I was going to say Top Five, but that’s not accurate. More like the first five I could think of that I actually like.
I was recently interviewing a lady who writes poetry, and to have something to ask — since I’m not a person who thinks a great deal about poetry (which you will be able to tell from this list) — I asked who her favorite poets were. She named Robert Frost and several people I’ve never heard of.
That got me to thinking, well, what would mine be? And since evaluating a writer’s entire body of work is too much effort, I changed it to fave poems. And I’m pretty sure these five had come into my mind before the phone conversation ended.
None were by Frost. I mean, he’s good and all — I guess. I only know that one that everybody knows, and it’s fine. No, I mean those two that everybody knows. OK, those three. But none of those came to mind right away.
Here are the ones that did. Since one of them isn’t technically a poem, if I think of another to make up for it, I’ll give you six:
- Annabel Lee — At some point in my life, I learned that some people who are snobby about poetry (you know, English majors) look down upon Poe’s verse. As a fan since I was a little kid of his Gothic horror stories, I feel I must stick up for him. But I think “The Raven” is too obvious, don’t you? Barry would sneer at me if I picked that.
- Ballad of the Goodly Fere — I first read this in my college days at my uncle’s house, thumbing through an anthology he had. I was drawn to it because I had run across a lot of mentions of Ezra Pound in reading about Hemingway and such, but had never read anything by him. And I loved it. Mind you, this was at the time that “Jesus Christ Superstar” came out, and the Messiah tended to be depicted as a sort of wimpy hippy, so I appreciated the contrast of depicting him as a stronger, more working-class sort. I also enjoyed the dialect. Of course, it’s still the only thing I’ve read by Pound. We don’t tend to run into — or seek out, for that matter — a lot of stuff written by writers who are infamous for their fascist leanings. Or at least I don’t — there too much else to read. It’s still a good poem.
- La Belle Dame Sans Merci — Just to stick in one of the Romantics. I mention it not just because I have an avid interest in the Matter of Britain, and this has to do with a knight. It’s because, well, it inspired the worst nightmare of my life. This was also in my college days, and the shocking state of mind the dream produced caused me to get up, leave my dorm room and go sit on the floor in the well-lit hall until I could shake the spell. Fortunately, I got better. I can’t tell you the content of the dream. It was more of a vague horror, related to what the knight felt when “I awoke and found me here, On the cold hill’s side.” I’ve never been a partaker of hallucinogens, but it was like Aldous Huxley on mescaline, when he looked upon an ordinary chair and saw it as the Last Judgment. It was a moment of existential horror that defies easy rational description– little to do with knights.
- No Man is an Island — OK, this is the one that isn’t actually a poem, although it’s frequently quoted as one, since John Donne is the only famous metaphysical poet., and you often see it presented as a poem. And that’s not the title. It’s a part of Meditation XVII, which is in turn a part of a prose work called “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.” My supposed title quotes the most famous line, or second most, if you count the one Hemingway turned into a novel title as leading the list. Anyway, if we count it as a poem, it’s definitely one of my favorites. Because, you know, it’s way communitarian.
- The Second Coming — Since Donne’s most famous work isn’t a poem, this may be my favorite — thereby confirming your impression that my taste in poetry is stunningly unoriginal and mainstream (although I tried to throw you there with Ezra Pound). It’s a contest as to which is more often quoted or paraphrased — this or the Donne thing. Hemingway went with that, and Joan Didion went with the Yeats. Well, a lot of people fall back on the Yeats these days. Maybe because it was written 104 years ago, but nothing written since goes as directly to the heart of what’s happening now in politics and society than “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” or perhaps even better, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”
Anyway, if we were ranking, and you counted the Donne piece as poetry, those last two would be my top choices. Stories about knights and ladies are all very well, but I like words to express ideas.
You’ll note they’re all pretty short poems. I love to read book-length prose works about the Matter of Britain, but don’t go expecting me to read a poem that long, Lord Tennyson. I still haven’t read The Iliad, for instance, and not just because I have no Greek. Poetry is too much work to read on and on.
Maybe I’ve been trained by pop songs. With Emily Dickinson, of course, it was hymns, and I think she was onto something.
Genealogy alert! So was my ancestor Thomas Wyatt the elder. He introduced to English a nice, short, disciplined form called the sonnet. Within a generation, William Shakespeare was making a name for himself with that form. I’m not really into sonnets (I prefer Will’s plays), but I respect the limits. Fourteen lines, baby, and that’s it. You’re done!
For that matter, I also enjoy haiku. And limericks…
Bill reminds me…
Here are the five read aloud, if you want to listen. Two are from a YouTube feed that I like a lot called SpokenVerse. The others are from other sources:
Ballad of the Goodly Fere
La Belle Dame Sans Merci
No Man is an Island
The Second Coming
“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
He who binds himself to a joy
Does the winged life destroy:
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.”
– William Blake
My BA is Humanities, and I was required to read a lot of poetry I didn’t like or didn’t get. These I still enjoy. I couldn’t limit it to just five.
The Raven–pure lyrical genius IMHO. If Barry doesn’t like it, that’s his problem.
Annabel Lee–Deliciously dark. Stevie Nicks recorded a musical version of it a few years back that’s really very good.
Tyger, Tyger by William Blake–Best line: Did He who made the Lamb make thee?
The Second Coming, for the same reasons you mentioned.
Ozymandias by Shelley–originally for the imagery, but now I think of it as a companion piece to Second Coming.
Stopping by Woods, The Road Not Taken, Fire and Ice, Gathering Leaves, Mending Wall by Frost. Frost and Poe are the only poets I can read just for pleasure.
Honorable Mentions: Invictus, Flanders Fields, Dulce et Decorum Est
I doubt that I could have made a blander, more homogenous list, but there it is.
Well, that’s the thing about Top Five lists (and their related genres) — they tend to be bland and mainstream, unless you go out of your way to appear avant-garde. Which isn’t cool.
And yours is an excellent list.
I thought about “Ozymandias,” but it didn’t quite rise above the others. And I felt “The Second Coming” covered that area.
I neglected to think of “In Flanders Fields.” But I DID consider “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” which is SORT of related. That was long a favorite, before I discovered “The Second Coming.” I might have included it anyway, but I was trying to spread the honor around and give no one more than one poem.
But if I’d given anyone two, it would likely have been Yeats. While we’re at it, how about “The Lake Isle of Innisfree?”
“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree…”
Oh, I did a selfie with Yeats when I was in Dublin in 2019… The painting is by his father, John Butler Yeats…
A SONG ON THE END OF THE WORLD
On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.
On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.
And those who expected lightning and thunder
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.
Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.
– Czesław Miłosz, 1944
The last stanza reads like a description of this scene, which shows the “end of the world” for Vito Corleone:
You’ve got the old man, you’ve got the tomatoes…
Definitely not what Miłosz had on his mind in 1944.