folly is always the same:
you apply a single rule
to the one you accuse of looseness
and the one you brand as cruel.

What happy mean could there be
for the woman who catches your eye,
if, unresponsive, she offends,
yet whose complaisance you decry?

Still, whether it's torment or anger—
and both ways you've yourselves to blame—
God bless the woman who won't have you,
no matter how loud you complain.

It's your persistent entreaties
that change her from timid to bold.
Having made her thereby naughty,
you would have her good as gold.

So where does the greater guilt lie
for a passion that should not be:
with the man who pleads out of baseness
or the woman debased by his plea?

Or which is more to be blamed—
though both will have cause for chagrin:
the woman who sins for money
or the man who pays money to sin?

So why are you men all so stunned
at the thought you're all guilty alike?
Either like them for what you've made them
or make of them what you can like.

If you'd give up pursuing them,
you'd discover, without a doubt,
you've a stronger case to make
against those who seek you out.

I well know what powerful arms
you wield in pressing for evil:
your arrogance is allied
with the world, the flesh, and the devil!

Oh, tranquility!, a Japanese poem

Recommended by Tomo Shibata | Sumner Centre, Matuku Takotako

I like the focus on the mental state that can defy the happenings around us.The contrast between tranquility and cicada’s voice is beautiful!

閑けさや 岩にしみいる 蝉の声         

Shizukesa ya/ Iwa ni shimiiru/ Semi no koe

English translation

Oh, tranquility!

Penetrating the very rock,

A cicada’s voice.

Translated by Helen Craig Mccullough

One Generation by Gu Cheng, a Chinese poet

Recommended by Anna Sun | Tūhuratanga, Level 3, Tūranga

One Generation is one of the best Chinese modernist poems. The two-line poem titled "A Generation" ("一代人") was perhaps Gu Cheng's most famous contribution to contemporary Chinese literature. It had been regarded as an accurate representation of the younger generation seeking knowledge and future.


English translation

One Generation
Gu Cheng    

The dark night gives me dark eyes
Yet I use them to seek light

A Man Said To The Universe by Stephen Crane, an American writer

Recommended by Jonathan Truesdale | Parklands Library, Te Kete Wānanga o Waitikiri

One of my favourites is from the late 19th century American writer, Stephen Crane, best known for his books like Red Badge of Courage and The Open Boat, but who was also a poet. He was one of the major figures in American Naturalism, which was a literary movement that emphasized the universe's indifference to man.

A Man Said To The Universe

A man said to the universe: 

"Sir, I exist!"

"However," replied the Universe

"That fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation"

Toiling Farmers by Li Shen, a Chinese Tang Dynasty poet

Recommended by Hong Wang | NLA Team

The poem is well-known among the Chinese. When children start school, they are required to recite the poem. It expresses empathy for farmers. The first two lines vividly describe farmers' hard work under the blazing heat at noon. The following two lines remind people to cherish the precious food in plate as they come from farmers' hard work. 





English Translation

Toiling Farmers
Li Shen

Farmers weeding at noon,
Sweat down the field soon.
Who knows food on a tray
Thanks to their toiling day?

Ed è subito sera by Salvatore Quasimodo

Recommended by Vanessa Tedesco, Fingertip Library

I have chosen this very famous poem because it depicts the transient nature of life and the loneliness which all of us experience in our time on this earth.

Ognuno sta solo sul cuor della terra

trafitto da un raggio di sole:

ed è subito sera


And suddenly it’s evening by Salvatore Quasimodo

Everyone stands alone on the heart of the earth

pierced by a ray of the sun:

and suddenly it’s evening

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