As I sat at my desk one evening grading papers, I got stuck on a poem. It was the final paper in a stack I’d been working on for nine hours. I stared and stared at it. I read it aloud once, twice, three times. I counted the syllables in each line. I wrote out the rhyme scheme. I walked away and came back. I read it aloud again. And I just could not tell what it was saying.
The classical renewal places great emphasis on the trivium and on language. In contrast to modern progressive education which only “has a mind of metal and wheels,” classical education restores the primacy of the word over the gadget. Rather than the know-how of mechanical manipulation, a language-based education ascends to the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty. And the crowning achievement of language is poetry for it moves us from the mundane to the spiritual through the symbolic layers of its words.
I love George Herbert’s The Temple—the major hits, the b-sides, everything. The more I read Herbert’s work, the more I realize just how inventive it really is. Take even a minor poem like “Paradise” for example. Like so many works by Herbert, this one is a little Matryoshka doll of meaning—a highly intricate artifact containing successive, hidden surprises.
American poetry education has fallen in a bad way. Any young person who reads poetry for pleasure knows this, for the lover of verse often knows few, if any, fellow aficionados of Keats and Yeats, let alone Brodsky or Baudelaire. When I ask people my age what they think about poetry, they usually say it is boring, difficult to understand, and elitist. They recall their experience of reading poetry in grade school as learning to decode the impenetrable and all-elusive meaning of an early-modern text, or perhaps just making one up ad-hoc, in hopes of a good grade.
Have you ever read “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” William Wordsworth’s famous 1807 poem about the daffodils? It is worth quoting in full, and for a reason that you may not have considered:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Most people don’t enjoy poetry. In my Ancient to Medieval Literature class, my students celebrate when they get to the last book of the semester, an anthology of Arthurian legends, because it’s the first prose reading of the year. But it’s not just students who don’t enjoy poetry—few adults find themselves craving an evening with Shelley or Tennyson, much less Homer or Virgil. Most people complain that poetry is too difficult to understand or not accessible enough. But I think it’s deeper than that.
"Menus," by Blaise Cendrars
Truffled green turtle liver
Iguana with Caribbean sauce
Gumbo and palmetto
Red River salmon
Canadian bear ham
Roast beef from the meadows of Minnesota
San Francisco tomatoes
Pale ale and California wine
Scottish leg of lamb
Royal Canadian apples
Old French wines
In What Are People For?, Wendell Berry wrote that a poem “may remind poet and reader alike of what is remembered or ought to be remembered – as in elegies, poems of history, love poems, celebrations of nature, poems of praise or worship, or poems as prayers. One of the functions of the music or formality of poetry is to make memorable…”
We are all forgetful people and we live in a land of forgetful people, daily being called to forget all the more. We need poetry.
With that in mind, here are 11 poems every young woman should know.
Homer’s epic poems tell of rage and war, shipwreck and conquest, friendship and home. The Aeneid, Beowulf, The Song of Roland, and more all tell of brave heroes, fierce battles, and even gruesome monsters. Yet, now, in the minds of too many young men, poetry conjures up images of bongos and greeting cards, with sappy verses, and sentimental gushing. Poetry, they think, falls outside the realm of manly pursuits.
In our online poetry class, we teach our students to read and understand poetry by asking questions. Although it sounds a bit formulaic, you would be surprised how a few well-placed questions demystify a poem: Who is the speaker? Whom does he address? What is the subject matter? What images or metaphors does the poet present to explain or enlarge his meaning? What form does the poem take?
Questions like these can illuminate John Donne’s classic Christmas meditation, “Annunciation.”