7 of the Most Powerful and Devastating Poems That Will Break Your Heart

Words that make us weep can truly devastate the heart. And in verse, bit by bit, they can surely tear us apart.

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Pieces of paper lie on the ground in the rain, torn. Scrawled writing with ink stains sit on the left side of an open book. A page of scribbled writing that's ink-stained is on the right side of the book. A person sits on a bench holding the open book in the rain.

What makes us all sob rivers of tears when we come upon them? Words. Beautifully, utterly shattering words. They can bring us to our knees when we read them. They bring fiery rage to our souls as they conjure images in our minds. They can bring joy and laughter with a witty quip. But powerful words can do damage to our spirits when they ring so heavy with despondency that we can’t help but crawl into a ball and cry from the pain they’ve inflicted on us. Still, we read and read, and we allow our hearts to ache and feel these words, even when we know what they will do to us. In the wake of their ruin, there’s beauty, and so here are seven of the most powerful and devastating poems that will break your heart.

Rock Me, Mercy: A Poem Written in Mourning by Yusef Komunyakaa

The Newtown, Connecticut, tragedy remains with us, even many years later. So, this poem, penned by Komunyakaa a day after the unspeakably heartbreaking event, certainly stirs our hearts, drawing tears from the well of our souls with powerful words so poignant they can’t help but devastate us over and over as we read them. Proceed with care and caution as you read, for you may find your spirit a bit crestfallen after taking in this beautiful yet crushing expression for the lives lost on that fateful day over a decade ago.

Words from Yusef Komunyakaa's "Rock Me, Mercy" in reddish black sit in the center of scribbled off-white paper set against a torn, crumpled paper on a black background.
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Ebb by Edna St. Vincent Millay

The loss of a loved one never leaves us. We reel and spin and think of so many things all at once. We also know exactly how broken our hearts are at that moment and in those moments in between. This is what Millay seems to convey in this heartbreaking poem about the loss of her husband. The vivid description of her heart tugs at our own and makes us feel even more for the loss she’s suffered and maybe the losses we’ve all at one point suffered. Again, please read with caution. Heartbreak never ceases but only dulls over time, so please take care of your mental health.

Words from Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Ebb" in reddish black sit in the center of scribbled off-white paper set against a torn, crumpled paper on a black background.
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Sonnet 9 by William Shakespeare

If ever there was one of the most lugubrious pieces that could make not only your eyes but your heart weep, it would be any of Shakespeare’s sonnets on the human condition when facing our demise. One poignant sonnet that stands to render the heart broken in twain would be Sonnet 9, where Shakespeare reasons that an unmarried man who leaves behind no heir is dooming the world. Fore the world shall his only mourner, weeping over the man’s lonely passing if he were to die without a family to care. Within these beautiful lines, it stands to reason that we can all understand what is meant in Shakespeare’s words, and we may all feel a twinge of sorrow at the thought of never leaving behind anyone to mourn us, except only the distant, pitying tears of the world. So, again, please read these words with care.

Words from William Shakespeare's "Sonnet 9" in reddish black sit in the center of scribbled off-white paper set against a torn, crumpled paper on a black background.
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Caged Bird by Maya Angelou

Feeling trapped can evoke so many emotions from the depths of our being. It can mean so many things and be expressed in various ways. For Angelou, she conveys this trapped feeling and yearning for freedom through the eyes of a caged bird. The poem may be short, but the images that Angelou’s words summon would make even the strongest us of weep. If only we could free the bird. If only we could free ourselves. So, it’s not difficult to discern why the caged bird feels the way it does. And that’s the saddest point of all. Please take care of your minds, spirits, and hearts when reading.

Words from Maya Angelou's "Caged Bird" in reddish black sit in the center of scribbled off-white paper set against a torn, crumpled paper on a black background.
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Ballad of Birmingham by Dudley Randall

Out of sadness sometimes comes rage, and Randall’s Ballad of Birmingham may evoke such a feeling, stemming from a time when racism was at an all-time high for Black people and death in the form of hate lurked around almost every corner. Randall’s heart-rendering words come just in the wake of the tragedy where four little girls died in an Alabama church bombing. An act committed in hatred. Randall’s poem sets the scene, mirroring the tragic event in this depiction of a young girl killed in a church bombing. Randall’s vivid verses are both angering and shattering. Please exercise caution when reading.

Words from Dudley Randall's "Ballad of Birmingham" in reddish black sit in the center of scribbled off-white paper set against a torn, crumpled paper on a black background.
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Heart, We Will Forget Him! by Emily Dickinson

We’ve all been there at least once; the heart wants what it wants, but what it wants isn’t meant for it or us. We break when we think of that certain someone who’s broken us down and made us feel small. Yet we can’t forget them, even though we should. We tell ourselves to do so, but sometimes our hearts abandon the message and go their own way. Dickinson’s Heart, We Will Forget Him! is one such poem where the heart seems to ignore the mind telling it what to do. The heart seems to understand the smarting blow it’s received, yet it can’t let go of the person. Please protect your hearts when reading.

Words from Emily Dickinson's "Heart, We Will Forget Him!" in reddish black sit in the center of scribbled off-white paper set against a torn, crumpled paper on a black background.
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A Hymn to Childhood by Li-Young Lee

Recalling our own childhoods can be quite traumatic. Memories flood our minds and hearts, and we find ourselves stuck in a moment of time full of turmoil. For Lee, there’s an added layer of trauma that no child should have to live through — the suffering of war. With vivid language that plants us not only in Lee’s mind but in the thick of what feels like a memory, we glimpse a childhood full of lost innocence and lasting trauma to anyone’s psyche. Through the eyes of a once-gone child, we can empathize with Lee and how he was forced to grow up both in that moment and from childhood into adulthood with these devastating memories forever saddled upon his back. The heartbreak and fear felt throughout this poem is something to truly take in increments so as to protect your mental health, lest you find yourself breaking, too.

Words from Li-Young Lee's "A Hymn to Childhood" in reddish black sit in the center of scribbled off-white paper set against a torn, crumpled paper on a black background.
IMAGE VIA BOOKSTR/VPHAN

We often find power in words, but sometimes the power of the pen grows heavy and weighs on us. They impart words of twisting heartache that may render us broken. But through this hurt, we may find ways to flourish. While these poems may bring tears to our eyes, in those tears we evolve into a new us and find understanding, commonality, and comfort in them. So, don’t let the words of these tragically beautiful poems keep you weeping for too long. Let us all cry and then find solace in discernment.


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