In the coda to her wonderful study, Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America (Harvard, 2007) Joan Shelley Rubin considers what the responses to Robert Pinsky’s “Favorite Poem Project” suggest about how poetry is (still) useful and meaningful for Americans today. Many of the poems readers submitted were works they had first encountered in a school setting, and they were texts to which the readers had returned throughout their lives. Though the texts remained, the meaning for the reader might have changed — or, put another way, the reader might have given new meaning to a familiar text. This way of reading, Rubin concludes, is not so much a postmodern departure as a persistent return to how American readers have tended to approach poetry.
….[W]hile late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Americans generally assumed that a poet’s intentions mattered, the insistence of some of Pinsky’s correspondents on their interpretive prerogatives is only a more extreme, less constrained version of how earlier individuals appropriated verse in schoolrooms, civic celebrations, parlors, religious settings, and campfire recitations (403).
I am happy to say that I encountered “verse” in all of those settings. That’s a wonderful legacy from my growing up — maybe from yours too. I have also written “verse,” though nothing I would inflict on our readers here. I think the days when I will allow my over-full, goodly heart to flow into a godawful attempt at a sonnet are probably over. But I have always taken poetry to heart and drawn upon it when I need it most, whether to give words to joy, or grief, or loneliness, or love.
Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite poems. Please add your own to the list in the comments below:
The Chambered Nautilus, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, by Thomas Gray
Ode on a Grecian Urn, by John Keats
[After great pain, a formal feeling comes], by Emily Dickinson
Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Advice to a Prophet, by Richard Wilbur
This Is Just to Say, by William Carlos Williams
[no time ago], by e.e. cummings
Seven Stanzas at Easter, by John Updike
Saint Judas, by James Wright
Thanatopsis, by William Cullen Bryant
Power, by Adrienne Rich
From Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Sonnet 23 (“As an unperfect actor on the stage…”)
Sonnet 29 (“When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes…”)
Sonnet 33 (“Full many a glorious morning have I seen…”)
Sonnet 55 (“Not marble, nor the gilded monuments…”)
Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds…”)
Sonnet 126 (“O thou my lovely boy who in thy power…”)
From Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters:
Conrad Siever (an old orchardman)
Sarah Brown (an adulteress)
Dorcas Gustine (an outspoken woman)
Fiddler Jones (a grasshopper in a world of ants)
Francis Turner (a boy with a secret)
Edmund Pollard (a bon vivant)
Father Malloy (a kindly priest in a land of Protestants)
Le Roy Goldman (a revivalist)
Jeremy Carlisle (a photographer)
This might look like a long list, but it’s just a small sampler. There are so many other poems and passages I carry around with me; the difference between poetry and prose is fungible for me. For me, it’s poetry if it sings — so Emerson and Du Bois are with me too, and John Donne’s Meditation XVII, and lines from Flannery O’Connor stories, and passages from Faulkner. All these and more besides come through in my academic writing as often as in my conversation — sometimes too, I suppose, they speak behind my silences.
Probably no text do I draw upon more often than the Bible. So I’ll close out this list with an old poem indeed: what the Psalmist called “A prayer of Moses, the man of God”
Readers, what poems do you use to number your days?