There are many tools and resources you or a librarian at your local library can use to identify a poem whose title and author you can't recall. Use the table of contents below to explore these options.
If you still need help finding a lost title of a novel, story, or poem, try our Ask a Librarian service found in the left navigation column on this page.
It is often possible to identify a long-lost poem by going to an Internet search engine and searching on unique names, places, words, or phrases that appear in the poem; potential words in the poem's title; or the poet's possible first or last name.
Use of general search engines may be the quickest way to find the poem you are looking for. For instance, to find the title and author of the poem with the phrase "stop all the clocks," users can search that phrase in the popular search engine Google and receive numerous references to the correct title. Each general search engine provides slightly different coverage of the Web, and will return results based on different relevancy rankings—it is a good idea to use more than one search engine to hunt for a poem. Currently, Google and Microsoft's Bing are probably the two best general search engines for poem-sleuthing, though several other options can be found on the "Search Engine Journal" website.
Several companies now offer large-scale book search databases. When searching these databases, you are searching the full text of thousands, if not millions, of digitized books. The results you will receive may be digitized images of the pages on which your search terms appear, snippet views of your search terms and several sentences surrounding it, or a citation to the publication that includes your search terms (which you can use to locate the work through a local library). If the book is no longer under copyright, you'll usually be able to browse the full text of the book to read the entire poem and determine whether it's the correct one. If the book is still under copyright, you can typically browse several pages before and after your search results (enough to read the complete text of shorter poems). In addition, the four major book databases mentioned below also often allow users to limit their search to the full text of individual books.
Select Books from the drop-down menu at the top of the page to limit your search to books, or use the Advanced search page for higher-precision searching. Many entries for books include a "Look Inside" option that allows you to conduct a keyword search of the full-text of a book, which can help you determine if a poem in it is the correct one.
Visit the Google Books' About page External External for details about this database. The Advanced Book Search option is recommended, since it allows for more refined searches.
HathiTrust currently makes available more than 16.8 million digitized volumes, more than 6.3 million of which are in the public domain. The HathiTrust Digital Library complements content available through Google Books: while some content between the two services overlaps, HathiTrust provides some content Google does not, including digital collections unique to participating institutions, works from institutional repositories, and native born-digital materials.
The Internet Archive includes the full text of more than 20 million online books and texts, including works of poetry, fiction, popular books, children's books, historical texts, and academic books.
Other book databases can be found through the University of Pennsylvania's Online Books Page. For tips in searching these types of "deep web" book databases described above, see the the blog post from the Library's From the Catbird Seat blog, "Poetry Sleuthing 101: Searching the Deep Web."
Library catalogs do not typically index poems published in books, and as such are useful primarily when trying to identify a long poem published as a book. If you are searching for a short poem, feel free to skip this section. If you are searching for a poem published as a book and would like to search a library catalog for it, a catalog will usually allow you to limit searches for book records by a number of criteria, including publication date, intended audience (juvenile or adult), and subject. In addition, many library catalogs now provide brief summaries of books: when users search a catalog by keyword, they will retrieve records for books that include the search terms in the summary field. Combining a keyword search with the use of search limiters is an excellent way to create a list of possible book matches that you can browse in a single sitting. Browsing catalogs by subject is another way to create a manageable list of relevant book records. There are two major library catalogs you may wish to search.
Users can limit this catalog of approximately 18 million records by publication date, place of publication, language, and format (e.g., books), and then conduct a keyword search to retrieve matching records.
WorldCat is a collective catalog of more than 10,000 libraries around the world. Use the Advanced Search option to create a book search based on numerous criteria, including publication date, audience, content, subject, and keyword.
When using a search engine or database to search for a poem, always check for an Advanced Search option, which often will allow you to search by criteria—title, first line of text, subject, publisher, web domain, and more—not available through the basic search box.
If your initial search returns too many results, try further limiting your search by adding to your initial search string words or phrases that may appear in the poem; the form you think the poem may take (e.g., sonnet or villanelle); or other details about the poem, such as its possible title or author, that you originally may have omitted.
Many poems from the 19th and early 20th centuries were intended for instructional use in the classroom or for performance. These poems were often described as monologues, recitations, declamations, or as exercises for improving elocution, and the books these poems were published in often include these terms in their titles. If you are looking for a poem published before 1950 that was likely to be read by students, try adding these descriptive terms to your keyword searches if you need to further limit your search.
Draw upon the collective wisdom of the crowd by posting your query to literature-related message boards. By posting to these forums, you bring to bear on your search the reading histories of numerous readers with a significant interest in literature, including poetry.
When writing your question, provide as much information as possible about the poem's content and the context in which you originally encountered or read the poem.
Identify, if possible, the poem's target audience (adults or children); its form (sonnet, villanelle, free verse, etc.) and length (several lines, several stanzas, several pages, etc.); any details you can recall about what the poem is "about"; any words or phrases from the poem that you can recall, especially particularly memorable or unique words or phrases that might help differentiate the poem from others with a similar theme or style; and whether the poem was published in a standalone collection, an anthology, a periodical, or on the Web.
In approximately what year did you read the poem (be sure not to state only that you read the poem "as a child," or "when in high school," which gives no indication of the actual year you read it)? Was the poem recently published at the time you read it? Did you read the poem as part of a school or work assignment, or for leisure?
You can find appropriate message boards and forums to which you can submit your query on the Finding Novels page of this guide. While most of these boards and forums are dedicated primarily to helping people find novels, many of them, such as Name That Book and BookSleuth, can also be used for tracking down a poem you once read and can no longer recall.
Like message boards, listservs are a way to draw upon the collective memories and resources or readers throughout the world. By posting to listservs, you are putting your question before audiences with different reading habits, search strategies, and resources available for finding poems. It is often wise to submit your question to both message boards and listservs to ensure it is read by the widest possible range of audiences. You may wish to ask a librarian at your local library to submit your question to a listserv on your behalf, so that you don't need to worry about subscribing and unsubscribing.
Project Wombat is read by librarians, scholars, students, professionals, and people from all walks of life, so by posting your question to the listserv you are drawing upon the collective memories and resources of thousands of people. As such, Project Wombat is a great place to ask about a poem you need help finding.
To locate other listservs to which you can submit your question, try searching the following:
Most public libraries include email or web form-based reference services through which librarians through you can request and receive help with your search for a poem. Learn how to find contact information for your local public library. External. Two specific web form services you can also contact for help are listed below.
Digital reference specialists from the Library of Congress's Researcher and Reference Services Division will be happy to search available resources to help you find that elusive novel.
Staff at this extensive British poetry library are "happy to help you with any information need you might have on poetry whether it be bibliographical details, the wording of a quotation, addresses for publishers of books, pamphlets and magazines or what might be 'going on' on a particular day."
If you have an account with a social networking website or app (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), consider posting your query to an appropriate literary group or channel, as well as your network of online "friends" or "followers." Former classmates connected to you through online social networks—including alumni or class reunion sites—are uniquely positioned to recall a poem you were required to read as part of your school curriculum.
The subscription resources marked with a padlock are available to researchers on-site at the Library of Congress. If you are unable to visit the Library, you may be able to access these resources through your local public or academic library.
These databases serve as indexes or full-text repositories of poetry that can be used to identify poems based on a number of criteria such as subject, first or last line, full text, and title or author keywords. You should contact your local library to see if it has access to these, or similar, databases. A librarian there will be able to offer guidance on searching the databases.
A keyword search on a unique phrase or possible poem title in a full-text periodicals database can return a reference to the poem for which you've been looking, or even the poem's full text. You should check with your local library to determine which periodical databases it makes available. Examples of useful databases to search for elusive poems are listed below.
If you registered your poem or poetry with the U.S. Copyright Office at the Library of Congress, you may be able to find a record for it online. Records for all works registered with the Copyright Office from 1978 to present can be found through its online Copyright Catalog. You can search by title, author, registration number, and keywords that appear in the record.
The Library of Congress receives hundreds of requests each year from people searching for their poems. In most instances, these poems were submitted to a poetry contest and subsequently published in an amateur poetry anthology. For information on how to locate your contest poems, see the the following resource guides: