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.