What’s your favorite poem?
Any number of Rudyard Kipling poems have stuck with me over the years, particularly the epic “Tomlinson,” with its general message that in the long run, it doesn’t matter what you say or think or feel or believe in life, it matters what you actually do. And better yet, one that often brings tears to my eyes: “The Palace,” which tells the story of an arrogant king who sets out to build a palace, and finds something that makes him rethink his stab at immortality. The lines “As he had risen and pleaded, so did I understand / The form of the dream he had followed in the face of the thing he had planned” comprise some of the best-crafted writing I’ve ever seen, or ever expect to see. But my all-time favorite is another classic: Leigh Hunt’s “The Glove And The Lions,” a perfectly polished, mean-spirited, smart, short story-in-verse about chivalry, love, and the best way to earn a glove to the face. That last line is fantastic.
Poetry’s never really done it for me, I’m ashamed to say, although studying it has been an enjoyable challenge. Trying to write in meter is like math with words and feelings. I have only one real go-to poem, so I’m glad nobody said “This Is Just To Say” by William Carlos Williams before I got to it. I love it for its brevity (you can just about Tweet it, if you’re a little creative) but also for the fact that so much gets packed into so few words: a scene, tangible details, a bit of passive-aggressive behavior. It’s quirky, but not inaccessible. I would be charmed if someone wrote me a note like that after eating my breakfast, but also pissed, too. Yeah, I’m really glad you enjoyed those plums, friend. Thanks for telling me how great they were. (You can hear me reading it for another blog here; I selected it, again, for its shortness. I would most likely screw up reading a longer poem.)
I spent my first dozen years of life near the shore—and I’m a water sign, for whatever flaky crap that’s supposed to be worth—and it seems I’ve always been drawn to poems about the sea. Not just the water itself, either, but its life and death and cycles and mystique and what have you. Little wonder that, many years ago, I fell in love with Seamus Heaney’s “Oysters.” Not only is it one of the most potent, super-condensed bursts of oceanic imagery and symbolism I’ve ever read, Heaney’s language itself bears the tongue-curling lusciousness of its namesake—right up to the poem’s final words, “I ate the day / Deliberately, that its tang / Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.”
I had a friend in high school who older than I was. She was mysterious and cool and a little sad, and I was exactly none of those things, but for some reason we had conversations, and every so often, she’d pop into my life like an unexpected sunny day. Because she was ahead of me in school, she graduated before I did, and before she left for college (or something—I was fuzzy on details and didn’t want to ask questions; she might’ve been a spy), she invited me and another friend (dammit) over to watch Dorothy Parker And The Vicious Circle. I have no idea if the movie was any good. I mostly remember Jennifer Jason Leigh croaking as if her throat was made out of cigarettes. But the movie, and my friend’s recommendation, got me to buy a collection of Parker’s, and that led me to my favorite poem:: “Resumé.”
W.H. Auden has been my favorite poet since high school, and it would be hard to choose my favorite of his works, but the poem that jumped to mind was his eulogy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Friday’s Child.” Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who served as the spiritual guide to the German resistance under the Nazis. Eventually, he was jailed and murdered, though not before writing a series of beautiful letters from prison concerning God, Man, and what it means to act rightly in dark times. Auden’s poem never mentions Bonhoeffer except in the epitaph, but it focuses on the German’s typical subject matter. It’s a haunting work, probing our understanding of what it means to be finite, our conception of the infinite, and our relation to divinity. I’m an avowed agnostic, but I do believe that even non-believers need to grapple with the divine, if only to decide how we relate to our own autonomy. “Friday’s Child” shows how tricky that decision is.
I so rarely get to write about my love of poetry that it’s difficult to narrow this down without stepping on the toes of other selections. John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” are classics for a reason, and anyone who likes hearing poetry aloud should appreciate the sonnets littered throughout Romeo and Juliet—particularly the shared 14 lines when they first meet, which is just mind-blowing. But though I love reading a wide variety of poetry—seriously, if a discussion gets going in the comments I could go on forever—two contemporary poems stick with me as favorites. Tony Hoagland’s “Personal” perfectly describes my difficulties with caring too much about everything, and James W. Hall’s arresting, bizarre “Maybe Dats Your Pwoblem Too” remains the best poem I ever memorized for an audition piece in college. On the surface, Hall’s poem is a comedic monologue delivered by a beleaguered Spider-Man, but it’s actually an incisive, poignant meditation on how difficult it is to change and grow.
On a warm Monday night in September, my girlfriend and I sauntered across our college campus to a spot we loved. It was an open green, with an old, disused outdoor theater at one end, the college’s Campanile at the other. It was in an out-of-the-way corner of campus, so it was rarely used, but we had first grown close there, and we would be married there a couple of years later. We were having a pleasant conversation—about what, I don’t remember—when I got a phone call from my dad. My grandfather had had a nearly fatal accident while out tending to his cattle, and when my father took him to the doctor, the scans showed something none of us were prepared to deal with: a giant brain tumor. He was older, sure, but he wasn’t that old, and he was one of the few things tethering my grandmother, in the early stages of dementia, to reality. We ended the call with uncertainty. There would be more tests, later in the week.
The next morning, we woke up together to hear something on the radio that sounded like the War Of The Worlds broadcasts. Terrorists had struck New York City, and the World Trade Center would soon collapse.
A few months later, the United States would embark on one war and rattle its sabers over another. My grandfather would become a shell of himself and finally die, shortly before Christmas. We’d have one last family Christmas at the old place, my grandmother endlessly calling, “Where’s Dad?!” throughout, because she had yet to grasp that he had died. A few weeks later, I returned to college, and in one of my literature classes, one of my favorite professors, an Irish immigrant nun, read to us from “Little Gidding,” a section of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. The whole poem cycle is rewarding, but I’ve always found “Gidding” to be the needed climax, the antidote, somehow, to all the death that hung in the air that winter. Here’s the final section:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
I don’t know if Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse”—the one that opens with the line “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” and builds to the stanza that begins, “Man hands down misery to man / It deepens like a coastal shelf” is really my all-time favorite poem. But when I discovered it in my late teens, it was probably the first poem I’d ever read whose meaning my little half-bright brain could instantly grasp, and that expressed an emotion I could relate to, in a way that was catchier and more expressive than anything I could have accomplished in prose. And it was definitely the first poem I ever memorized, and could recite at the drop of a hat, as part of what, in retrospect, was a staggeringly ill-conceived plan to impress the ladies. (That is, it was the first poem I ever memorized of my own volition. In the fifth grade, I had a school principal who required everyone in my class to learn “How Do I Love Thee” and visit him, individually, in his office and recite it while looking him in the eye. I’m pretty sure that guy will end up guest-starring on an episode of To Catch A Predator.) So I’ll always have a special sentimental attachment to it—which makes me the first person ever to use the word “sentimental” in a paragraph about Philip Larkin.
I don’t think of myself as someone who loves poetry, because that seems a vast, tricky subject. I’m likely to quote a scrap of verse from the Dark Is Rising quintet, should someone press me to say a few lines. Part of it is that poetry requires me to read so slowly. The other part is that it requires me to feel deeply. I’m apt to get impatient and frustrated, to close the book and wander away to skim the surface of the Internet.
But then I remember that there are certain poems I love beyond reason—poems that found a way to speak to me when nothing else could. They are a unique medium for emotional truth, and sometimes they are the only thing that will stick. My first spring in college, I got attached to e.e. cummings’ “since feeling is first,” a timeless poem for young love. I may or may not have broken up with a boyfriend after reading Reed Whittemore’s “For The Life Of Him And Her,” a poem that revealed a truth to me I didn’t want to see myself. And more recently, I was struck by the searing beauty of the final lines of Margaret Atwood’s “Helen Of Troy Does Countertop Dancing”: “This is a torch song. / Touch me and you’ll burn.” There is a lot you could read about feminism, sure, but you could also just read that poem.
But the one I’ll choose as my favorite is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Ebb”:
I know what my heart is like
Since your love died:
It is like a hollow ledge
Holding a little pool
Left there by the tide,
A little tepid pool,
Drying inward from the edge.
That’s it. There’s nothing else there. That’s all you needed to know.
I’m not a poetry guy; every time we studied poems in my high-school English classes, I either checked out or scratched my head in an attempt to figure out their meaning. I’m more of a prose guy, which is why Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” has always stuck in my mind. It’s a poem, with rhythm, refrains, and even some rhymes. But it tells a story that’s easily understood. And you don’t need to read it at a coffee shop during poetry-slam night, using odd voice inflections and interpretive dance movements, to convey the effect Poe intended. Just read it aloud, without much inflection, and it’ll scare the shit out of both you and your audience. Heck, it was even pretty damn scary when The Simpsons did their version of it.
I’m really not sure how I managed to successfully earn a BA in English, Journalism & Communications without caring one whit about poetry, but apparently it can be done, and I’m living proof. Like Joel, I grumbled my way through more than a few classes with little or no interest in determining the inherent symbolism in the use of this animal or that inanimate object, but I did at least manage to memorize one poem—under duress—during the course of my educational career: Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening.” Like any boy in the 10th grade growing up in the South, I’m sure I snickered inappropriately at the use of the word “queer,” but I thought I’d eventually begun to understand the whole “miles to go before I sleep” bit, believing that sleep was intended to represent death. I was wrong, apparently, as I’ve since learned that Frost dismissed this interpretation when it was suggested by one of his poetry peers, John Ciardi. This is why I hate trying to figure out what poems mean. But, hey, at least Frost got his comeuppance: no matter how lovely the poem may be, it has, for millions of viewers, descended into little more than just another Simpsons reference.