My favorite poems are favorites for two reasons: what they say and how they say it. The poems I love are language-gems of surprise, unpredictability, the familiar suddenly strange and the strange suddenly familiar. My favorite poems always cause astonishment, beautiful or terrible, subtle or stunning. And to quote the poet (one of my favorites) C.K. Williams: "It took me years to figure out, what am I trying to say? A poem can't just be interesting. It has to have some passionate meaning somewhere in it. Or it has to create passion. And until you do that, you haven't got a poem."
My favorite poems shimmer with imagery and metaphor. That's what knocks them out of the writing park.
Poems have saved my life, rearranged my molecules, assuaged the Great Pain when no one and nothing else can. And they are deep fun.
Poems are physical, intellectual, emotional, psychological or spiritual, or all five levels at once.
Here is one of my favorite poems touching all five levels. I've been reading this poem for thirty-five years:
In a Dark Time by Theodore Roethke
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood--
A lord of nature weeping to a tree,
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
What's madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,
That place among the rocks--is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.
A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is--
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.
Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
Rhyme, meter, cadence, surprising imagery in every line. This poem has it all. And much more: the lines: What's madness but nobility of soul/at odds with circumstance? brought me closer to understanding my mother, and the poem gave striking insight into humanity and myself, the incredible circus of the mind.
Here is a poem I read yesterday in The New Yorker and marveled:
Shopping for Pomegranates at Wal-Mart on New Year's Day by Campbell McGrath
Beneath a ten-foot-tall apparition of Frosty the Snowman
with his corncob pipe and jovial, over-eager, button-black eyes,
holding, in my palm, the leathery, wine-colored purse
of a pomegranate, I realize, yet again, that America is a country
about which I understand everything and nothing at all,
that this is life, this ungovernable air
in which the trees rearrange their branches, season after season,
never certain which configuration will bear the optimal yield
of sunlight and water, the enabling balm of nutrients,
that so, too, do Wal-Mart's ferocious sales managers
relentlessly analyze their end-cap placement, product mix,
and shopper demographics, that this is the culture
in all its earnestness and absurdity, that it never rests,
that each day is an eternity and every night is New Year's Eve,
a cavalcade of B-list has-beens entirely unknown to me,
needy comedians and country singers in handsome Stetsons,
sitcom stars of every social trope and ethnic denomination,
pugilists and oligarchs, femmes fatales and anointed virgins
throat-slit in offering to the cannibal throng of Times Square.
Who are these people? I grow old. I lie unsleeping
as confetti falls, ash-girdled, robed in sweat and melancholy,
click-shifting from QVC to reality TV, strings of commercials
for breath freshener, debt reconsolidation, a new car
lacking any whisper of style or grace, like a final fetid gasp
from the lips of a dying Henry Ford, potato-faced actors
impersonating real people with real opinions
offered forth with idiot grins in the yellow, herniated studio light,
actual human beings, actual souls bought too cheaply.
That it never ends, O Lord, that it never ends!
That it is relentless, remorseless, and it is on right now.
That one sees it and sees it but sometimes it sees you, too,
cowering in a corner, transfixed by the crawler for the storm alert,
home videos of faces left dazed by the twister, the car bomb,
the war always beginning or already begun, always
the special report, the inside scoop, the hidden camera
revealing the mechanical lives of the sad, inarticulate people
we have come to know as "celebrities."
Who assigns such value, who chose these craven avatars
if not the miraculous hand of the marketplace,
whose torn cuticles and gaudily painted fingernails resemble nothing
so much as our own? Where does the oracle reveal our truths
more vividly than upon that pixillated spirit glass
unless it is here, in this tabernacle of homely merchandise,
a Copernican model of a money-driven universe
revolving around its golden omphalos, each of us summed
and subtotalled, integers in an equation of need and consumption,
desire and consummation, because Hollywood had it right all along,
the years are a montage of calendar pages and autumn leaves,
sheet music for a nostalgic symphony of which our lives comprise
but single trumpet blasts, single notes in the hullabaloo,
or even less-we are but motes of dust in that atmosphere
shaken by the vibrations of time's imperious crescendo.
That it never ends, O Lord. That it goes on,
without pause or cessation, without pity or remorse.
That we have willed it into existence, dreamed it into being.
That it is our divine monster, our factotum, our scourge.
That I can imagine nothing more beautiful
than to propitiate such a god upon the seeds of my own heart.
Whew. Gee whiz. What a poem! I'm inspired. My favorite poems fire me up to write my own, to breathe in and breathe out like a cosmic zephyr.
Then I love to calm down with something simple and fantastic as:
A Little Stone in the Middle of the Road, in Florida by Muriel Rukeyser
My son as a child saying
is anything, even a little stone in the middle
of the road, in Florida.
Nancy, my friend, after a long illness:
You know what can lift me up, take me right out
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