Five Poets With Staying Power
Ah, April -- whatever else it is ("cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain," per T.S. Eliot, or the month that "put a spirit of youth in everything," per Shakespeare, or "wet contentious April," as Thomas Carlyle thought), it's also National Poetry Month, inaugurated 12 years ago by the Academy of American Poets. Those poets and poetry-lovers may have had ulterior motives, but bless them for establishing this month-long celebration in the hope that, as the Academy asserts on its Web site, a National Poetry Month lessens the effect if Eliot's right in his judgment.
For me, poetry is personal. I read a range of it and always want more. I often pick poems by their titles, just as I sometimes choose a book by its cover. I have a long list of poets whom I love either because one poem spoke to me or the entire body of their work speaks volumes -- Edwin Arlington Robinson, Theodore Roethke, Gwendolyn Brooks, Dylan Thomas, John Greenleaf Whittier, Deborah Garrison, Mary Oliver, William Butler Yeats. To use an appropriate clichÃ©, the list goes on. But here are five (I'm being forced to choose, but if I were to make this list tomorrow, I might well choose others) who have staying power for me. Their words, their rhymes (in some cases), their thinking, their power have stayed with me over time. They're listed here roughly in the order in which I came to know them.
1. Robert Frost: I might have read Frost earlier than the 8th grade but I remember that it was Mrs. Raach, my fearless leader of a teacher who led us into new lands, including grammar and language and poetry. It was likely in those hallowed junior high halls that I discovered "Mending Wall," "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and "The Death of the Hired Man." I will never forget my first reading of that welcome definition "'Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/ They have to take you in."
2. ee cummings: It's not surprising that I first fell into cummings at a time when I was in love with love itself, and that I should come back to cummings's love poems (and all his others) again and again. I loved the little I knew about him, especially that from the time he was 8 until he was in his early 20s, he wrote a poem a day. I first read him in college and he seemed to have a vitality that I was drawn to -- the very words had energy. He experimented and didn't pay attention to rules, which I liked and admired but was too risk averse to seriously try. I find I misquote him as often as not, but I always like what I misremember.
3. Edna St. Vincent Millay: I first read Millay at a time when I was burning my own candle at both ends, so naturally her work resonated with me. Look at any of her lyrical collections - A Few Figs from Thistles, Second April (appropriate now), Wine from These Grapes -- but a good place to start is with The Harp-Weaver, and Other Poems, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. So many of her first lines pull me right into the poem and hold me -- for example, "I will put Chaos into fourteen lines," "all I could see from where I stood," and "Love has gone and left me and the days are all alike." She somehow encouraged me with lines like "Oh, the things I haven't seen and the things I haven't known." I read her still.
4. Billy Collins: The mischievous but wise Billy Collins is a poet who writes what I call "real world" poetry - that is, he's someone I recommend to my friends who think you need an interpreter to explain anything that falls under the poetry rubric. His are poems for people who don't want to read footnotes; it's understandable stuff from which you can easily, without working up a sweat, draw your own conclusions. Collins, who was the 11th U.S. poet laureate (in 2001) is kind of the rock star of poetry, giving readings to full houses of adoring fans. Start with "Forgetfulness" from his 2001 collection, Sailing Alone Around the Room, and sail on from there.
5. Jack Prelutsky: Prelutsky, who in 2006 was named America's first children's poet laureate, plays with words, and anyone who has read him or heard him read can play along. He just makes you laugh, reason enough to rhyme. I first read him when I picked out some of his books for my kids -- Ride a Purple Pelican was maybe our favorite, although it's a close call, with several vying for the top spot. He writes great nonsense rhymes, which, oddly, often make great sense. His Web site notes that as a youth, he didn't like poetry because a teacher "left me with the impression that poetry was the literary equivalent of liver. I was told it was good for me, but I wasn't convinced." Well, I'm convinced that his poetry is good for me. Prelutsky's been called "one of poetry's bad boys." If so, we want more from this bad boy.
Which poets have staying power for you?
-- Evelyn Small
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: Michael Bartley | April 17, 2008 11:18 AM
Posted by: KLeewrite | April 18, 2008 11:03 AM
Posted by: Neil | April 18, 2008 11:19 AM
Posted by: Ev Small | April 18, 2008 11:52 AM
Posted by: Pete | April 18, 2008 12:01 PM
Posted by: Incredulous | April 18, 2008 12:05 PM
Posted by: Eric Goldman | April 18, 2008 2:46 PM
Posted by: Anonymous | April 18, 2008 2:49 PM
Posted by: aeh | April 18, 2008 3:36 PM
Posted by: Chris | April 18, 2008 3:47 PM
Posted by: Missy | April 18, 2008 3:59 PM
Posted by: Ev Small | April 18, 2008 4:07 PM
Posted by: C | April 18, 2008 4:43 PM
Posted by: TB | April 18, 2008 4:44 PM
Posted by: Worthy Evans | April 18, 2008 4:50 PM
Posted by: C | April 18, 2008 4:57 PM
Posted by: basil | April 18, 2008 5:13 PM
Posted by: Fran Sage | April 18, 2008 6:19 PM
Posted by: Jim Sage | April 18, 2008 6:23 PM
Posted by: Worthy Evans | April 18, 2008 9:57 PM
Posted by: Dave Small | April 18, 2008 10:00 PM
Posted by: Dave | April 19, 2008 1:51 AM
Posted by: Fay | April 19, 2008 4:20 PM
Posted by: tayari | April 20, 2008 1:09 PM
Posted by: C | April 21, 2008 4:21 PM
Posted by: KLeewrite | April 22, 2008 10:41 AM
Posted by: Ev Small | April 23, 2008 9:56 AM
Posted by: Susan | April 23, 2008 3:19 PM
Posted by: Leslie | April 23, 2008 11:18 PM
Posted by: Sappho | April 28, 2008 9:23 AM
Posted by: Elaine | April 29, 2008 1:08 AM
Posted by: Kellyw | May 6, 2008 9:41 AM
The comments to this entry are closed.