My Anthology of Favorite Poems
1. Girl Help by Janet Lewis (1899 – 1998)
This poem must be read aloud; this is a poem for the ear. I found it in Introduction to Poetry, ed by XJ Kennedy, and couldn’t help calling it out, so impressed was I with the assonance and alliteration.
In the warm, lofted air,
Soft lips together pressed,
Soft wispy hair,
Those poetic devices are out of fashion today, but in Lewis’ poem they carry me to where a young woman sweeps the floor with a wide straw broom. Actually, she only stirs the summer dust. She is ‘Mild and slow and young.’
She reminds me of ‘The Milkmaid’ by the 17th C painter Johannes Vermeer; that girl is working in the kitchen of a well-to-do Dutch family. The milkmaid and the Lewis girl are hired help as I once was when I was young and cleaned for ready cash. The poet’s sound repetitions let me see and hear the young cleaner, stopping to breathe in the lilacs, melting into the dreaminess of youth:
‘The great white lilac bloom
scented with days to come.’
Very satisfying poem to own.
2. The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood at Last
as a Sexual Message by Adrienne Rich (1929 – 2012)
I enjoy ekphrastic poetry where a poet riffs on another artist’s work. I get a two-for-one treat and an appreciation for a piece of music or a painting.
Rich is audacious. She opens with
‘A man in terror of impotence
or infertility, not knowing the difference,,,;
He’s ‘howling from the climacteric/music of the isolated soul.’ The bolded word means ‘being at a critical stage’ just as Beethoven was three years before his death. Isolated by severe deafness, he turned out his greatest symphony using ‘Ode to Joy’ by Frederich Von Schiller as the final movement sung by four voices and a full chorus.
In women, climacteric is menopause; in men, it is that corresponding time when sexual activity and potency decline. Now that I know this poem, I understand why ‘Joy’ fills my soul with an ecstatic appeal whenever I hear it on the radio. The man in the poem needs to be roused as Beethoven was when he finished his career with the 9th. I hear the music and come out of my separateness ‘yelling with Joy.’
3. The Waste Land by T S Eliot (1888 – 1965)
When a friend and I decided to read this poem closely last year, I worried
it would turn into one long slog. I needn’t have. I love it, and I learn so much every time I return to it. Eliot showed his masterpiece to Ezra Pound in 1922 who cut it from 19 pages to about seven and insisted that Eliot write extensive notes for the dense, rich text.
TWL’s an epic that takes me on a literary journey from antiquity to the best sellers of Eliot’s time. He weaves Western culture with Eastern thought. He creates characters who live in London after The Great War and deal with abortion and rape. He pulls from Sappho, perhaps the first lyric poet and his personal favorite, from the Bible, Dante, Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare. He introduced me to the French imagists of the 19th Century and got me reading The Divine Comedy every week of my life.
These lines are now mine:
‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
‘I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.’
‘I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down.’
TWL’s last three words are whispered at the close of my yoga classes:
‘‘Shantih, Shantih, Shantih’ which the poet translated loosely as ‘The peace that passes all understanding.’
4. Poem by Tom Clark (1941 –
This lovely poetic find came to me because a poet found ‘musical instruments abandoned in a field.‘ After several readings, I concluded the discovery was real, and it brought Tom Clark through abstractions to his feelings about trying to be a poet.
Often this subject fails in poetry. Many print and online journals expressly forbid submissions on the ‘being a writer’ topic, but Tom Clark succeeds. Here he addresses the discouragement that comes after you decide you want an artist’s life, and it doesn’t happen.
‘The pure conversion of your
Life into art seems destined
never to occur’
but so long as you keep working, he seems to say, you will achieve a kind of quiet.
‘You feel spiritual and alert.‘
I like a poet to go outside himself before he takes me inside. Clark’s final stanza is why I have memorized Poem:
‘You feel like
You’ll never feel like touching anything or anyone
And then you do.’
5. Things I Didn’t Know I loved by Nazim Hikmet (1902 – 1963)
Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet wrote a lot of beautiful poems, remarkable, in part, because of the time he spent in exile as a political prisoner. He is much loved in Turkey. Here’s the opening from Things I Didn’t Know I Loved just after he was released from one of his jailings:
‘it’s 1962 March 28th
I’m sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
night is falling
I never knew I liked
night descending like a tired bird on a smoky wet plain
I don’t like comparing nightfall to a tired bird’
The poem is a wonderful writing prompt. Hikmet fills his lines with a flow of associations–images, memories, details of the present moment. They move like water over the page, and then he grounds the poem with details like:
‘In the jonquil garden in Kadikoy Istanbul I kissed Marika /fresh almonds on her breath‘
‘in prison I translated both volumes of War and Peace into Turkish.’
Hikmet anchors abstractions and emotions with specific subtleties. That takes a lot more skill than I have, but I had thought it would be easy to write in a similar voice, a conversational tone that seems effortless. It isn’t. There are paradoxes and a lot of mystery. Here he writes about rivers:
‘I know you can’t wash in the same river even once…
I know we live slightly longer than a horse but not
nearly as long as a crow
I know this has troubled people before
and will trouble those after me’
He says he had to wait until age 60 before he could appreciate what he beholds on this journey. His poem celebrates his liberation, and if ever I am feeling stuck in my life and not grateful for all I have, I reread Things I Didn’t Know I Loved.
Before I leave Hikmet, this. He looks at stars and thinks of the cosmonauts (he had been exiled in Moscow as a young man):
‘my heart was in my mouth looking at them
they are our endless desire to grasp things
seeing them I could even think of death and not feel at all sad
I never knew I loved the cosmos’
6. It Dropped So Low in My Regard by Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)
Because this short poem is rhythmically perfect,
it was a snap for me to memorize. Its immediacy helps, too.
I’ve spoken it to poets and appreciators, and every time,
I see women’s eyes light up as they recognize something personal, something also experienced by the genius who is Emily Dickinson: betrayal.
The poet has had a disappointment that is shattering and final. Like ‘plated wares’ that she has vowed to keep safe until they drop by accident, her trust in someone has broken into pieces and cannot be glued back the way it was. She considers her part in the disenchantment:
‘Yet blamed the Fate that flung it
less than I denounced myself–’
She has elevated some undeserving person, but these things happen. Lesson learned. It’s also reasonable to conclude she’s done with the past and will never again be
‘entertaining plated wares
upon my silver shelf.’
I’ve sometimes thought Dickinson might not have been talking about
a person. Maybe it was her faith in art, or in God, that
‘dropped so low in my regard
I heard it hit the ground.’
She lived to be 56 years old in the 19th Century. Life was difficult and brief with death all around. Because I know and love her poem, I imagine her on a summer day walking outdoors in her famous white dress. Maybe a thought like this formed itself around her continual failure to get published:
‘At last, I know the truth. Neither my poems nor the God of my understanding will save me. The only thing that matters is the work to which I shall presently and gladly return.’
7. Poems by Frances Chung (1950 – 1990)
The poems of this Chinese-American poet are in one volume titled
Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple. They are often tiny takes on simple things and remind me of Sappho’s fragments, but Chung’s are completely realized poems full of feeling.
She writes of using newspaper as a tablecloth which somehow provokes a conflict with her mother:
We use newspaper for a
tablecloth. And when I
want to make my mother
sad I tell her that I’m
going to cook American
food when I get older.
Frances Chung’s name provokes a lot of discussion about her difficulties growing up in New York’s Chinatown, but here I wish to extol the artist. Since I’ve not read a Chung poem with a title, I think of the collection in her book as one fragmented work. Nevertheless, the final lines on many of the pages stir my heart again and again. Some of her words sting. Some charm. Others make me look at things differently.
(if you were here)
‘if you were here
I could toss three pennies to make you a hexagram
save you the last purple shrimp chip
make room for you at the table
as we feast for three nights.’
(I have very little to call mine)
‘I have very little
to call mine
but every day
I weave my hair
into a straight braid
my clothes have
but a few shapes
they do not feel soft
like any part of me
but my hair
after all these days
is still soft and black
it grows and obeys me.’
(a memory of ivory chopsticks)
‘the shame of chopsticks
brought by my mother
to the school lunchroom…
a memory of being beaten
lying in bed with a lover
like a pair of ivory chopsticks’
8.The Lake Isle of Innisfree by William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939)
During Yeats’ life, this poem was the most requested at his poetry readings. Although he tired of saying it, ‘Innisfree’ was then and is now a crowd pleaser. Yeats grew up in Sligo, Ireland, and spent many hours there on the lake isle of the title. Years later as a young man living in London, Innisfree’s magic called to him on a day when he stood outside a storefront window that showcased a bubbling fountain in an advert. The longing for the peace of Sligo overcame him:
‘I hear lake water lapping with low sounds on the shore.’
He imagined ‘a small cabin’ to build there with ‘nine bean rows/ a hive for the honey bee.’. He would be, if he could, transported to ‘Innisfree’ to ‘live alone in the bee-loud glade.”
The subject is a cliche of lyric poetry: the artist’s preference for nature and the disdain for urban life, but it’s not the content that takes me back to ‘Innisfree.’ I prefer city life anyway. The line ‘Moonlight’s all a glimmer, and noon’s a purple glow,’ is pretty and poetic to me, nothing more. The rhyme scheme in the poem is standard ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, and it makes for a soothing read, but it is the final stanza that I adore. Aching for home, with the awful yearning of the uprooted, Yeats repeats the poem’s beginning and then moves into the center of his feelings:
‘I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavement gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.’
(About 45 years old. Date of birth is not cited in Wikipedia or elsewhere. Assistant Professor of English, NYU)
This poem is all business about the heart. The title plays with the Robert Burns’ maxim about ‘Best laid plans often go awry,‘ on a day when a couple puts everything aside so they can be free for sex.
It has funny, ironic rhymes, ‘…superfluous like the clitoris,’ and double meanings that I love, uhm, to uncover, i.e., ‘best laid plans…’
There won’t be any swimming today though the couple floats ‘on a sea of necessity.’ For lovers, nothing seems more necessary than sex that starts on a Saturday morning and goes until late afternoon. The only necessity is pleasing and enjoying one another. The calls and errands at the mall do come to mind in the dark deliciousness with someone adorable, but the demands of the day have fallen away. Lovers are free.
I choose this poem for my anthology because in less than 50 words, McLane gives us two lives and, for me, a trip down memory lane.
10. A Season in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud (1854 – 1891)
The genius Rimbaud quit poetry altogether at age 19. Later, he left his native France to travel Europe and Asia as a businessman before succumbing to cancer at age 37.
‘A Season in Hell’ is his long, confessional masterpiece where he imparts his formula for transforming the soul though he acknowledges the futility of it. He must descend into himself, but the thought terrifies him. In his private hell, he is teacher, traitor, and a mass of confusion. He speaks about loathing the sheets where he has lain with the fallen angel Paul Verlaine, yet he refers to them as ‘sheets of gold.’ He loves and berates his ancestors. He prays to be good; he is not able to be good. He fears being judged a fake.
He makes fun of his brilliance and his ‘flowering heart,’ but this is not a pose. He is confused, 19, and the odor of roses and excrement offend equally. I find him beautiful though exhausting. ‘A Season in Hell’ brought him only misery as he famously cried out:
‘Think of me.”
I respond, we all respond, to his suffering, ‘Yes. How can we not think of you?’
11. A Blessing by James Wright (1927 – 1980)
This poem starts and ends with surprises. I don’t expect a poem to begin with a banal address like,
‘Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,’
If the intention is to lull me with specificity, it doesn’t work, so what’s next?
‘And then the eyes of those two Indian ponies/ darken with kindness.’
We are not alone. Those ponies
‘have come gladly out of the willows
to welcome my friend and me.‘
I am that friend. From there we step over the barbed wire,
‘Where they have been grazing all day alone
they ripple intensely
they can hardly contain their happiness/ that we have come.’
Wright’s images are real and fantastic. I interpret them as mythic even though I cannot tie them to any ancient story. The ponies stand before me as strong, erotic symbols; their sensuality overwhelms me.
‘They bow shyly as wet swans.They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.’
The poet wants to hold the slenderer one in his arms.
It’s so right that there are two of those ponies for the love they symbolize needs a dear, emphatic couple.
‘Her mane falls wild on her head.’
‘Suddenly I realize that if I stepped out of my body
I would break into blossom.’
The surprise at the end is not really that. How could that ecstatic nuzzling and caressing be contained any longer?
This poem within the play is sung by the spirit Ariel after the death of Ferdinand’s father. It is the cleverest kind of sympathy card because, first of all, the father hasn’t drowned.
Ariel sings of a body that hasn’t decayed. Instead, every part of it has been transformed into something solid and valuable. His bones have been changed into coral; his eyes into pearls. The sea nymphs are honoring the dead man with a regular knell from a bell. We even hear a comforting ‘Ding Dong,’ the ‘ng’ lingering in the ear, the throat, the air, the way Death lingers.
Other sounds are in the alliteration and assonance of the first stanza. I find it so fun to pick these lines apart:
from one of my professors: ‘The f sound is repeated four times at the beginning, and with the ‘th and v sounds’, mimics the movements of the sea.
‘Full fathom five/thy father lives.’
I also love the alliterations for themselves:
‘suffer a sea change,’ ‘Hark now I hear them,‘
and the assonance isn’t bad either:
This same subject in another Elizabethan lyric by another writer might be as good but never so great. I am so proud that Shakespeare wrote in my first language.