I don't know which is more lovely: that the RR blog topic of the week asks "What is your favorite poem?" or that my collection a half-red sea is among the books to be given to the writers of the most compelling blogs responding to this question! I can only say that I'm glad I'm not responsible for making choices among the many posts discussing poetry that have gone up in the last day or so. : )
Of course, I won't throw my hat in the ring, so to speak, but as I'm regularly blogging about poetry, I can't resist the temptation to do so now, when the RR is collectively meditating on the genre. But, like many of the bloggers who've taken on Huntington's question, I find it impossible to name one single poem as my absolute favorite. I think of favorite poems more temporally than hierarchically.
What I mean by that is that different poems mean more to me at some times than at others, and the poem that feels most resonant to me at any given point will depend on factors having to do with what's going on in my head and my life at that time -- I've never had one poem rise permanently to the top of the list. So I thought I'd share four poems that have been favorites at different points.
Poetry came into my life at a very early age, so early that I don't remember a time before poetry. This was one of my first favorite poems, memorized when I was "wee" myself and reproduced from memory even now:
Wee Willie Winkie runs through the town,
Upstairs and downstairs in his nightgown.
Rapping at the windows, crying at the locks:
"Are all the children in their beds? For now it's 8 o'clock."
I was tucked in with that one many a night. Mother Goose nursery rhymes are still among my favorites.
I've noticed that a number of RR'ers are partial to poems that rhyme. One reason for this, I imagine, is that rhyming poems are easier to memorize, often, and thus more likely to stick with one. But thinking further, I remembered that I memorized a non-rhyming poem when I was still young (though years older than I was when Mother Goose was a nightly ritual!), one that doesn't rhyme at all. For many people, it is more than poetry, but I offer it here (also from memory) for the beauty of its language:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou annointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.
I'm resisting the temptation to check and see if my memory is perfect, mainly because the point is that this poem was, at the time I memorized it, important enough to me for me to make it a part of myself (it's inscribed in some brain cells, after all -- right?).
Memorization, however, is not the sole or even most accurate test of whether a poem is among my favorites. I've memorized fewer and fewer over the years, and the reasons I've done so are not always driven by the intensity of my feeling about a poem. Indeed, as I studied English in high school, I found that one measure of a favorite poem, for me, was how much more I liked it after analyzing and writing about it. Poems that have several layers of language, ideas, and feelings to sift through and mull over have become increasingly attractive to me. That phase of my relationship to poetry began, more or less, with my junior year term paper on e.e. cummings, which turned in particular on this then-favorite and still-loved poem:
since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world
my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
-- the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says
we are for each other:then
laugh,leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis
From cummings, I learned early on that in poetry, "playing" with language could be a tool for writing about subjects that are quite serious, as well as those that are lighter.
In college, I began writing poetry seriously myself, and from that time forward, as I began reading poetry in increasing quantities, and along a widening spectrum of styles and subjects, my favorite poems began accumulating much more rapidly -- and they change like the weather, sometimes hourly. So I'll end with what is my favorite poem right now. : ) Ed Roberson is in my head, because I just finished responding to a comment on my previous blog entry that was admiring his poetry. The poem below is also in the Black Nature anthology, and originally appears in Roberson's recent book City Eclogue. I taught his book in my Black Poetry course last semester, and one of my students selected it to write about in his final paper and as a poem to memorize. I was thrilled. : )
Neither New Hampshire nor Midwestern farm,
nor the summer home in some Hamptons garden
thing, not that Nature, not a satori
-al leisure come to terms peel by peel, not that core
whiff of beauty as the spirit. Just a street
pocket park, clean of any smells, simple quiet --
simple quiet not the same as no birds sing,
definitely not the dead of no birds sing:
The bus stop posture in the interval
of nothing coming, a not quite here running
sound underground, sidewalk's grate vibrationless
in open voice, sweet berries ripen in the street
hawk's kiosks. The orange is being flown in
this very moment picked of its origin.