Nov 172002

You hate poetry, like all self-respecting people who remember the English teacher’s pet in high school, the girl who liked rainbows and Christina Rossetti. As Marianne Moore said, “I, too, dislike it.”

Besides, most of the stuff you had to read was lousy. If your education in lyric poetry was anything like mine, it consisted largely of Milton, Keats and Shelley and a swath of second-rate Elizabethans like Sidney and Spenser. The Norton Anthology of English Literature is an undifferentiated and indigestible mass of mediocrity.

That’s why you need this top five list. There are only five because if I posted ten you wouldn’t read any. They are all under 30 lines long because the attention required to read great poetry properly is difficult to sustain. You never had to read them in school. You probably never read them at all. And they’re far better than anything you did have to read. (Full Disclosure: I wouldn’t know most of these poems myself if not for the great poet and critic Yvor Winters, who formed my taste.)

To Heaven, Ben Jonson (1572-1637). This is a Christian poem that one need not be a Christian to appreciate. Jonson addresses the real issue, which is that in middle age people often grow tired of life; Donne, with his neurotic and overdramatized fear of death, seems phony by comparison.

“As imperceptibly as grief,” Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). Only Stevens, in The Snow Man, which I recommend to anyone who thinks vers libre is a contradiction, and in the fourth and eighth stanzas of Sunday Morning, another great poem but too long to make the list, conveys nature’s alien majesty nearly as effectively. This poem also exploits off-rhyme more brilliantly than any poem ever written in English.

“My spirit will not haunt the mound,” Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). Hardy speaking from beyond the grave again, which he does in his poetry quite often. Note the placement of the caesuras in the last line of each stanza. First between the third and fourth syllables, then between the first and second, and finally between the second and third, resolves the poem the way a musical note resolves a chord. Hardy, Wallace Stevens and Thomas Campion are the best metrists in English.

Exhortation, Louise Bogan (1897-1970). The necessity of hatred.

To the Reader, J.V. Cunningham (1911-1985). On one level this poem is about textual scholarship; on another, about the relationship between experience and the wisdom that can be drawn from it.

  4 Responses to “Poetry Corner Deluxe”

  1. Not having a go at your selection of poems but perhaps you ought to revisit Shelley. For example The Mask of Anarchy is probably the greatest political poem ever written. Its famous last lines
    "Rise like lions from your slumbers,
    Rise in unvanquishable numbers,
    Shake your chains to earth like dew,
    Which in sleep had fallen on you
    Ye are many, they are few"
    continue to inspire many fighters against oppression and injustice today.

  2. Thanks, Alex. Notwithstanding your unwillingness to have a go at my choices (which are, combined, far shorter than The Mask of Anarchy), I have had another go at yours, for the first time in 15 years. Alas, it does not improve on reacquaintance. The rhymes are cheap and easy, and the metrical mishaps are many and serious. Note especially what a nasty crimp the fourth line in the stanza you quote puts in Shelley’s call to arms — not so nasty, however, as to prevent him from repeating the stanza. Shelley’s description of the downtrodden is so abstract that it is clear that he never got too near any actual suffering poor. Compare it with Crabbe’s The Village and you will see what I mean.

    Perhaps this poem does continue to inspire fighters against oppression and injustice. If that makes great poetry, then we shall have to award the palm to Joe Hill and La Marseillaise.

  3. Cheap and easy is not true but even if it were true it is not so bad. This was, after all, an attempt to rouse the population against the killing of unarmed and innocent demonstrators (known as the Peterloo Massacre), and penned in one angry episode. If you are after complexity then there are plenty of other Shelley poems to look at, which exhibit this. And Jo Hill and La Marseillaise are not so bad either.

  4. We are looking, I’m afraid, for different things. A great poem renders a moral judgment on a significant human experience, and this The Mask of Anarchy fails to do. It is outrage, from a discreet distance; it is political propaganda. To a Skylark has a few lines but no Shelley poem is remotely satisfactory.

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