Thursday, March 31, 2011

Favorite Poets.

A few weeks ago, I came across an article in the New York Times in which a professor was compiling his list of who he believed were the 20 greatest poets of all time. Now, I feel vastly inadequately read to really assume I could compile a list of the 20 greatest poets of all time, but it inspired me to share with you my 20 favorite poets that I have come across so far. Some are very well known but a few were introduced to me in my MA program in a small private college program, so perhaps I can give you all some new poets to devour in doing this little exercise. Now, if after reading this you feel like I have left someone out or you would like to share your own list of 20, 10, 5, or even just one favorite poet, I'd love to hear your selections as well.

To make this more interesting, I am going to include my favorite poem (or one of them, if I can't say it's my one favorite poem!) from each of these poets. Apologies that I have probably shared several of these before, but it was awhile back so it might be new to someone anyway. :)

This list is in no particular order, since I have many favorite poets and not one is really above any other.

1. Shakespeare. There is something about his way of capturing speech rhythms and ingenious rhyming that really captures me. He can also carry a metaphor and twist the end of a sonnet more than nearly anyone else who ever wrestled words into that tricky format. Here is one of my favorites, Sonnet 130.

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips' red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
   And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
   As any she belied with false compare.

2. William Carlos Williams. I adored teaching Williams to my students, because he has a wonderful way of confounding their conventional view of poetry. It doesn’t rhyme, it doesn’t use flowery language, there is no real meter or formal arrangement; yet it is poetry. I love how accessible he is for all of the above reasons. The good doctor shows us the poetry in everyday things and situations.

This is Just to Say
by William Carlos Williams
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

3. Octavio Paz. He was influenced by his mentor, Neruda, and they thought in similar ways. Both showcase nature entwined with human feelings, using surprising metaphors to paint their broad, bold strokes. I think of reading their poetry as similar to going to an art museum and musing on the modern paintings. The longer you linger on their poems, the more they will open up and show you, about the writer, about life, and about yourself. I will link to the video of Eric Whitacre’s setting of Paz’s poem, “Water Night.” I have performed this piece several times and between the words and Whitacre’s beautiful chords, it gives me goosebumps every time.

4. Pablo Neruda. Mentor to Paz, another gorgeous early modern poet. I do wish that I could read enough Spanish to understand his and Paz’s poems in the original. That is still a life goal for me. Someday I hope to be able to enjoy them as they were written. Here is a great example of his work.

I Remember You As You Were
by Pablo Neruda
I remember you as you were in the last autumn.
You were the grey beret and the still heart.
In your eyes the flames of the twilight fought on.
And the leaves fell in the water of your soul.

Clasping my arms like a climbing plant
the leaves garnered your voice, that was slow and at peace.
Bonfire of awe in which my thirst was burning.
Sweet blue hyacinth twisted over my soul.

I feel your eyes traveling, and the autumn is far off:
Grey beret, voice of a bird, heart like a house
Towards which my deep longings migrated
And my kisses fell, happy as embers.

Sky from a ship. Field from the hills:
Your memory is made of light, of smoke, of a still pond!
Beyond your eyes, farther on, the evenings were blazing.
Dry autumn leaves revolved in your soul.

5. Wallace Stevens. I know I have sung Mr. Stevens’ praises in this blog before; in fact, I encouraged people to write a 13 Ways poem in ode to his “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” did I not? If not, maybe we should do that next! I guess I’ll have to go look now. :) In any case, I know I have included that poem in this blog before, so I’ll share another one today. This one I used in a paper for my master’s degree, and I think it is just stunning.

Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself
by Wallace Stevens
At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow . . .
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier mâché . . .
The sun was coming from outside.

That scrawny cry—it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

6. Maya Angelou. I highly recommend her series of autobiographies to anyone unfamiliar with this remarkable woman. Still with us in her nineties, she is a national treasure and still sharp as a whip. Her poetry sways and mesmerizes with its rhythms and her unmistakable voice.
by Maya Angelou
Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don't believe I'm wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can't use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They've got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I'll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
'Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

7. Emily Dickinson. It is still a bit sad to me that no one who knew Dickinson when she was living was aware of her marvelous gift of poetry. She is another poet whose writing is understated, even a bit terse, but it really brings out new dimensions in the reader’s understanding of what the English language can do. Her economy of language was one of the first times I recognized the value of making what you say count.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

8. Christina Rossetti. Her poems have often been set to music, and for good reason; she had a terrific skill for setting prayers and praises into poetry. My favorite Christmas carol, in fact, is her poem, “A Christmas Carol,” which is better known as “In the Bleak Mid-Winter.” While we now realize that there was probably not snow in Christ’s birthplace at the time of his birth, I still think it’s a beautiful poem. Here is a link to a performance of the carol by the wonderful group Chanticleer.

9. Derek Walcott. I was won over by his book-length poem, Omeros. I can’t seem to find much that is not really long, but please do look him up. He was raised in St. Lucia, and has since lived for a long time in New York City, so his vastly different influences have served to enrich his poetry.

10. Joseph Brodsky. He was sentenced to Siberia for being a poet at the wrong time in Russia, and later defected to America. Again, I have to read him in translation, but his words are so consistently striking. This poem in particular has the added bonus of referring to the famous father and son of Homer’s Odyssey.

Odysseus to Telemachus
by Joseph Brodsky
My dear Telemachus,
The Trojan War
is over now; I don't recall who won it.
The Greeks, no doubt, for only they would leave
so many dead so far from their own homeland.
But still, my homeward way has proved too long.
While we were wasting time there, old Poseidon,
it almost seems, stretched and extended space.

I don't know where I am or what this place
can be. It would appear some filthy island,
with bushes, buildings, and great grunting pigs.
A garden choked with weeds; some queen or other.
Grass and huge stones . . . Telemachus, my son!
To a wanderer the faces of all islands
resemble one another. And the mind
trips, numbering waves; eyes, sore from sea horizons,
run; and the flesh of water stuffs the ears.
I can't remember how the war came out;
even how old you are--I can't remember.

Grow up, then, my Telemachus, grow strong.
Only the gods know if we'll see each other
again. You've long since ceased to be that babe
before whom I reined in the plowing bullocks.
Had it not been for Palamedes' trick
we two would still be living in one household.
But maybe he was right; away from me
you are quite safe from all Oedipal passions,
and your dreams, my Telemachus, are blameless.

I will continue this list at a later date; at this point I need to get some sleep. Please do share a list of your favorite poets as well!


Rosen Creature said...

Thank you, I am glad you took time to share your love of these poets.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid my tastes run more to Lewis Carroll. Well, and in general to humorous poetry; for example, The Cremation of Sam McGee: , which is IMO one of the epically great poems of...all...TIME!!!

Also, parody poetry: "How I Brought the Good News from Aix to Ghent (or Vice Versa)", here:


I've no claim to "taste"
But, as the saying has it,
I know what I like.

Minerva said...

Cicely--callooh, callay!! Thanks so much for coming back, I have missed you. :) I love Carroll too, particularly "Jabberwocky." That reminded me of several other poets I haven't named yet but want to put in the second half of my 20 favorite poets. :) Thanks for the jog to the memory!! Maybe I should have us do a nonsense or parody poetry challenge? What do you think?

Anonymous said...

I'm game! :)

And I was beginning to worry about you. 'Course, I haven't been checking in as religiously as I used to (a bit of medical drama for Christmas/the first of the year, all better now, but a bit of a distraction), so I could have missed stuff.