I’m surprised I’m attempting this at all, but since I’ve heard the suggestion so many times, I decided I should at least get started on my own poetry anthology (or canon, as Katie calls it). In my anthology, I’m re-typing each of these poems into my own Word documents. Typing them out (or writing them by hand, as I’ve done in journals before) gives me a more physical sense of how the poems work. I imagine it might be sort of like copying a masterpiece painting just to get a sense of how the artist might have worked. Or even the way my grandpa once did a paint-by-number of the famous Last Supper painting.
(And since I have a draft of a new poem of my own due this week, I thought now would be the PERFECT time to get started on something else. So here you go, my poetry anthology, linked blog edition.)
I have to start with Billy Collins, even though I haven’t read much of his work besides this poem. “Introduction to Poetry” came to my attention just as I was teaching a unit on Biblical psalms. Teach something and you will learn more than all your students, and this class on poetry changed not just how I viewed literature but also the Bible (and that, of course, is another story). But I learned that responding to a poem as a poem is different than responding to a historical document or a letter. A poem requires and deserves a different approach. Collins’ poem explained that approach beautifully. So even before I was writing poems or studying poetry in an MFA program, I was learning about how to read poetry.
The next poem that changed my view of poetry was Rita Dove’s “Rosa.” This little poem moved me deeply with its sparse language and exact images, the way it said so much in only a few lines. I loved the way you had to know something about history to truly appreciate it and how it felt like giving respect to that history. I remember thinking it was probably out of my reach but that I hoped someday I could do something like that.
And then came Jane. I read Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems for the American women’s poetry course that changed the direction of my graduate degree. After the reading and writing that I did in that class, I transferred into the MFA program, abandoning my MA degree and all it’s research-y glory. So many of her poems “spoke to my condition,” as my professor says, but a single line from “Let Evening Come” seemed to speak the loudest. I wrote about it here.
Also during that poetry course, I became a fan of Betsy Sholl. She does the work of observing the natural world and also weaving in themes of faith in ways that are both artful and realistic. Many of her poems are beautiful, but this one from her most recent collection (and available here in a favorite journal) is gorgeous and haunting: “The Harrowing” addresses the suicide of a dear friend with such empathy. If you wanted someone to write a beautiful, fair, and complicated poem about you, you should ask Besty Sholl. She’d do it perfectly.
In my MFA program, one of the repeated pieces of advice is to read widely. We’re encouraged to read from poets we know, poets we like, poets we don’t like, poets we want to emulate, poets we want to hate, etc. In all that reading, sometimes a poem just sticks with me. I find myself wanting to read it again, maybe out loud. Here are a few of my favorites (I expect I’ll add to this list often):
Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” (her “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore” is another one, among almost any of Bishop’s poems)
Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” – for adult children.
Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song” – for mamas, new and old.
Countee Cullen’s “Yet Do I Marvel” – for understanding