50 poems to print and hang on the wall

Every so often, I get a bee in my bonnet about poetry. When we homeschooled, we read and sometimes memorized poems. We’ve since moved on to other kinds of schooling, and it’s been a good choice, overall. But to my everlasting chagrin, so many teachers teach my kids that poetry is a kind of catch basin for emotion.

Prose, they learn, is for when you have orderly thoughts to express with precision; but poetry is the place to open the floodgates and wallow, and nobody can possibly say you’re doing it wrong, because there are no rules.

And this is true, as long as the poetry is utter garbage. 

This utter garbage approach to poetry accounts for why so many young people love to write but hate to read poetry. Wallowing feels great when you’re in the middle of it (when you’re in the mood), but no healthy person likes to watch someone else flail around aimlessly in the muck.

A good poem works in the opposite way: The writer does all the work, and the reader — well, the reader has to do some work, too, but if he’s willing, he’ll be rewarded with something of great and lasting value. Have you seen an uncut, unpolished diamond? It doesn’t look like much. Most of its beauty is in its potential, and it’s not until it’s carefully, skillfully cut and polished that it sparkles and reflects the light.

The same is true with the ideas and passions that animate poetry. In a formless stream-of-consciousness poem that’s allowed to spill itself thoughtlessly onto the page, the ideas and passions that animate it may be present, but they won’t do much for the reader until they’re brought out by skillful, time-consuming wordsmithing and ruthless editing.

Of course, you can make perhaps the opposite mistake, and approach a well-crafted poem the way a dealer approaches a precious jewel, and think only of what it can deliver. This is what Billy Collins protested against in his poem, Introduction to Poetry. He pleads with his students to listen to, to live with a poem; to encounter it on its own terms, to experience it. To hear the sounds it makes and be open to the various things they might suggest.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope 
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose 
to find out what it really means.

People who teach poetry this way should be sent to work in the salt mines. They can meet up with the wallowers once a week and think about what they’ve done wrong.

Anyway, as I mentioned, every once in a while I get a bee in my bonnet and start printing out poetry and tacking it up on the walls of my house. I pin up a new batch every year or so, and once they become tattered enough, I tell myself they’ve probably been read by somebody. I’m far too tired and busy to lead any seminars, but at least it’s something.

The theory is that it’s possible to ruin a wonderful poem by torturing a message or moral out of it, and it’s possible to miss out on the power and import of a good poem by skimming over the surface of it and not stopping to consider why it’s made the way it is; but at least with the second error, you’ve had a moment of pleasure. And if the thing is hanging around long enough and the poem is good enough, you’re bound to let it inside your head, where it may colonize.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

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13 thoughts on “50 poems to print and hang on the wall”

  1. I would definitely include The Bright Field by R.S. Thomas!
    I would also not be above printing out ALL of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and papering the walls of my house with them.

  2. I’ve never seen a purple cow,
    I never hope to see one.
    But I can tell you anyhow,
    I’d rather see than be one.

    (Written several years later)

    Ah yes, i wrote the purple cow,
    I’m sorry now I wrote it.
    But I can tell you one thing now,
    I’ll kill you if you quote it.

  3. Theodore Roethke:

    The Waking

    I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
    I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
    I learn by going where I have to go.
    We think by feeling. What is there to know?
    I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
    I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

    Of those so close beside me, which are you?
    God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
    And learn by going where I have to go.

    Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
    The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
    I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

    Great Nature has another thing to do
    To you and me, so take the lively air,
    And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

    This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
    What falls away is always. And is near.
    I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
    I learn by going where I have to go.

    Conrad Aiken’s Tetelestai should be high on any list of poems to be rescued from semi-obscurity.

  4. Somewhere I have never traveled gladly beyond
    By ee Cummings
    Do Not Go Gentle
    By Dylan Thomas
    Jenny Kissed Me
    By Leigh Hunt
    Upon Julia’s Clothes
    By Robert Herrick
    The Squaw-Man
    By Robert W. Service
    They Are Not Long
    By Ernest Dowson
    To His Coy Mistress
    By Andrew Marvell
    By W.H. Auden

  5. What! No Emily Dickinson? Surely you jest!

    Seriously, you need to include at least “A Narrow Fellow In The Grass.”

    Other women poets who should be considered: Elizabeth Bishop, Stevie Smith, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

    1. The only real great among those is Stevie Smith. Although they’re all worth reading many times over.

      Here is one by Stevie S:

      I feel ill. What can the matter be?
      I’d ask God to have pity on me,
      But I turn to the one I know, and say:
      Come, Death, and carry me away.

      Ah me, sweet Death, you are the only god
      Who comes as a servant when he is called, you know,
      Listen then to this sound I make, it is sharp,
      Come Death. Do not be slow.

  6. I love this! I’d add another George Herbert (“The Collar”), “When I consider how my light is spent” by John Milton, and a few stanzas of Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.”

  7. Rather embarrassed by how few poems on the list that I am familiar with. (I suppose the Iliad is too large to hang a wall, except maybe as wallpaper.) Anyway, à propos of yesterday’s posting on fighting the battles you can win, I offer the following which, ironically enough, is one of the few poems that have ever been hung in the Knox household:

    We Wear the Mask, by Paul Laurence Dunbar

    We wear the mask that grins and lies,
    It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
    This debt we pay to human guile;
    With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
    And mouth with myriad subtleties.

    Why should the world be over-wise,
    In counting all our tears and sighs?
    Nay, let them only see us, while
    We wear the mask.

    We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
    To thee from tortured souls arise.
    We sing, but oh the clay is vile
    Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
    But let the world dream otherwise,
    We wear the mask!

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