Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Let Us Now Praise Famous Poems

Lemming says people are sending her poems this month and that they're poems that she already knows, old chestnuts. Of course, she admits that she has some background as an English major, so I assume that she knows more poems than other people. Certainly I think I know more poems than many people, so it's never easy for me to figure out if everyone I know agrees on which poems are most famous. A friend from grad school, a good poet in her own right, was raised on the poems of Robert Service ("The Cremation of Sam McGee"). And I was surprised once, years ago, to find out that two of my closest friends, people who went to the same liberal arts college that I did (Hendrix College, in Conway, Arkansas), didn't know Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts," which is one of my top favorite poems of all time.

Here is a very short list of some of the most-beloved and well-known poems of all time (from my 1986 edition of the Norton Introduction to Poetry). These are poems that every educated person should know:
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, How Do I Love Thee?
Howard Nemerov, The Vacuum
Byron, She Walks in Beauty
Shakespeare, Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds, That Time of Year, Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?
Thomas Wyatt, They Flee from Me
Sylvia Plath, Daddy, Black Rook in Rainy Weather
Emily Dickinson, A Narrow Fellow in the Grass, After Great Pain, Because I Could Not Stop for Death, My Life Had Stood--A Loaded Gun
Robert Browning, Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister, My Last Duchess
William Wordsworth, She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways, Nuns Fret Not, Tintern Abbey
Tom Wayman, Picketing Supermarkets
John Donne, The Flea, Batter my Heart, The Sun Rising, Death Be Not Proud
Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach
Robert Herrick, Delight in Disorder, To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time
William Carlos Williams, The Red Wheelbarrow
e.e. cummings, anyone lived in a pretty how town
Robert Burns, A Red, Red Rose
Randall Jarrell, The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
Philip Larkin, Church Going
T.S. Eliot, Journey of the Magi, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Edwin Arlington Robinson, Miniver Cheevy
John Crowe Ransom, Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter, The Equilibrists
Edwin Arlington Robinson, Richard Cory
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ode to the West Wind, Ozymandias
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Break, Break, Break, Ulysses
Gerard Manley Hopkins, Spring and Fall, The Windhover
Christopher Marlowe, The Passionate Shepherd to His Love
John Keats, On First Looking into Chapman's Homer, Ode on a Grecian Urn, To Autumn
Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck
Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est
Richard Lovelace, To Amarantha, that She Would Dishevel Her Hair
Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress
Ben Jonson, Come, My Celia
William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming, Leda and the Swan, Sailing to Byzantium, Among School Children
William Blake, The Lamb, The Tiger
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kubla Khan
Robert Frost, Birches, Design, Fire and Ice, The Road Not Taken, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Thomas Hardy, The Convergence of the Twain, Hap
A.E. Housman, To an Athlete Dying Young, Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff
Langston Hughes, Theme for English B
Edna St. Vincent Millay, What Lips My Lips Have Kissed
Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven
Ezra Pound, In a Station of the Metro
Marianne Moore, Poetry
Wallace Stevens, The Emperor of Ice-Cream, Sunday Morning, The Idea of Order at Key West
Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, Fern Hill
Walt Whitman, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed
Richard Wilbur, Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

And here is W.H. Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts," which refers to a famous Brueghel painting hanging in that Brussels museum, entitled "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus."

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure, the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

If you have been sailing on past any of the poems on my list, it's time to stop and take a deep, deep breath. And then find one of these poems and read it; most of them are available on line.


Anonymous said...

I LOVE The Emperor of Ice Cream. Why Wallace Stevens isn't more famous is beyond me.

lemming said...

Anne Bradstreet "To My Husband Away on Business" not on this list???!!! One of teh best love poems ever.

Jeanne said...

See, like all teachers who pick out "the best" or "the most famous" poems from an anthology, I have my blind spots. On comps, English grad students used to be allowed to eliminate two periods of literature--the ones I skipped were medieval and early American. Too much religion for me!

lemming said...

Ahem. Check out Bradstreet. She kicks ass.

(I feel awful saying this to you, but...) (she does)

Jeanne said...

No reason to feel awful--obviously, someone needed to tell me!

Karen said...

By "should know", could we agree not to mean "should be able to recite from memory"? I consider myself an educated person, and though I've read a significant fraction of these, remember my impression of most of those, and truly loved a handful....there are probably only half a dozen here that I could quote more than smatterings from.

Interestingly enough, I encountered "Ozymandias" mostly because fictional character Jack Ryan quotes it while half-potted at the end of Clancy's _Hunt for Red October_.

I can hardly believe that you limited yourself to ONE poem by Adrienne Rich. I agree that the one you chose is marvelous...but how to rule out others?

Where is Elizabeth Bishop? Do include at least her Questions of Travel. See if you can't bring yourself to admire her turns of phrase (sad two-noted tune of disparate wooden clogs carelessly clacking over a filling station floor, if I remember correctly).

And now, back to work. I will plan on reading one of these with which I am unfamiliar, in exchange for your considering Bishop's poem. Deal?

Jeanne said...

Karen, by "know" I mean "have read once to see what it's like."

And I do love Elizabeth Bishop; my favorite of hers is one of the most anthologized, the villanelle "One Art." I love the line about losing cities, because I think about how you lose a city when you move away. And, of course, I love the ironic remarks in parentheses at the end.