In high school and college, our English/Literature professors included a lot of poetry. When I come across some of the best poems in the canon–The Waste Land, Leaves of Grass–I admire them today even though my favorite lines come from a smattering of other work.
I’m aware that Pulitzer Prize winning poet Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) was once popular and now appears unknown or ignored. Nonetheless, I’ve never forgotten “The Coin”:
Into my heart’s treasury I slipped a coin That time cannot take Nor a thief purloin, Oh better than the minting Of a gold-crowned king Is the safe-kept memory Of a lovely thing.
I’m not sure how the powers that be rate Poe’s poetry today. Yet the first stanza of his “To Helen” sticks in my mind as one of the best stanzas I’ve read, especially the last two lines:
Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicéan barks of yore,
That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.
My favorite poem is “Fern Hill” written by Dylan Thomas in 1945:
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green, The night above the dingle starry, Time let me hail and climb Golden in the heydays of his eyes, And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves Trail with daisies and barley Down the rivers of the windfall light.
This and the following verses are wonders and, perhaps a cautionary commentary on the paths our lives take. I identify quite strongly with this poem. Perhaps more peolple are familiar with his “Do not go gentle into that good night.” My generation more or less memorized it and saw it as dogma as age approached. Here are the first two verses:
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right, Because their words had forked no lightning they Do not go gentle into that good night.
Like many who were in high school and college in the 1960s, I liked RodMcKuen’s bestselling poems. They seem dated now, but there was a time when everyone knew every word. As we said then, his poem’s were a happening, fresh and new, as in “Listen to the Warm”:
I was rich in those days, for a week I had everything.
I wish I’d known you then.”
Now, I think, my tastes run more toward the work of poet and sax player Joy Harjo, as in “She Had Some Horses”:
She had some horses.
She had horses who were bodies of sand.
She had horses who were maps drawn of blood.
She had horses who were skins of ocean water.
She had horses who were the blue air of sky.
She had horses who were fur and teeth.
She had horses who were clay and would break
What about you? Do you find yourself thinking–seemingly without foundation–of bits and pieces of poems you studied in school” They bring comfort to me like old songs.
Some poems reach us. We’re not always sure why. In fact, I’m more content when the reasons I like a poem never quite add up because my appreciation of it is beyond logic.
I know that I like the opening quatrain of Poe’s “To Helen” partly because of the rhymes and alliteration. Perhaps I’ve seen such beauty in another from time to time and this reminds me of it:
Helen, thy beauty is to me Like those Nicéan barks of yore, That gently, o’er a perfumed sea, The weary, way-worn wanderer bore To his own native shore.
“Fern Hill,” by Dylan Thomas is probably my favorite poem. We are lucky if we feel the magic of youth this way because it is very nearly a spiritual relationship with the world and the cosmos:
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
Few people these days remember the poet Saint-John Perse, but his Éloges and other poems published the year I was born is a wonderful collection. The first edition I have, once owned by my mother, displays the poems on side-by-side pages in English and the original French. For today’s reader, these poems are probably overly rich. The opening of “To Celebrate Childhood” is another way at the truth of “Fern Hill”:
…Then those flies, that sort of fly, and the last tier of the garden…Someone is calling. I’ll go..I speak in esteem –Other than childhood, what was there in those days that is not here today? Plains! Slopes! There was greater order! And everything was but shimmering reigns and frontiers of light. And shadow and light in those days were more nearly the same thing…I speak of an esteem …Along the borders the fruit might fall without joy rotting along our lips.
Natasha Trethewey, a Pulitzer prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate, writes strong poems with (quite often) a bite. I’m very fond of them and her way of thinking. “Domestic Work” is a good example:
All week she’s cleaned someone else’s house, stared down her own face in the shine of copper– bottomed pots, polished wood, toilets she’d pull the lid to–that look saying
Let’s make a change, girl.
“She Had Some Horses” by Joy Harjo builds and builds on itself until its power is strong enough to make one weep:
She had some horses. She had horses who were bodies of sand. She had horses who were maps drawn of blood. She had horses who were skins of ocean water. She had horses who were the blue air of sky. She had horses who were fur and teeth. She had horses who were clay and would break. She had horses who were splintered red cliff.
She had some horses.
Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel Prize winner who lived in India and wrote in Bengali has a rich body of work that I first came across when I was in high school in a book my father had on our living room shelf. I like “The Source”:
The sleep that flits on baby’s eyes-does anybody know from where it comes? Yes, there is a rumour that it has its dwelling where, in the fairy village among shadows of the forest dimly lit with glow-worms, there hang two shy buds of enchantment. From there it comes to kiss baby’s eyes. The smile that flickers on baby’s lips when he sleeps-does anybody know where it was born? Yes, there is a rumour that a young pale beam of a crescent moon touched the edge of a vanishing autumn cloud, and there the smile was first born in the dream of a dew washed morning-the smile that flickers on baby’s lips when he sleeps.
I can’t shoe-horn the beginnings of all the poems that have caught my attention again and again since childhood into one blog post. But, it was fun to share a few, and perhaps start others thinking about the poetry they return to when they’re in need of hope, empathy, and inspiration.