Sunday, May 1, 2011

Poetry Matters: A List of Loved Poems and the People Who Love Them

—in no particular order:

1. Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken,” Dennise Westland
2. Mara Eve Robbins, “Sequence 134,340— Phases of Pluto,” Elizabeth Matthew Jones
3. W.S. Merwin, “A Birthday,” and “Separation,” Pamela Johnson Parker
4. James Merrill, “Lost in Translation,” Constantine P. Cavafy “Ithaka” and Robert Frost, “Directive,” Amy Glynn Greacen
5. Chris Haven, “Janis Joplin’s Eulogy to the Graduating Class of Thomas Jefferson High in Port Arthur Texas, 1960,” Judy Swann
6. Louis Bogan “Several Voices Out of a Cloud,” Elizabeth Hadaway
7. Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art,” Sharon Miller
8. Richard Siken, “Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out” Megan Hippler
9. Samuel Becket, “what would I do without this world” and Theodore Roethke, “The Waking,” James Priestley
10. Louis Bogan, “The Night,” Chris Noonan
11. Edward Dorn, “The Sundering UP the Tracks,” Tuli Kupferberg, “Nothing,” Steve Bunch
12. Percy Byshhe Shelly, “Ozymandias,” Ken Thornsbury
13. Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” Mara Eve Robbins
How this list was compiled: April was National Poetry Month and I decided to write an article including my own 25 top picks for poems, and then my computer died a horrible death, sending all my writing files to the darker realms of cyber-hell and all my hopes and dreams into the deepest of all abysmal abysses. Abysmal Abysses. Say that ten times fast. Now pretend you are Elmer Fudd and say it. (See, better now, life doesn’t sound so bad when you are lisping.) When rewriting this article, pulling myself up by my bootstraps, figuratively speaking, though literally if I had boots I imagine they would have straps—to the point though, I had an epiphany: I don’t want to know what I already know, I want to know what other people feel about their own favorite poems, or maybe it was just that my fingers started cramping and I got tired, one or the other. Anyway, I posted this question on facebook: “What's your favorite poem, ever? Or right now. Right this minute. Now. No, now. What poem, or lines of, is/are stuck in your brain at this time?” The above list was born from that question. I then gave the participators the chance to participate further, if they so chose, and asked, like I usually do about everything, “Why?” Here are those responses:
1. My name is Dennise Westland and I chose Robert Frost's poem "The Road Less Traveled." I am a student at Virginia Western Community College and transferring to Radford University to get a Bachelors in Biology. I chose this poem because I am at a transitional place in my life; I'm at a fork in the road. Unlike most teenagers my age, I'm 100 percent focused on my studies instead of being in the social scene. I'm taking the path less traveled by.
2. “Pluto—poor, poor, poor Pluto.” Elizabeth Matthew Jones is from Roanoke, VA. She studied creative writing and theatre at Hollins University.
3. From: “A Birthday” by W. S. Merwin (Flower & Hand)

and each waking to you
when I open my eyes you are what I wanted to see.

After only three months, my boyfriend proposed to me, at dawn, with these lines. I'd turned him down six times before, but this time…what an aubade! Ten years later, early one Saturday morning, he repeated these lines to me on the birth of our daughter, Raleigh.

Elizabeth Bishop writes in "Filling Station," that "somebody loves us all." When I recall these lines of Merwin and Harvey's earnest face, I remember who and when and always.

Your absence has gone through me  
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

"Separation," by W.S. Merwin (The First Four Books of Poetry)

Last summer, after 23 years of a brilliant marriage, my husband died.  These lines of Merwin have held me together, much as the patches of a quilt are held together, by often-invisible stitching.  The thread runs true.  Even though Harvey's no longer physically here, he still gives my life its color. I've continued to write for this reason. 

Pamela Johnson Parker is the author of A Walk Through the Memory Palace and Other Four- Letter Words.  A four-time Pushcart nominee, her work is included in journals such as Oranges and Sardines, New Madrid, Ocho, and Anti-, as well as being chosen by Broadsided for its Switcheroo contest. Pamela teaches at Murray State University and lives in western Kentucky, where no Bakelite bracelet is safe from her clutches.

4. Amy Glynn Greacen's response forthcoming. (Hopefully) She loves those poems, ya dig? She’s a busy mom from Lafayette, California. She studied creative writing at Lancaster University.

5. I chose Chris Haven's "Janis Joplin's Eulogy to the Graduating Class of Thomas Jefferson High in Port Arthur, Texas, 1960" because it reached into the Janis Joplin I carry in my bag of myths and resuscitated her. Yes, I read Love, Janis when it came out (though I did not see the play). Once I redrew the Cheap Thrills album art, making it Iowan, like me. At about that same time, when my sister was a freshman, she had a roommate in the dorms, a fencer, who claimed to have slept with Janis and who was nice to me when I, a lowly high school sophomore, came for overnights in the dorm. This girl also later committed suicide. I wish I could remember her name or that she were still here so I could send her this poem. It starts out "You’re not all dead yet but soon will be," and flows from there: the sassiness, the bitterness, the acceptance, the intelligence, all of it. And written by a guy—that just blew me away.

Judy Swann lives in gorgeous Ithaca, NY in a small house painted in Frida Kahlo colors.She writes on the beach. Her poetry has been published in Lilliput Review, Thema, Soundzine, Verse Wisconsin and other places, both in print and online.

6. Elizabeth Hadaway: Louise Bogan’s “Several Voices Out of a Cloud”

Wednesday of Holy Week, I was walking the Stations of the Cross called Greater Morgantown Job Expo. Having a book published, three graduate degrees, and an “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” earworm did not pimp me out at this hiring fair. Thomas Gray kept muttering “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,/And waste its sweetness on the desert air” while I tried to sell myself to HR reps. I’d just spent five years living in a country churchyard “with uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture decked.” I was missing its yew and hyacinths and my role as Mary Magdalene in the torchlit Passion Play which sometimes caught the yard on fire. In a new state, in a coliseum of people competing to be cocktail servers, Gray proved, all day, a distraction and a deliverance. My view of Bogan was what Rupert Giles said of Emily Dickinson: “Pretty good—for an American.” Yet, asked for a favorite poem, I started chanting “Several Voices Out of a Cloud.”

Both “Several Voices” and Gray’s “Elegy” are about merit that can’t be measured by commercial or communal standards. They’re the “God alone can judge me” tattoos of poetry. I love Bogan’s version more. It’s bracing, with wonderful knobbly mouthfeel. The title-as-stage-direction makes the poem a fragment of Greek drama, its liturgical roots showing—whether comedy or tragedy depends on how much the unworthy have sacrificed for the laurel’s sake. The poem is concise and the rhyme scheme makes it a harsh delight to memorize and perform. So does the meter. Each stanza begins with a long mix of iambs and anapests: “Come, drunks and drug-takers; come, perverts unnerved!” is almost entirely anapestic and goes quickly. The increase in iambs on “Receive the laurel” is a deliberate slowing, a regal presentation, while the anapestic substitutions mark by-the-way reminders that divine and human schedules are not the same. The second stanza goes hypermetrical for the teeming list of “Parochial punks, trimmers, nice people, joiners true-blue” ordered to “Get the hell out of the way of the laurel.” Then we come to the only line break on an unstressed syllable in the whole poem. “It is deathless” threatens for a second to trail off and up in that dippy, ethereal way people who can’t break lines inflect them. Then, in the same anapests as the first stanza’s ending, Centurion Bogan delivers the coup de gr»Éce: “And it isn’t for you.”

*See more about Elizabeth Hadaway's work here:

7. Mary Oliver and Elizabeth Bishop are on my mind. Yeats, Plath, Heaney, Neruda, Shelley, are not, because it is April in Minnesota and I need honest, manifest, mortal, hands-in-dirt redemption. We had snow on the ground at 5, for several days running this week, and it may be a white Easter. Every view is a Wyeth painting, and the Siberian squill, so faithful, have their collars against the wind like a rock star offstage, their blueberry, hyacinth blue gone gray. I find such solace in Elizabeth and Mary, their words, without sentiment, but with great emotion and compassion, fill that yearning for Mother Nature that makes Eliot talk of April and cruelty. I simply desire daffodils. I read my books in my room, the raindrops with tiny hearts of ice make a bell-like ping on the glass.

Sharon Miller is from Duluth, Minnesota. She studied at The College of St. Catherine and Hollins University.

8. I love Siken, Crush is by far my most worn poetry book.

Megan Hippler is from South Charleston, West Virginia, she currently lives in California.

9. James Priestley: Give it up, and begin anew, is what this pair of poems says to me. I dwell in Yarmouth, Maine, USA. I'm from a distant galaxy, serving as intergalactic diplomat these past six thousand years. Addendum: Progress has been slow, but I am greatly encouraged by recent developments.

10. I just got Bogan's collected - Blue Estuaries - she's wonderful....'Bogan' is a derogative Australianism - i guess the equivalent would be your 'red neck' - or some such - Chris Noonan is from Australia, his work and bio can be found elsewhere on Mortal Corkscrew under the name Chris Noman.

11. “Nothing,” lyrics by Tuli Kupferberg, recorded with many lyrical variations by the Fugs. If I remember correctly, Kupferberg wrote his lyrics to the tune of an old Yiddish folk song about an unvaried diet of potatoes: “Monday potatoes, Tuesday potatoes, Wednesday, Thursday potatoes, etc.” In Tuli’s various versions, which changed with changes in politics and pop culture, he offered up philosophers, poets, rock stars, politicians, social movements, and on and on as just the same old nothing. Some might argue that the song is an expression of post-modern nihilism, but I think its spirit goes back to Ecclesiastes, in which we are told that there is “no thing new under the sun” and “all is vanity.” The version I posted is from “The Fugs’ First Album,” but other versions appear on “The Fugs Live from the ‘60s,” “The Real Woodstock Festival,” and “Golden Filth,” as well as this performance at the memorial service for Tuli last year, with Ed Sanders leading the surviving Fugs:

“The Sundering UP Tracks,” by Edward Dorn, is the final section of the long poem “The North Atlantic Turbine.” The larger poem is a freewheeling and blistering dissertation on Western history—ranging from the slave trade to American consumerism to geopolitics and the depredations of capitalism. In “The Sundering UP Tracks,” the railroad is emblematic of all these evils as seen in the American westward expansion. The poet is surprised and disappointed to learn that a black friend coming to visit him in Idaho is staying across the tracks on the black and poor side of town. The tracks divide the country socioeconomically and politically while also being part of the engine that drives capitalism and commerce. I posted the recording of the poem, because Dorn was an excellent reader of his work. The North Atlantic Turbine is out of print, but I think the poem is collected in Way More West: New & Selected Poems . There’s also a sizable collection of Dorn’s recorded readings at PennSound.

Stephen Bunch lives and writes in Lawrence, Kansas, where he received the 2008 Langston Hughes Award for Poetry from the Lawrence Arts Center and Raven Books. He also is a recent Pushcart Prize nominee. His poems can be found in Autumn Sky Poetry, The Externalist, The Literary Bohemian, Fickle Muses, and Umbrella. From 1978 to 1988, he edited and published Tellus, a little magazine that featured work by Victor Contoski, Edward Dorn, Jane Hirshfield, Donald Levering, Denise Low, Paul Metcalf, Edward Sanders, and many others. After a fifteen- year hibernation, he awoke in 2005 and resumed writing. Preparing to Leave is his first gathering of poems.

12.  Ken Thornsbury is a writer living in Virginia.

13. Mara Eve Robbins made the list both as a favorite poet and as a poet who has favorite poems—
go figure. Of Mary Oliver’s, “Wild Geese” Mara says, “Whenever I’ve had a difficult day, like—today, there are lines from this poem which I’ve memorized, that have become a chant, a mantra. It literally helps me get through the day.” Mara lives in Floyd County, VA.


Here are the first lines from all of the poems. Why? Because I believe in synchronicity and Magical Poetry Talk.  Maybe. Also, Robert Hass mentioned something during a lecture…the whole of a poem can be found in its first sentence.  Notice there are no quotes around that, memory is its own disclaimer here.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
Astrology is not as much of a cop-out
Something continues and   I don’t know what to call it
Your absence has gone through me
A card table in the library stands ready
As you set out for Ithaka
Back out of all this now too much for us,
You’re not all dead yet but you soon will be.
Come, drunks and drug-takers! Come, perverts unnerved!
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
Every morning the maple leaves.
what would I do without this world faceless incurious
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
The cold remote islands
I never hear the Supremes
Monday nothing Tuesday nothing Wednesday and Thursday nothing
I met a traveler from an antique land
You do not have to be good.