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Poetry Corner

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You hate poetry, like all self-respecting people who remember the English teacher’s pet in high school, the girl who liked rainbows and Christina Rossetti. As Marianne Moore said, “I, too, dislike it.”

Besides, most of the stuff you had to read was lousy. If your education in lyric poetry was anything like mine, it consisted largely of Milton, Keats and Shelley and a swath of second-rate Elizabethans like Sidney and Spenser. The Norton Anthology of English Literature is an undifferentiated and indigestible mass of mediocrity.

That’s why you need this top five list. There are only five because if I posted ten you wouldn’t read any. They are all under 30 lines long because the attention required to read great poetry properly is difficult to sustain. You never had to read them in school. You probably never read them at all. And they’re far better than anything you did have to read. (Full Disclosure: I wouldn’t know most of these poems myself if not for the great poet and critic Yvor Winters, who formed my taste.)

To Heaven, Ben Jonson (1572-1637). This is a Christian poem that one need not be a Christian to appreciate. Jonson addresses the real issue, which is that in middle age people often grow tired of life; Donne, with his neurotic and overdramatized fear of death, seems phony by comparison.

“As imperceptibly as grief,” Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). Only Stevens, in The Snow Man, which I recommend to anyone who thinks vers libre is a contradiction, and in the fourth and eighth stanzas of Sunday Morning, another great poem but too long to make the list, conveys nature’s alien majesty nearly as effectively. This poem also exploits off-rhyme more brilliantly than any poem ever written in English.

“My spirit will not haunt the mound,” Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). Hardy speaking from beyond the grave again, which he does in his poetry quite often. Note the placement of the caesuras in the last line of each stanza. First between the third and fourth syllables, then between the first and second, and finally between the second and third, resolves the poem the way a musical note resolves a chord. Hardy, Wallace Stevens and Thomas Campion are the best metrists in English.

Exhortation, Louise Bogan (1897-1970). The necessity of hatred.

To the Reader, J.V. Cunningham (1911-1985). On one level this poem is about textual scholarship; on another, about the relationship between experience and the wisdom that can be drawn from it. In 54 syllables.

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About Aaron Haspel

  • POETRY! Thank you for bringing it up first!

    Those are some good choices. Short poems that pack a punch.

  • Let me add two great contemporary poems to your excellent list of five:

    Jack Gilbert, “Alone” from The Great Fires (Knopf 1994)

    Hayden Carruth, “Little Citizen, Little Survivor” from Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey (Copper Canyon 1996)