21 Unforgettable Lines of Poetry Written in Languages Other Than English

A selection of unforgettable verse by 21 poets from around the world.

Celebrating poets across the world.

Celebrating the unforgettable poets from across the world.

Although the UNESCO celebrates March 21 as World Poetry Day, many countries, including the UK, still prefer to celebrate poetry day around October 15, which coincides with the birthday of Virgil, the Roman epic poet and poet laureate under Augustus. Earlier this year, The Independent published an article by Clarisse Loughrey, ‘World Poetry Day: 28 of poetry’s most powerful lines ever written‘, in which, barring the flamboyant Pablo Neruda, the 27 poets with the “most powerful lines ever written” were chosen from the English language. Even E.E. Cummings and Charles Bukowski, not usually regarded as great poets despite their popularity, find a place in the list.

A list claiming to represent “world poetry” cannot be so unapologetically English. A brilliant Neruda, despite being one of the bestselling poets in the world, alone cannot be picked up and granted imperial generosity. Market value cannot determine the readers’ choices. The debate on popularity often reappears before the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The prize has often been awarded to writers unfamiliar to the English-speaking world. In the backdrop of these contexts, here’s a list of unforgettable lines of poetry by poets who did not write in English, but no less memorably for that matter.

Our intimacy with political poetry, with new, radical forms of expression, particularly since the last century, has been best served by poets from France, Germany, Russia, Greece, Poland, Spain, Turkey, Mexico, Chile and other countries. The way non-Western filmmakers, from countries like Iran, Turkey, Thailand and Japan have offered us a different awareness of avant-garde cinema, poetry from languages other than English has played a profoundly similar role in bringing us new forms and sensibilities in literature. This is not a definitive list, but one illuminated by memory. The selection is subjective, but I hope ardent readers of poetry will surely find their beloved poets and lines.

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Rainer Maria Rilke. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Rainer Maria Rilke. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Rose, oh pure contradiction, joy

of being No-one’s sleep under so many eyelids.

~ Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus

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Czeslaw Milosz. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Czeslaw Milosz. Credit: nobelprize.org

Love means to learn to look at yourself

The way one looks at distant things

~ Czeslaw Milosz, Love

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Paul Celan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Paul Celan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Black milk of morning we drink you at dusktime

we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at night

we drink and drink

we scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s roomy to lie

~ Paul Celan, Death Fugue

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Bertolt Brecht. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bertolt Brecht. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the dark times

Will there also be singing?

Yes, there will also be singing.

About the dark times.

~ Bertolt Brecht, In Dark Times

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Yannis Ritsos. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Yannis Ritsos. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I know that each one of us travels to love alone,

alone to faith and to death.

I know it. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t help.

Let me come with you.

~ Yannis Ritsos, Moonlight Sonata

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Mahmoud Darwish. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mahmoud Darwish. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Writing is a puppy biting nothingness

Writing wounds without a trace of blood.

~ Mahmoud Darwish, Under Siege

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 More details An Ottoman era manuscript depicting Rumi and Shams-e Tabrizi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

An Ottoman era manuscript depicting Rumi and Shams-e Tabrizi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Forget safety.

Live where you fear to live.

Destroy your reputation.

Be notorious.

~ Jalaluddin Rumi, Bewilderment

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Osip Mandelstam. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Osip Mandelstam. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Power is disgusting, like licking a barber’s hands.

~ Osip Mandelstam, Ariosto

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Arthur Rimbaud. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Arthur Rimbaud. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One evening I sat Beauty on my knees – And I found her bitter – And I reviled her.

I armed myself against Justice.

~ Arthur Rimbaud, Season in Hell (Prologue)

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Sappho. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sappho. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me

Sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up

~ Sappho, Fragment

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Fernando Pessoa. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Fernando Pessoa. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I don’t know how many souls I have.

I’ve changed at every moment.

I always feel like a stranger.

I’ve never seen or found myself.

~ Fernando Pessoa, Untitled

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Anna Akhmatova. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Anna Akhmatova. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

No, not under a foreign sky,

No not cradled by foreign wings –

Then I was with my people, I,

With my people, there, sorrowing.

~ Anna Akhmatova, Requiem

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Federico Garcia Lorca. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Federico Garcia Lorca. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Woodcutter.

Cut out my shadow.

 Free me from the torture

 of seeing myself fruitless.

 ~ Federico Garcia Lorca, Song of the Barren Orange Tree

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A painting of Bei Dao. Credit: Twitter

A painting of Bei Dao. Credit: Twitter

I came into this world

Bringing only paper, rope, a shadow,

To proclaim before the judgment

The voice that has been judged:

~ Bei Dao, The Answer

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Miroslab Holub. Credit: Twitter

Miroslab Holub. Credit: Twitter

The bird had come to the very end of its song

and the tree was dissolving under its claws.

~ Miroslav Holub, The End Of the World

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A painting of Antonio Machado by Joaquin Sorolla. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A painting of Antonio Machado by Joaquin Sorolla. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It is good knowing that glasses

are to drink from;

the bad thing is not to know

what thirst is for.

~ Antonio Machado, Songs & Proverbs

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Basho by Sugiyama Sanpû. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Basho by Sugiyama Sanpû. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Don’t imitate me;

it’s as boring

as the two halves of a melon.

~ Basho, Haiku

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Adunis. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Adunis. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Death is near

because it is an idea not a body

and love is distant

because it is a body not an idea 

~ Adunis, Candlelight

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Arseny Tarkovsky. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Arseny Tarkovsky. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

We are so bound up in discord

The centuries cannot disentangle us—

I’m a warlock, you’re a wolf. We’re close

In the continuous dictionary of earth.

~ Arseny Tarkovsky, Song Under the Bullet

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Nazim Hikmet. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Nazim Hikmet. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It’s this way:

being captured is beside the point,

the point is not to surrender.

~ Nazim Hikmet, It’s This Way

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Forough Farrokhzad. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Forough Farrokhzad. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Life is perhaps lighting up a cigarette

in the narcotic repose between two love-makings

~ Forough Farrokhzad, Another Birth

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer, translator and political science scholar from JNU. He has most recently contributed to Words Matter: Writings Against Silence, edited by K. Satchidanandan (Penguin India, 2016). He is currently an adjunct professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.