I wrote a lot of angst-filled poetry as a teenager, badly rhymed and full of mixed metaphors and cliches. My career as a poet was short lived; I read poetry, but cannot claim its creation as my own.
For a long time I thought poetry had to sound and look and feel a certain way. I only had the third part partially right; poetry makes us feel, not a certain way necessarily, but deeply. Poetry is as close a words can ever come to a feeling.
I don’t know what makes a poem technically good, but I know which poems make me feel the most. In honor of National Poetry Month, here are some poems that make me feel.
Love That Dog
By Sharon Creech
“Love that dog,
like a bird loves to fly
I said I love that dog
like a bird loves to fly
Love to call him in the morning
love to call him
‘Hey there, Sky!’”
This novel in verse wrecks me. An elementary school teacher shares poems and asks her students to respond with poems of their own. At the beginning of the year, Jack believes only girls write poetry. By the end of the school year he has invited Walter Dean Meyers to read in his class, and has penned several heartbreaking poems of his own about his dog, Sky.
Variation on the Word Sleep
By Margaret Atwood
“I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.”
Margaret Atwood writes to my soul; I first discovered “The Edible Woman” when I was 16, but only encountered her poetry as a bookseller in my twenties. This description of love has always stayed with me, the image of love as necessary and unconscious as breathing.
Roses, Late Summer
By Mary Oliver
“I wouldn’t mind being a rose
in a field full of roses.
Fear has not yet occurred to them, nor ambition.
Reason they have not yet thought of.
Neither do they ask how long they must be roses, and then what.
Or any other foolish question.”
Someone once told me that I could be a happy animal or unhappy human. I was irritated at the time, but in retrospect understand he was trying (poorly) to express the curiosity inherent in humans, our constant quest to understand and our endless questions. Roses however, are unstintingly happy. Oliver captures and re imagines this conversation for me, and makes me wish I could have pressed a copy of her poems into his hands in response.
By Anne Sexton
“Some women marry houses.
It’s another kind of skin; it has a heart,
a mouth, a liver and bowel movements.
The walls are permanent and pink.
See how she sits on her knees all day,
faithfully washing herself down.
Men enter by force, drawn back like Jonah
into their fleshy mothers.
A woman is her mother.
That’s the main thing.”
A mentor gave me a copy of Anne Sexton’s poems when I was in high school. I never knew if she meant them to be a warning, inspiration, or some combination of the two. I always read “Housewife” as a a warning, though I didn’t know of what exactly. Of becoming my mother? I’d be lucky to be even half the person she is. That men will force themselves into my flesh, that loving someone is giving them entrance, that some men are looking for their mothers? That from her knees a woman scrubs her house, subverts herself to her man? I guess I still can’t distill my thoughts abut this poem, I just know it feels true and important.
Part Four: Time and Eternity
By Emily Dickinson
“My cocoon tightens, colors tease,
I’m feeling for the air ;
A dim capacity for wings
Degrades the dress I wear.
A power of butterfly must be
The aptitude to fly,
Meadows of majesty concedes
And easy sweeps of sky.”
Once, in middle school, we had an Emily Dickinson party. We spoke only in Dickinson’s poems for the afternoon until words and laughter both buzzed between our lips and the air was thick with both hormones and the smoldering sensuality underlining the playful qualities, the punctuation that inspires breath, in Dickinson’s verse. Dresses degrade our wings, and what is the point of being a butterfly if we don’t spread or wings to fly over the meadow.
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By Edna St Vincent Millay
Only after this cigarette is ended,
A little moment at the end of all,
While on the floor quiet ashes fall,
And in the firelight to a lance extended,
Bizarrely with the jazzing music blended,
The broken shadow dances on the wall,
I will permit my menory to recall
The vision of you, by all my dreams attended.
And then adieu,–farewell!–the dream is done.”
I discovered this sonnet while stumbling through the library, looking for comfort during a particularly painful breakup. The book was mis shelved, and I was compelled to open the covers. This wasn’t the first sonnet I flipped to, but these were the first words to really take shape in my mind. The self confidence suggested in the idea of grieving for the length of a cigarette, a mere handful of minutes, and then simply walking away, leaving the grief drifting in the smoke captured my imagination and soothed my heart. I knew grief was not so simple, yet the idea of simply deciding to discard it felt new and sharp and necessary.
Death & Co.
By Sylvia Plath
“The birthmarks that are his trademark–
The scald scar of water,
Verdigris of the condor.
I am red meat. His beak
Claps sideways: I am not his yet.”
Trying to choose the most affecting Sylvia Plath poem is an impossible feat. She mixes mythology and philosophy and the beauty of the world, searching through the glimmers of truth for understanding, for a way to reconcile the contrast between her darkness and her light. Her poems have rhythm, and I was always struck by the rhythm here: “I am red meat. His beak/ Claps sideways: I am not his yet.” The anticipation built in the repetition of meat and beak, followed by the finality of yet, the full stop, the declaration of self hidden inside the structure of duality.
By Claudia Rankine
“Because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying”
This haiku is in memory of Jordan Russell Davis, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, and the unnamed past and future victims of institutionalized racism and law enforcement violence. Replace your imaginations, Rankine suggests, police your prejudice and the narratives that make black men more likely to be pulled over, be arrested, and serve longer sentences than their white counterparts. The narrative that tells some officers to shoot first.
By Solmaz Sharif
“Let it matter what we call a thing.
Let it be the exquisite face for at least 16 seconds.
Let me LOOK at you.
Let me look at you in a light that takes years to get here.”
I listened to Solmaz Sharif read “Look” aloud on the live-streamed National Book Award reading last year. We tell ourselves so many lies, especially during wartime; we name things in ways that may be accurate, may be supported by a certain amount of willful ignorance, but is not really true, only relates the most convenient, the most palatable. With the theater of the Trump administration, and the tragedies occurring around the globe, let it matter what we call a thing.
By Rupi Kaur
“i am a museum full of art
but you had your eyes shut”
Rupi Kaur’s poetry feels bold, manages to shock when language has lost some of that ability, as inured as readers are to expletives and violence. She says so much with so little. I love the idea of being a museum, full of precious objects and stories and works of art disguised as scars and organs and skin and hair. There is strength in these two lines, the same strength I found in Millay’s sonnet. There is a sense of self-knowing, even of self love, imbued in this declaration, this proverbial washing of the hands.
Other Recommended Collections:
Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T.S. Eliot
Song of Two Worlds, by Alan Lightman
Love Dishonor Marry Die Cherish Perish, by David Rakoff
Erotic Poems, by E.E. Cummings