U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Favorite Poems: Intellectual History Edition

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:

Reuben Pantier and Emily Sparks (a student and his teacher)

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”

Psalm 90

Readers, what poems do you use to number your days?

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Depends on what you mean by “poetry”: I would include song lyrics in that category, but many people, ignoring the origins of poetry in song, separate the two as “high” and “low” cultural forms.

    So, Stan Rogers’ “Delivery Delayed” and “Harris And The Mare” are among my favorite poems, because I think the lyrics qualify as beautiful writing irrespective of the performance. Bob Franke’s “Thanksgiving Eve” falls into this category as well.

    And I never would have encountered the poetry of Australia’s Henry Lawson were it not for the song settings by Garnet Rogers (“Sliprails and the Spur,” “Outside Track,” and most of all, “After All”)

  2. Oh good Lord. I left out Thomas Wyatt, Wordsworth, Longfellow, and Whitman.

    Wyatt — “My galley charged with forgetfulness…” and “Stand whoso list upon the slipper top…”

    Wordsworth — too many! but “Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room” and “Perfect Woman” (the best!)

    Longfellow — his sonnets on translating the Divine Comedy are marvelous. And for sentimental reasons I’m fond of “The Wreck of the Hesperus”

    Whitman — what’s not to like?

  3. Good point, Jonathan. Rubin noted that many of the “poems” submitted to Pinsky’s “favorites” project were, in fact, song lyrics. And some were passages of prose that seemed lyrical or poetic.

    I left off song lyrics because any list I made for those would be very very long, and would say more about me than I care to tell, I think. Maybe I’ll post a list some day.

    But if readers want to post their favorite song lyrics on this thread, go right ahead. My criterion above is broad enough: It’s poetry if it sings.

  4. I’m a sucker for Poe, I can’t help it! And I love this protest against time from Emerson’s “Uriel”:

    One, with low tones that decide,
    And doubt and reverend use defied,
    With a look that solved the sphere,
    And stirred the devils everywhere,
    Gave his sentiment divine
    Against the being of a line.
    “Line in nature is not found;
    Unit and universe are round;
    In vain produced, all rays return;
    Evil will bless, and ice will burn.”

    But one of my favorite poems is Anne Sexton’s “Just Once,” which I believe she published in 1969. Perry Miller was a huge fan of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s “The Deacon’s Masterpiece,” which is a lot of fun. Finally, I think every historian should read Robert Penn Warren’s “Evening Hawk.”
    http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15312

  5. Nice, Rivka!

    I’m thinking every historian should also listen to “History of Us” and “World Falls” by the Indigo Girls. But that would mean having to listen to the Indigo Girls, who are not everyone’s musical cup of tea.

    Speaking of music and lyrics, and music lyrics that are actual poems (or vice versa), one of my faves — and I’m totally ‘fessing up now — is “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (sorry Ray!)

    Readers may be interested to know that, while “The Battle Hymn” is printed in Southern Baptist hymnals, it is usually listed under the title “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!” AFAIK, though, “Dixie” is not (or, perhaps, no longer?) printed in Southern Baptist hymnals.

    Glory, glory, hallelujah!

    • Nope, I just checked my handy copy of the Southern Baptist Hymnal. No “Dixie,” not even as a hymn tune. As to the Battle Hymn, it’s listed as “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.” It’s towards the back of the hymnal, in a section of hymns called “God and Country,” from which selections are often sung on Sundays preceding the 4th of July, Memorial Day and/or Veterans Day.

  6. I am more of a song lyrics person myself (I would put the lyrics of David Berman, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Jason Molina, and John Darnielle next to any of the great poets), but I enjoy some contemporary poetry too especially by my favorite singer-songwriters.

    Here’s one of my favorite shorties by a legend:

    “The Paris Sky” by Leonard Cohen

    The Paris sky
    is blue and bright
    I want to fly
    with all my might

    Her legs are long
    her heart is high
    The chains are strong
    but so am I

  7. LD – How very middling of you, so INTERESTING, and in such GOOD TASTE !!! Keep it up, you’ll get an invite from Terry Gross before long.

  8. Dear “anonymous”:

    I’m not quite sure if your comment is meant as a swipe against my post, or against Terry Gross’s show, or against Curtis White’s essay, or against Andrew’s post, or perhaps against some combination thereof. However, this seems as good a time as any to bring up an issue that I reported on to the S-USIH membership through our online meeting last April.

    Let me quote the pertinent section from my PubComm chair report, and then I’ll comment afterward:

    The move to the new [blogging] platform has raised a number of issues; among these is the issue of commenter privacy. On the Blogger platform, the email / IP addresses of commenters were not visible to the blog’s authors or administrators (though they were without a doubt visible to Google — everything is). On the WordPress platform, the comment function automatically logs a commenter’s IP address / email address. These are not displayed to the public, but they are visible to authors/administrators of the blog. Therefore, the Publications Committee has unanimously agreed to adopt the following policy for the blog and any future online publications/forums for which we may be responsible: the identifying information of individual commenters will be considered private and will not be released by any author / administrator of the blog. This means that blog authors / administrators will not use this information to “out” commenters who wish to remain anonymous/pseudonymous, nor will they/we disclose identifying information to anyone on an individual basis. However, if a commenter is engaging in sock-puppetry (using multiple aliases on the blog at the same time), administrators will alert readers to the fact that this has occurred and will block the email / IP addresses in question. If you have any questions or concerns about this policy, please contact me.

    Now, I don’t see any sock-puppetry going on in your comment.

    But I do see your email address.

    As Publications Committee chair, I have full administrative access to the blog. Thus, all metadata associated with all comments is fully visible to me. I don’t have to go “looking” for this metadata — it is automatically displayed on the blog’s dashboard, right alongside the text of the comment to which it pertains. I will continue to have full admin access to the site until June 1, when our new PubComm chair takes office; at that time, my site access will be dialed back to “author” level. I am not sure what will/won’t be visible to me at that point, but I can hardly wait to find out.

    Now, I take it that, for whatever reason, you would like to remain anonymous to our readership. I completely respect that choice. Indeed, I drafted our commenter privacy policy to protect such choices.

    However, if you’d like to remain anonymous to me, you should probably wait until on or after June 1 to leave any more snarky comments.

    On the other hand, if your aim is to insult me “privately” or “secretly,” knowing full well that I can see your identity but that I will not disclose it to anyone — well, I guess there’s not much standing in your way except your own sense of dignity.

    And if this comment was meant as a joke — hey, I’m all for second chances — then maybe your sense of humor is just too refined for my poor ol’ middling wit.

  9. Please accept my apology for an ill-tempered remark so contrary to the culture of the blog. I’m feeling quite ashamed.

Comments are closed.