My Ten Favorite Poems

 

I’m surprised you made it this far. Let’s face it: It would be difficult to come up with a title any less inviting than My Ten Favorite Poems. I suppose I could have called it My Ten Favorite Poems! Number Seven Will Blow Your Mind! But I have too much integrity to use that sort of clickbaitery just to attract the gentle readers of Ricochet. (Photos of cute kittens and Bob the dog to follow.)

First some historical background: Poetry has fallen on hard times, a beggar on the streets of culture. The New Yorker still publishes a poem or two, more out of tradition than anything else. They pay 40 bucks for a poem. They pay 675 bucks for one of their unfunny cartoons. That tells us something about the state of poetry, doesn’t it?

There are still a few literary reviews that publish poetry. (Some even charge the poet for publishing his poem.) But the literary reviews have been dropping like flies. (Now that I think of it, they’re always dropping like flies.) The venerable review, Poetry, still exists, but who cares? (It was saved from extinction when a nonprofit foundation took it on a few years back.) Antioch Review will pay you 20 bucks for a page of poetry. Twenty bucks! That will get you a couple of cups of fancy coffee at Starbucks for a literary piece that may have taken you two weeks to write.

It’s the old iron law of supply and demand at work: There are a hundred aspiring poets for each poetry reader. As a result, readers are worth far more than poets.

But at one time, poetry was the life of the party, and anyone with cultural pretensions read poetry. In England’s 18th-century coffee shops, they talked and talked about poetry: “I say, Sir, did you read the latest satire by Alexander Pope? The little guy eviscerated any number of courtiers and fops. I have to give it to the ugly little Papist. He can pen a biting couplet. (Pope was a 4’6” Catholic asthmatic with a hunchback.)

The form that slowly replaced poetry in the minds of readers was the novel. As unlikely as it seems, there was no such thing as the novel proper in England until Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe in the early 18th century.  

Until that time, it was all poetry, from narrative epics like Beowulf, to sonnets by Shakespeare, to odes by Abraham Crowley. Even as late as the 19th-century, poetry was the king of culture, and novels were, well, trivial things that women read. Real men read poetry.

I’ve now arrived at my promise in the title of my post. A few weeks back, Ricochet’s Trink asked me to list my ten favorite poems, and I promised I’d get back to her. Trink, here’s that list.

If my list calls up memories of your classroom suffering, Ricocheters, I apologize, but I taught poetry out of anthologies of literature for 30 years, and it’s all I know. I like non-U stuff as well: a pithy couplet, a bit of doggerel, a humorous narrative poem, and especially limericks. Here’s one of my favorites:

There once was a hermit from Belgrave
Who kept a dead prostitute in his cave.
Said he, “I’ll admit
I’m a bit of a twit,
But think of the money I save.”

I’m leaving out long narrative poems like Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales lest you think me pretentious. I’m sensitive to charges of pretension. (By the way, I can read Old English and Medieval English. What do you think of that?)

Finally, here it is:

1. Andrew Marvell: To His Coy Mistress (“The grave’s a fine and private place/But none I think do there embrace.”)

2. Alexander Pope: Rape of the Lock (“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”) If you’re wondering why Pope is on this list — and probably no one else’s — it’s because the 18th-century was my specialty, and Pope was right in the middle of everything. No poet has ever written clever couplets the way Pope could.

3. Robert Burns: To a Mouse (“The best-laid schemes of Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley”) and Tam O’Shanter. Both are written in the late 18th-century Scots dialect, which makes them a bit hard to read. But once you get used to the dialect, you will know why Burns shows up on almost everyone’s list of “Beloved Poets of the English Language.”

5. Dylan Thomas; Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night (“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”) Thomas’s poem is written in a form called a villanelle, and Thomas couldn’t have chosen a better form for his poem.

6. Rudyard Kipling: Gunga Din (“You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.”) I just re-read this after a number of years, and it’s really good. I’m warning you, though. Kipling was the most non-PC of the British poets, and for that reason he went out of favor for a long time. Gunga Din has a conclusion that might bring a tear to your eyes.

7. Robert Frost: Stopping by Woods (But I have miles to go before I sleep.”), Fire and Ice, and Nothing Gold Can Stay. I’ve read Frost’s early poems. They’re dreadful. Frost was one of those poets who grew into a great poet.

8. Wilfred Owen: Dulce et Decorum Est (“The old lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.”) The First World War was terrible, but it produced great poetry, including Flanders Field (where poppies grow)

9. W. B. Yeats: The Second Coming (“The best lack all conviction while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”) In my mind, Yeats wrote nothing but great poetry.

10. Randall Jarrell: The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner (“When I died, they washed me out of the turret with a hose.’) My uncle was a ball turret gunner who was shot up inside his turret. I have his Purple Heart.

Perhaps only a few readers have a favorite poem anymore, but I’m counting on Ricochet, the home of people who read, to come through on this. If you find yourself among that elite group (I’m not above pandering), you might want to describe the circumstances of reading your favorite for the first time — or perhaps you want to answer why it’s your favorite. Pull up something from your childhood if you wish.

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There are 117 comments.

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  1. EJHill Podcaster

    I got to the end. Where’s Bob? (That’s just classic bait and switch, right there.)

    Poetry is still very popular. Especially when accompanied by a catchy tune.

    • #1
    • June 18, 2019, at 7:27 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  2. Doug Watt Member

    Two stanzas from the Stolen Child by WB Yeats, one of my favorite poets:

    Where the wandering water gushes
    From the hills above Glen-Car,
    In pools among the rushes
    That scarce could bathe a star,
    We seek for slumbering trout
    And whispering in their ears
    Give them unquiet dreams;
    Leaning softly out
    From ferns that drop their tears
    Over the young streams.
    Come away, O human child!
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand,
    For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

    Away with us he’s going,
    The solemn-eyed:
    He’ll hear no more the lowing
    Of the calves on the warm hillside
    Or the kettle on the hob
    Sing peace into his breast,
    Or see the brown mice bob
    Round and round the oatmeal chest.
    For he comes, the human child,
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand,
    For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

    Set to music from the Waterboys.

    • #2
    • June 18, 2019, at 7:32 AM PDT
    • 9 likes
  3. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    EJHill (View Comment):

    I got to the end. Where’s Bob? (That’s just classic bait and switch, right there.)

    Poetry is still very popular. Especially when accompanied by a catchy tune.

    I was just joking about the kitties and Bob. But I think I’ll put a photo of my pets at the end right now. 

    I’m with you, Mr. Hill, about songs. Songs are poetry with a melody. That makes them different but essentially the same. I don’t think that made sense. You know what I mean.

    • #3
    • June 18, 2019, at 7:35 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  4. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    Two stanzas from the Stolen Child by WB Yeats, one of my favorite poets:

     

    Doug, I don’t know that poem, but it is beautiful. Yeats is my favorite poet. I’d probably vote for him in a “Best Poet Ever” contest. 

    • #4
    • June 18, 2019, at 7:48 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  5. She Thatcher
    She

    What a bonanza of a list! Every one a winner! At a glance, I believe I’ve written about, or at least had occasion to mention in posts or comments, nine of them in the past nine years.

    My favorite (short) poem about war is A.E. Houseman, the one that starts “Here dead we lie,” which contains the lines:

    Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose,
    But young men think it is, and we were young.

    That’s half the poem, right there. And the lines that were the inspiration for “We were soldiers once, and young.”

    Houseman’s other really well known lines are:

    Malt does more than Milton can
    To justify God’s ways to man.

    I really like his poetry. He was from Ludlow in Shropshire, not too far away from where I’m from in the UK. Ludlow is a beautiful medieval town with part of the original wall still standing, an ancient church, a picturesque castle ruin and a pub with a plaque on the wall that says something like, “Food and drink have been continuously served on these premises since 1477.” That’s a paraphrase and may not be exact, but I’m pretty sure I’m not off on the date by more than a hundred years either way, give or take.

    Mr. She and I made Ludlow our base on a trip to the UK a number of years ago, and we are proud to be able to say with Houseman,

    Oh, I have been to Ludlow Fair
    And left my necktie God knows where
    And carried half-way home, or near
    Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer

    The worlds most luxuriant poetry lives with Keats. And my favorite of his, as explained here, is The Eve of St. Agnes. I cannot read the first stanza without my mind drifting to my childhood home, the view from the garden, down the field and into the woods, and the way that it looked in the not-all-that-frequent snow. Owls, hare and sheep. They were all there. Just as Keats described them.

    I look out my window today, down the field, and into the woods. Owls, wild rabbits (they’ll do for the purpose), and sheep. No snow today, but it will come.

    History may not repeat exactly, but it sure does rhyme. Although poetry doesn’t have to. And the greatest poetry is great because it’s true. Not necessarily literally true, but seriously true.

    KentForrester: I’m leaving out long narrative poems like Bewulf and The Canterbury Tales lest you think me pretentious. I’m sensitive to charges of pretension. (By the way, I can read Old English and Medieval English. What do you think of that?)

    I think you and Mr. She might be related. Marie and I should probably talk about the inevitable side effects of living with someone like that for decades at a time.

    • #5
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:03 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  6. Arahant Member

    KentForrester: Ricochet’s Trink asked me to list my ten favorite poems, and I promised I’d get back to him.

    Her. *Cough* *Cough* 

    • #6
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:13 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  7. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    She (View Comment):

    What a bonanza of a list! Every one a winner! At a glance, I believe I’ve written about, or at least had occasion to mention in posts or comments, nine of them in the past nine years.

    I look out my window today, down the field, and into the woods. Owls, wild rabbits (they’ll do for the purpose), and sheep. No snow today, but it will come.

    History may not repeat exactly, but it sure does rhyme. Although poetry doesn’t have to. And the greatest poetry is great because it’s true. Not necessarily literally true, but seriously true.

    KentForrester: I’m leaving out long narrative poems like Bewulf and The Canterbury Tales lest you think me pretentious. I’m sensitive to charges of pretension. (By the way, I can read Old English and Medieval English. What do you think of that?)

    I think you and Mr. She might be related. Marie and I should probably talk about the inevitable side effects of living with someone like that for decades at a time.

    She, I was waiting for you. Wonderful response. I would have included Houseman if I had thought of him. He’s also one of my favorite poets. Your quotations from Houseman brought him all back. 

    • #7
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:18 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  8. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    Arahant (View Comment):

    KentForrester: Ricochet’s Trink asked me to list my ten favorite poems, and I promised I’d get back to him.

    Her. *Cough* *Cough*

    Arahant, you know all about us. Did you know that I’ m a thirteen-year-old Russian mole, sent by Trump to spy on the folks of Ricochet — especially old hippies like you.

    Do you have a cold?

    • #8
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:21 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  9. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    My favourite poems (in no particular order):

    • Alligator Pie
    • Here I Sit, Broken Hearted
    • The Naming Of Cats
    • The Cremation Of Sam McGee
    • Don’t Get Even, Go Mad (the Joker’s poem from The Killing Joke)
    • #9
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:23 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  10. Arahant Member

    Good start to a conversation, Kent. Ricochet has a surprising amount of poetry. @seawriter used to do a series on Kipling, for instance. For a time, it was very difficult to format poetry properly, so many of us did not post as much for a time. I need to get back to inundating people with poetry.

     

    • #10
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:26 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  11. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Good start to a conversation, Kent. Ricochet has a surprising amount of poetry. @seawriter used to do a series on Kipling, for instance. For a time, it was very difficult to format poetry properly, so many of us did not post as much for a time. I need to get back to inundating people with poetry.

     

    Arahant, I wish we could format poetry on Ricochet. Surely you can convince a programmer to help us out here.

    • #11
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:28 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  12. EJHill Podcaster

    I can’t believe nobody has brought up that classic, “There once was a man from Nantucket…”

    • #12
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:28 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  13. Arahant Member

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    especially old hippies like you.

    I’m not a hippy. I’m a Seventeenth-Century man trapped in a Twentieth-Century body.

    • #13
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:28 AM PDT
    • Like
  14. Seawriter Member

    My Ten

    1. The Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam (Fitzgerald translation)
    2. Ulysses, Alfred Lord Tennyson
    3. The Stars go over the Lonely Ocean, Robinson Jeffers
    4. The Hymn of Breaking Strain, Rudyard Kipling
    5. To-Morrow, John Maesfield
    6. Epilog to A Shropshire Lad, A. E. Houseman
    7. An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, W. B. Yeats
    8. Don Juan, Lord Byron
    9. The Hunting of the Snark, Lewis Carrol
    10. The Quitter, Robert Service
    • #14
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:30 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  15. Arahant Member

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    Arahant, I wish we could format poetry on Ricochet. Surely you can convince a programmer to help us out here.

    We can again. One simply needs to know the tricks.

    • #15
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:30 AM PDT
    • Like
  16. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    especially old hippies like you.

    I’m not a hippy. I’m a Seventeenth-Century man trapped in a Twentieth-Century body.

    a) Whereas hippies are prehistoric humans trapped in twentieth-century bodies.

    b) Ok, sure, the 17th century had Shakespeare and the King James Bible, but c’mon. The 18th century has so much more good stuff.

    • #16
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:31 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  17. Arahant Member

    EJHill (View Comment):

    I can’t believe nobody has brought up that classic, “There once was a man from Nantucket…”

    I had actually already intended to do a Friday post on jokes that would include limericks, @ejhill. Save it for then. It may save Western Civilization.

     

    • #17
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:32 AM PDT
    • Like
  18. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):

    My favourite poems (in no particular order):

    • Alligator Pie
    • Here I Sit, Broken Hearted
    • The Naming Of Cats

    Not bad, Mis, even if #1 and #3 are songs. They do have clever lyrics, though. If you remove the lyrics from a song and they can stand on their own, they’re poetry.

    #2 is a classic. You tried to sneak that one in, didn’t you, just like I snuck the limerick into my post?

    • #18
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:36 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  19. Arahant Member

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    The Hymn of Breaking Strain, Rudyard Kipling

    Love that one. I first ran across it in a collection called something like The Science Fiction of Rudyard Kipling.

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    Robert Service

    Somewhere on this site I referenced and linked to The Cremation of Sam McGee recently. Someone put together a play based on Robert Service’s life and poems that I saw at the Stratford Festival in Canada. It was not as historically accurate as it could have been, since the playwright was trying to integrate the poems into the story of his life, but it was fun.

    • #19
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:36 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  20. Arahant Member

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):
    Whereas hippies are prehistoric humans trapped in twentieth-century bodies.

    Exactly. There’s no élan in that.

    • #20
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:37 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  21. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    My Ten

    1. The Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam (Fitzgerald translation)
    2. Ulysses, Alfred Lord Tennyson
    3. The Stars go over the Lonely Ocean, Robinson Jeffers
    4. The Hymn of Breaking Strain, Rudyard Kipling
    5. To-Morrow, John Maesfield
    6. Epilog to A Shropshire Lad, A. E. Houseman
    7. An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, W. B. Yeats
    8. Don Juan, Lord Byron
    9. The Hunting of the Snark, Lewis Carrol
    10. The Quitter, Robert Service

    Seawriter, that’s a great list. I would have included these in my list if I could have gone beyond ten: Ulysses, Epilog to a Shropshire Lad, Don Juan, The Quitter, and The Hunting of the Snark. 

    Byron’s piece is one of the strongest satires in the English language. 

     

    • #21
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:40 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  22. Seawriter Member

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    Seawriter, that’s a great list. I would have included these in my list if I could have gone beyond ten: Ulysses, Epilog to a Shropshire Lad, Don Juan, The Quitter, and The Hunting of the Snark. 

    As a one-time navigator I had to include The Hunting of the Snark.

    • #22
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:42 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  23. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):

    My favourite poems (in no particular order):

    • Alligator Pie
    • Here I Sit, Broken Hearted
    • The Naming Of Cats

    Not bad, Mis, even if #1 and #3 are songs. They do have clever lyrics, though. If you remove the lyrics from a song and they can stand on their own, they’re poetry.

    They were poems first. I have the books from which they are taken.

    However, I do feel a little guilty. Alligator Pie isn’t actually my favourite poem from that book, but it’s the most well-known so it’s the one I listed. Here I am, pandering to the masses!

    • #23
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:42 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  24. Arahant Member

    One thing I have loved is hidden poetry. As an example, James Branch Cabell stuck a sonnet into Jurgen, but formatted it as a normal paragraph. In one of my books, I slipped in a haiku as the last words of a man on a battlefield. Poetry is not dead, it has only gotten sneakier.

    • #24
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:47 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  25. WillowSpring Member

     #9 : W. B. Yeats: The Second Coming (“The best lack all conviction while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”) In my mind, Yeats wrote nothing but great poetry. 

    This is one of my favorite these days because it seems so appropriate to our times. It is sobering to think when he actually wrote it.

    When I was a kid, some of my favorite were by Poe – mostly because they were fun to read:

     Hear the loud alarum bells—
    Brazen bells!
    What tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
    In the startled ear of night
    How they scream out their affright!
    Too much horrified to speak,
    They can only shriek, shriek,

    The Raven was another one of his I liked.

    My father was a fan of what I guess would be called doggerel and would often quote things like Ogden Nash, so this is another of my favorites. (For a while, I actually thought he wrote it)

    A Flea And A Fly In A Flue – Poem by Ogden NashA flea and a fly in a flue
    Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
    Said the fly, “let us flee!”
    “Let us fly!” said the flea.
    So they flew through a flaw in the flue. 

     

    • #25
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:50 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  26. Arahant Member

    As a Midwesterner, I have to put in a word for James Whitcomb Riley:

    • #26
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:54 AM PDT
    • Like
  27. Seawriter Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    One thing I have loved is hidden poetry. As an example, James Branch Cabell stuck a sonnet into Jurgen, but formatted it as a normal paragraph. In one of my books, I slipped in a haiku as the last words of a man on a battlefield. Poetry is not dead, it has only gotten sneakier.

    Poul Anderson is supposed to have written his book A Midsummer’s Tempest in iambic pentameter organized as prose.

    • #27
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:55 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  28. Dr. Bastiat Member

    KentForrester: I’m surprised you made it this far.

    What a fantastic opening sentence!

    I like poetry, but I’m ashamed to admit what type of poetry I’m attracted to. Please don’t tell anyone. But I like poetry that rhymes. It’s my understanding that my affliction is fairly common (although that doesn’t excuse it, of course) – the proper name for people such as myself is, I believe, “Philistine.”

    Anyway, I’d probably pick “Fire and Ice” as well – Robert Frost is well suited to Philistines, I think.

    My Mom got her Master’s in English at Breadloaf, at Middlebury College in Vermont. She got to sit in the chair where Robert Frost used to sit and write. Pretty cool.

    • #28
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:55 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  29. Arahant Member

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    Poul Anderson is supposed to have written his book A Midsummer’s Tempest in iambic pentameter organized as prose.

    I think science fiction authors tend to all be frustrated poets. 😁

    • #29
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:56 AM PDT
    • Like
  30. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    WillowSpring (View Comment):

    #9 : W. B. Yeats: The Second Coming (“The best lack all conviction while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”) In my mind, Yeats wrote nothing but great poetry.

    This is one of my favorite these days because it seems so appropriate to our times. It is sobering to think when he actually wrote it.

    A Flea And A Fly In A Flue – Poem by Ogden NashA flea and a fly in a flue
    Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
    Said the fly, “let us flee!”
    “Let us fly!” said the flea.
    So they flew through a flaw in the flue.

    WillowSpring, I would probably have included Poe if I knew more about his poetry. For my thirty years of teaching, I taught only English literature. So all I know about Poe’s poems are a few of his popular pieces.

    I’ve never read the Ogden Nash piece that your dad liked. Nash was a clever poet though, wasn’t he?

    • #30
    • June 18, 2019, at 8:57 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
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