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.”
One of the talks I will be giving in July in Charleston at the Circe National Conference is about Jonathan Swift’s critique of Modernity. His insights into the problems caused by the modern world are profound and surprisingly relevant even three hundred years later.
In a very simplified nutshell: Swift saw that the modern world reduces everything and breaks everything into parts. As a result, we lose sight of the whole. In fact, most of the humor of his writings comes from someone failing to grasp the whole and drawing the wrong conclusion based on examining the part.
I’ve been reading Larry Benson’s (famed editor of the Riverside Chaucer) 1965 book, Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain in the Green Knight in preparation for my online intensive class on Sir Gawain.
I was recently talking with a new friend of mine about art and tradition and the role of the poet—like I do—and he recommended to me an essay that had influenced his understanding of all of those things, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1921) by TS Eliot.