Thursday, April 08, 2010

Five Favorite Poems

April is National Poetry Month, being not only the "cruelest month" (as T.S. Eliot would have it) but also the month of Shakespeare's birthday and — as the Academy of American Poets itself admits — a month that was not already claimed by Black History or Women's History. (In Virginia, this April is Confederate History month, and I have plenty to say about that, but that is a post for another day.)

Few adults I know read poetry for pleasure, although a surprising number secretly write it. I admit to impatience with people who write poetry without reading it; it's like trying to cook something you've never tasted. But it's no wonder, because the way schools teach poetry is deadly. Even I hated "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in middle school, and I couldn't tell you the difference between a trochee and an iamb without looking it up. (For the record, trochee is stressed-unstressed, iamb is unstressed-stressed.)

In pre-electronic times, poetry served the same purpose as song lyrics do for us now. Even now, in societies without mass media, people read poetry, listen to it, and know big chunks of it by heart. These are five poems that have been important to me, of which I know large sections of by heart (don't test me). Click through the links to read the entire texts, and leave your own recommendations in the comments section.

1. "Disobedience," by A. A. Milne. This was one of the very first poems to catch my imagination, and I didn't even know its real title until I was an adult. "James James/Morrison Morrison/Weatherby George Dupree/Took great/Care of his mother/Though he was only three." James warns his mother about going down to the end of the town, but does she listen? No, she doesn't, and she pays the price. It's quite a sinister poem, if you pay attention.

2. "Bereft," by Robert Frost. I read this poem for the first time aloud, on the spot, called on by Mr. Babcock in my junior-year English class. I stumbled over the last lines, and have never forgotten them: "Word I was in the house alone/Somehow must have gotten abroad,/Word I was in my life alone,/Word I had no one left, but God."

3. "Wild Geese," by Mary Oliver. I happened on this poem several years ago, at a time when I needed it most, and go back to it all the time. Mary Oliver's poetry concerns itself with the natural world, and with the close observation of small things. "Wild Geese" is a poem of midlife and learning to forgive oneself that begins, "You do not have to be good./You do not have to walk on your knees/for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting."

4. "Musee des Beaux Arts," by W. H. Auden. In the weeks after the September 11 attacks, Auden's poem "September 1, 1939" circulated widely by email, and felt uncannily appropriate, but this is the poem I kept going back to, and have returned to since after losses large and small. It is a description of Brueghel's painting of the fall of Icarus: "About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters; how well, they understood/its human position; how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along . . ."

5. "Travel," by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The first poem I ever memorized. I found it quoted in a YA novel I read in third grade, and looked it up in one of my parents' books. Something about it called me; I could not have known it would turn out to be my whole life's theme song. It's short, so here it is in its entirety:
The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn't a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn't a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing;
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going.

11 comments:

Tom Ehrenfeld said...

HIgh Windows by Philip Larkin
A Blessing by James Wright
Danse Russe by William Carlos Williams
The Annihilation of Matter by William Bronk
In the Waiting Room by Elizabeth Bishop
A Few Days by James Schuyler
The Forms of Love by Robert Creeley
The Cold Heaven by Yeats


Sorry, went over. I plead with others to read A Few Days by Schuyler.

Claire said...

I have always liked "nobody loses all of the time", because gallows humor is always funny.

Yvonne said...

In no particular order:

The Skunk by Seamus Heaney
Wuthering Heights by Sylvia Plath
The Death of a Hired Man by Robert Frost
Malvern Road by Michael Hofmann
The Idea of Order at Key West by Wallace Stevens

Really, 5 is too few!

Anonymous said...

Robert Penn Warren's "True Love" may be the saddest autobiography of every person who has ever lived.

Peep this: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15313

-- Ed

AnswerGirl said...

Five is too few, and this list might differ slightly on any given day. Here are five more:

"An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," by W.B. Yeats
"The Hollow Men," by T.S. Eliot
"somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond," by e e cummings
"One Art," by Elizabeth Bishop
and "The Mower," by Philip Larkin:

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

Tom Ehrenfeld said...

From your Yeats:

A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds

Yvonne said...

and Larkin's The Whitsun Weddings too.

Kevin Wignall said...

Where to begin...

Okay, putting aside the obvious Shakespeare sonnets (Shall I Compare Thee, My Mistress's eyes, etc.).

How about, "Ozymandias of Egypt" by Shelley, "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by Keats, "The Flea" by Donne, "She Walks in Beauty" by Byron, "The Garden of Love" or "The Fly" by Blake, "If" by Kipling, "Sea Fever" by Masefield, "The Soldier" by Rupert Brooke, "Anthem for Doomed Youth" by Wilfred Owen?

And they're all English, before we get to Dylan Thomas and Yeats, to Osip Mandelstam ("Leningrad") and Czeslaw Milosz ("Encounter"), to the French and the Japanese -

Forsaking the mists
That rise in the spring,
Wild geese fly off.
They have learned to live
In a land without flowers.
- Lady Ise

It's true that most adults don't read poetry, but I hope we continue encouraging children to read the form because you carry it with you through life, even the poets you don't get as a child.

Claire said...

Oh I found another one I love--"The Quiet World", by Jeffrey McDaniel.

Richard said...

Thank You. I have in the past tried to introduce poeple to AA Milne's poems but have been not succesful. Having said that, I was given a copy of "When We Were Very Young" whenI was very young... My Grandmother read me that poem many times. I still have no idea what it true meaning is

Peter said...

The Thought Fox - Ted Hughes
On Raglan Road - Patrick Kavanagh
Tonight I write the Saddest Lines - Pablo Neruda
When you are old - W.B. Yeats
Daddy - Sylvia Plath

These are simply the first five that came to mind. There's loads more: Anne Sexton, Carol Duffy, Keats, Philip Larkin,Emily Dickinson...