I ‘m know I’m not alone in saying this here, but words are important. I can’t get too high and mighty considering how botched my spelling and grammar can be at times, but the word or words that are used make a difference. This is why I like poetry, each word has a serviceable purpose. There is nothing superfluous, each word contributes.
So here are numbers 14 to 09 in my top 20 list:
#14 ‘Fawns Foster Mother’ Robinson Jeffers. One of the major differences between Christianity (or at least the souped up ‘Americana’ version of it, )and most pagan, or Native American religions is that separation of people from nature. We are somehow apart from nature, ‘superior’ to nature. We are not the caretaker of the earth, We are the master. The woman in ‘fawn’s foster mother’ doesn’t share this mindset. Her husband finds a day old fawn whose mother had been killed. The woman was still nursing her baby and began to nurse the day old fawn as well. She was poor and knew that if she didn’t do this the fawn would starve to death. The author of the poem meets the woman, years later as an old woman when she tells him of this story. Her husband long since dead, her children don’t appreciate her. She is alone. but the author says “I see that once in her spring, she lived in the streaming arteries. The stir of the world,the music of the mountain” She was one with nature,understood her part.
#13 (tie) ‘Lady Lazarus’ Sylvia Plath. and ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ Dylan Thomas. Okay, I admit ties are a form of cheating. A way of ‘stuffing the ballot box’ so to speak. Guilty. But in my defense, I could never come up with just twenty. And the ‘honorable mention’poem could fill an entire other entry. But I put these in a tie partly because they are yin and yang to the same concept. Thomas’ poem challenges one ‘to rage,rage against the dying of the light’ while Plath is seemingly more resigned. Both poems are very angry, while Thomas takes are very direct approach.
Plath is more sly and sarcastic. “dying, is an art, like everything else, I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do so it feels real. I guess you could say I’ve a call.” I admit I have felt both ways. I wanted to rage on, and other times I have said ‘fudge it’. One difference I just now thought of is Thomas is speaking to someone else, telling them to fight, Plath is facing it head on herself. I guess it is easier to challenge someone to fight when you personally don’t have to do the fighting yourself. Plath tells her readers there ‘is a charge, for eyeing my scars. ‘ ‘A very large charge for a word or a touch or a bit of blood’ My heart is wounded and diminished, there isn’t much of it left to give, so I am sure as hell not going to give it to you for free. Like Lazarus I raise from the dead , a phoenix from the ashes of my burned heart. But every time I come back I come back more wounded, and less willing to trust. There is a line from one of her poems I cant think of the title right now that says something like ‘you loved me just like I was dead, but i really need a lover in my head’ ( paraphrased.)
No matter how much you love someone you can’t love them from the inside out. I wish at times I could have climbed inside of Marie and and held the frightened little girl I knew was in there. But you can’t. I remember when my grandmother, whom I loved very much, was dying. She looked me in the eyes and said to me “I am really afraid” and the look inside her chilled me to my very marrow, She was somewhere I couldn’t reach her at, somewhere I could only watch. I thought of Dylan Thomas’ words I wanted her to rage on. I wanted her to raise from death like a lady Lazarus, but it didn’t happen.
#12 ‘The mountain Whippoorwill’ Stephan Vincent Benet This poem is a sentimental choice for me. When I was in high school I was in forensics which is speech and drama competitions. I did this poem for poetry interpretation and won quite a few medals and trophies for doing so. It is your basic underdog poem about a boy in Georgia who enters a fiddle playing competition. The poem starts out slow and arithmetic,then builds slowly to a big hoe down with chanting and almost hip hop like cadence. If this sounds kind of like “the devil went down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels band it isn’t accidental. The pacing is very similar in fact the phrase ‘hell’s broke loose in Georgia’ was lifted directly from Benet’s poem.
Honorable mention should also go to Vachel Lindsey’s ‘The Congo’ which also has a very specific rhythm to the words. Only goes to show in the hands of a gifted poet music can be created even without the use of notes.
#11 ‘The Raven’ Edgar Allen Poe. Still to this day, one of the most haunting poems I have ever read. Poe lived a very unfortunate life, like Van Gogh in the art world, Poe was never aware of the depth of his talent. And more sadly, neither were his contemporaries. The most interesting things can always be found under the surface. As Henrik Ibsen said in the “enemy of the people” : ‘The majority has never been right’ You can be away from the heard (pun intended) and be ‘right’ but you will always pay a price for doing so.
Poe dared to ask the raven, even though he probably already knew the answer would be “nevermore” I find it very hard to top that. “nevermore” pretty much speaks for itself. For my beloved grandmother, and my friend from college Daniel, my brothers best friend John. My dearest Jodi, and a few other dear hearts I hope there is “more” I hope it is a happy “more” they deserve as much.
10) “The road not taken” Robert Frost. There were several poems by Robert Frost that could have easily made the list: ‘Mending Wall’, ‘Birches’, ‘Tree at my window’ are all worthy choices. What I like about this poem is the idea of ‘the road less traveled by’ . Making the harder choice is something I can’t always say I have done. And I usually regret my decision. There is an axiom “don’t regret the things you have done, only regret the things you have not done.” I regret not haven taken a more hands on approach in my life. Sometimes you need to do something just because it is the hard choice. a too soft,too luxurious life is just as bad as a too austere one. Frost revels in his decision when faced with a convergence of two roads to intentionally choose the one less traveled by, he says ‘that has made all the difference.’
Sometimes the road is not of your choosing but if growth comes from the adversity it is still something for the better. The hardest lessons are always the ones we do not chose. I am starting to sound like a hallmark card,
For number nine, number nine, number nine, (sorry for the cheesy Beatles reference) I have a tie of sorts it is actually the same poem, just one is the original french version and one is the more popular English version. The poem was originally titled “Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir a la chandelle” (I hope that is spelled right as I doubt the spell check works in french) literally translated it means “when you are quite old, in the evening by candle-light” and was written by Pierre Ronsard, about three hundred years later, Irish poet William Butler Yates adapted the poem into the English ” When you are old” unlike most of the poems I have picked this one is short enough to include here:
“When you are old and gray and full of sleep and nodding by the fire take down this book, and slowly read and dream of the soft look your eyes once had and of their shadows deep:
How many men loved your moments of glad grace, and loved your beauty with love false or true: But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, and loved the sorrows of your changing face. And bending down beside the glowing bars, Murmur, a little sadly how love fled, and paced upon the mountains overhead and hid his face amid a crowd of stars.”
Yeats was thinking again of Maud Gonne, his great unrequited love. Yeats tells her she was a great beauty and many men were attracted to that. But he loved her for more he loved her ‘pilgrim soul’ the part of her that was always a bit of a foreigner, always restless and moving. Maybe Yeats loved this part of her because he saw the restlessness in himself also. I met people both on a romantic and friendship level that I have thought “If only this person could see how much we have in common” and they often don’t see it. May be I was deluding myself and thinking there was common ground when there was not, or perhaps it was them. My parents now have grey hair, well at least my dad does, I have seen them get older, I see myself age. my hair isn’t that gray and I am not balding (knocking on my Formica, faux wood, desk) none the less, My face is changing. Yates told Maud he would love the ‘sorrows of your changing face’ not a lot of men will tell a woman they would do that. She rejected him though . The saying is ‘great art comes from great sorrow’ Yeats had the last word. We will never know if Gonne ever regretted the ‘road not taken’ .