On the bookshelf in my home office there is a handmade book from my angsty teenaged poem writing days, when I was apparently not a fan of rhyming. Many of them were Really Bad Poems. Some of them though, were rather sweet, with thoughts of life and love directed at long-forgotten (or more likely fictional) recipients. Often, they were written using the image from a greeting card for inspiration and painstakingly typed on an old manual typewriter. Talk about angst.
During my graduate writing program years later at UC Berkeley, we had one session which was a “poem-intensive.” The guest speaker was a Poet, with a capital “P” for published. We got a crash course in poetic-do’s-and don’ts and then had to write something of our own, which we then had to read aloud to the class and get the speaker’s critique. Shudder!
It was an iterative process that I’m pretty sure could be used as an official form of torture. While it was a learning experience, seeing my poem evolve from it’s initial state to its revised state …if truth be told, I was much fonder of the initial attempt than the end result which was far too dark and oppressive for my taste.
That was pretty much the end of my poetry writing days (if you don’t count scandalous limericks) and frankly I’m not really a big fan of poetry in general. Possibly because it often makes no sense to me and leaves me feeling clueless.
Periodically I think “maybe I should give it another try.” As a result, I have a fairly well populated poetry shelf in my home library; purchases of those books triggered by a variety of things, like Jennifer Crusie’s Crazy for You, where the car-mechanic hero with the English degree quoted poetry to the heroine. At another time, for some unknown reason I felt the need to slog my way through Beowulf, though I’ll have to admit I found the Shrinklits version more palatable than the translated original:
“Monster Grendel’s tastes are plainish.
Breakfast? Just a couple Danish.”
I’ve got a number of Best Loved Poems compilations, one of which contains this fun entry:
“A Fence or an Ambulance” by Joseph Marlins
T’was a dangerous cliff, as they freely confessed,
Though to walk near its crest was so pleasant;
But over its terrible edge there had slipped
A duke and full many a peasant.
So the people said something would have to be done,
But their projects did not at all tally;
Some said “Put a fence around the edge of the cliff,”
Some, “An ambulance down in the valley.”
As I check the shelf, it appears I do at least have a fondness for love poems, though frankly, who doesn’t? I’m pretty sure liking love poems is a requirement to get your official Romance Writer card.
“The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Christopher Marlowe
“Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove. . . “
“Paradise Lost (Eve speaks to Adam)” by John Milton
“. . .With thee conversing I forget all time;
All seasons, and their change, all please alike. . .”
“Love’s Philosophy” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
“. . . And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea—
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?”
I hadn’t thought much about poetry at all for a long time though, until I started reading Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series a short while back. Penny is a big fan of poetry and has incorporated bits and pieces in her stories. Margaret Atwood, Mike Freeman, and Ralph Hodgson are among the poets she’s mentioned in her author notes and I decided maybe it was time for me give poetry another try. I’m sure both it and I have changed over the passing years – perhaps we’re now a better fit.
As I was at the bookstore picking up Atwood’s, Morning in the Burned House, I also picked up Mary Oliver’s, American Primitive, and Raymond Carver’s, Ultra-Marine.
We’ll see what catches my fancy. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll find I’m a fan of poetry after all.
So, how about you? Do you have any favorite poets or poems I should add to my “poetic” reading list?
Fiona Moore, a friend of ours from my husband’s MBA student days, is a published poet with all kinds of accolades. Her debut book-length collection, The Distal Point, was a Poetry Book Society recommendation for Autumn 2018 and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. Here’s the blurb from her publisher, Happenstance: “At last here is a debut book-length collection, in which she confronts personal loss and irretrievable change, as well as wider, more public themes—recent European history and the politics of power. To such concerns she brings creativity, humour and intelligence. Her poems emerge from huge pressure like diamonds.”
If that tempts you to explore Fiona’s poetry, there are recordings of her reading her work on Youtube.
You won’t be surprised to learn that while I believe Fiona’s excellent poems might be catnip to some of the Ladies, my brow is a bit (a lot!) lower. I prefer something bouncy, cheerful and fun, like the Joseph Marlins poem above, or … Beastly Tales From Here and There, by Vikram Seth, better known as the author of A Suitable Boy. Beastly Tales is like a modern Aesop’s Fables, a collection of ten animal myths in poetry. The original stories are from India, China, Greece, the Ukraine, and the author’s imagination. They’re beautifully written, quirky, witty, and fun.
Jilly, thanks for the recommendations. That publisher’s blurb sounds enticing, as does the bouncy, cheerful, fun Beastly Tales From Here and There. Who could pass up “quirky, witty, and fun”?
I tend to like epic-length, storytelling poems, my favorite being “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel T. Coleridge (I can recite a little bit of it). For the last two years, I’ve had to help my kids memorize “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (I actually acted out most of the poem for my kids as a trigger to what lines come next…I promised our 4th grade teachers to record myself doing this and post to YouTube for future generations of fourth graders at our school).
I also enjoy Shakespearean sonnets (poetry? or something else…I always wonder that), particularly “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments…” I had a friend read it at my wedding.
But my favorite poet above all is the funny, whimsical Shel Silverstein. Who can’t laugh at Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout, who would not take the garbage out? Poems about losing noses, getting eaten by lions, and other crazy, wild tales make both me and the kids laugh.
In writing, I like rhythm and alliteration a lot, so when the poetry’s “accessible,” especially when it’s amusing, I enjoy it. One day while I was in a long driving commute, I heard Billy Collins read a poem of his, the name of which I don’t remember, which is ironic, because the poem is about what people forget. It starts something like, “Names are the first to go,” and the work is both funny and sad, because you identify with the narrator, but forgetting definitely has its downside. After I heard that, I became a fan of Billy Collins. I read Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde in college, and I like their work a lot, too.
In high school, when I got exhausted reading the poetry “classics,” I took up Ogden Nash, who in a pinch I guess you could say is a poet. He’s more like a social commentarian in rhyme. One of my favorites is “Bankers Are Just Like Everybody Else, Only Richer.” And then there’s the famous one about the tree:
I think that I will never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I’ll never see a tree at all.
Thanks to everyone for the poetry suggestions! I plan to check them out.
I like rhythm and alliteration too, Kay, as well as that snippet about the billboards and trees.
Thanks for mentioning Billy Collins. I’m be been trying to remember his name all day. Someone else mentioned him too and I instantly forgot.
I thought I didn’t like poetry that much, and then I discovered that I was just reading the wrong poets. Poetry is so available on the internet these days that I don’t even think to buy a book of poetry, but maybe I should.
Anyway, when I was a kid, I loved Edward Lear. (-: Lots of repetition in Lear, I’m afraid, so it’s better as a poem-a-day calendar, I think. When I was older, I liked Archie and Mehitabel. And later on, I got a small book of Ogden Nash to while away breaks at school. Dorothy Parker’s poetry is also very good in small doses.