I received an email that started:
If you had the opportunity to send 52 poems as important messages to someone (and you had no opportunity to communicate any other way), which 52 would you choose?
My first thought was that I love poems. And who is this person I am trying to communicate with? And what am I trying to communicate? But I know that it is supposed to be for community college students and it is supposed to interest them in poetry. (The grant which started the whole thing allows for time and money to put 52 poems on paper hanging from a tree.)
I thought of the Sergeant (Joyce Kilmer, WWI) who wrote “Trees” that ends “only God can make a tree.”
And Henry Wadsworth’s Longfellow’s “Paul Revere.”
And Edgar Guest’s “I’d Rather See a Sermon.”
I’d rather see a sermon than hear one, any day,
I’d rather you should walk with me than merely show the way.
The eyes a better pupil and more willing than the ear.
Fine counsel is confusing, but example’s always clear.
And the best of all the preachers are the men who live their creeds
for to see the good in action is all anybody needs.
That’s just the part I still have memorized.
I’m sure I’d put something of Emily Dickinson, because I like her stuff. But NOT “a narrow fellow in the grass.”
Despite the fact that I now know where it is from and what it means, I’d still probably include “Jenny Kissed Me” by Leigh Hunt. It’s a sweet little poem.
I’d also put in Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130,” with its message that his wife is beautiful, even though her skin is dun, no coral grows in her cheeks, black wires grow from her head…. “I think my love as rare, as any she belied with false compare.”
Others of Shakespeare’s I might consider would be “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment.”
Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee” would make the cut. (Elizabeth Barrett, not Robert.)
I also like “After Making Love, We Hear Footsteps.” I don’t know right off hand who wrote it, but I know it is a woman. (The email later said they want a 50/50 mix.)
Then there’s Robert Burns’ “My luv is like a red, red rose.” As far as I can tell he was one of the first to say it. I think it is fascinating for students to get an introduction to the idea from so long ago.
“Heirloom” is a good poem. I think it was written by a woman. I think you have to know something of Jewish history to really understand it. (Which means I understand it less than I ought to, since I am recommending it.) But it is, as I present to my class, a love poem of a woman for her father. I enjoy it for that and hope that they do too.
And, since later on in the email there is a size limit of one page, I would not put Beowulf.
I also like “Song to Lucasta, Going to Wars” which has “I would not love thee dear, so much, loved I not honor more.”
“Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” by Dylan Thomas is a strong poem with a fighting spirit about not giving up.
“When I Consider How My Light is Spent” by Milton is great also. “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
Blake’s poems “Little Lamb, Who Made Thee?” and “Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright” are fascinating in other ways. I like the idea of asking who made us. Often college students think they are beyond that.
The Magnificat by Mary would be included. Though I think most people wouldn’t “get it.” I didn’t “get it” until a missionary gave a presentation on it in church one Sunday before Christmas about 10 years ago. (I think the author of the email would be tempted to leave that out, but it is non-Western and by a woman. Two things he wanted.)
But that’s only 18 poems.
And why would you want to have a 50/50 mix? I know that in modern times women have been able to write and think and be educated as well as men. But that has been a rarity throughout history. So most poems were written by men. Does that make them less important? (Either the poems or the women.) No. Perhaps I should point that out to my students when we are reading. Many of them will get this indoctrination that things need to be 50/50 to be fair. But then the quality will drop, because there is not a high standard.
One of the poems the author of the email sent as one of his suggestions is quite like Blake’s “Little Lamb,” except that it is written by a modern day author, a woman. The best questions are in this section of “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver:
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I meanâ€”
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and downâ€”
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know how to pray, the poem says, and proves it by discussing praying as a posture. But it is a wonderful poem I never would have seen without this PoeTree project.
The next is “I live with my contradictions” by David Ignatow. I didn’t particularly appreciate it, but it wasn’t absurd or anything.
I actually quite enjoyed the next one. (I was surprised, I hate to admit. I expected all his choices to be modern -which they were- and not well-written -which they were not. [Remember a double negative in English is a positive, so they were not not well-written, which means they were done well.]) It was “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop from Geography III. I don’t know quite what it means, even though I’ve read it twice. But it is a fascinating little poem about losing not being a disaster. I’ll tell you now, if I’d lost my husband’s joking voice (meaning my husband) I would not consider it trivial. I am not sure that’s what she’s saying. She may be saying that losing is easy to do; it happens all the time, so you have to get used to it.
I was also impressed by Ed Hirsch’s “Wild Gratitude” though I did not expect to be. Indeed the poem starts off okay and then veers into history and lunacy in a way that I tend to avoid. But it ends in joy and gratefulness. I recommend the poem.
So, does anyone have a favorite they would recommend? I will pass on recommendations.