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best poems of the English Language : An Annotated, non-hierarchical List
© 2008 Clay Moldenhauer


INTRODUCTION

To take on the challenge of listing the best poems in the english language is somewhat like being asked to list the10 best mothers on the planet. In the search to then list who most affected the planet, with heavy dependence on history books, we might very well come up with a list that excludes our own mothers, who, as we all know, affected each of us in the most profound ways possible. So much for the reliability of history books. So with that analogy, let me say I cannot measure a poem’s significance to the world any more than I can measure your mother’s significance to the world except to say, as common wisdom would dictate, you owe something very important to her. In like manner, we owe something very important to poetry, each of us, as the mother of our perceptual abilities and liabilities, of our visions of being demonic and human and divine simultaneously, of our linguistic network in ritual and community, of our bond to the senses’ lust for differences, and the minds’ hunger for patterns. And then there is the matter of our relation to the Great Mother, the mother of us all, beyond the mother of our birth ; the mother we call nature, evolution, creation, the kosmos, chaos, God, Goddess, intelligent design, and the list goes on. But by whatever name that connection is referenced, one fact persists : by the words of our mouth, our poetry, we recognize and honor that connection so as to invite her presence into our endeavors. In a word, the best english poetry is vital poetry, poetry that enlivens both ourselves and our listeners us as we speak it, that engenders an awe and respect for life.

Therefore, my list of the best poems would include not just the heralded masterpieces of poetic technique that public education has forced me to study, but also the poetry of children and their sidewalked chalked mispellings, of street-bums churning out smelly non-sense of alienation and drink, of pasty-faced flack-catchers sweating out Freudian slips, of caffeinated ad-writers force feeding deadlined lines into small spaces, the poetry of all those strangers remembered and half-forgotten who forced me out of my strange land into theirs for a moment of intimate intersection, whose being, whose words forced my world to enlarge, to rebirth, to resensitize, to appreciate the dirty fingernails of someone else’s experience. In short, the best poems of any description are those that have grounded us with the earth that supports us, that have given us breath as we have given them breath in the day to day life of the living, that have watered our eyes with sadness and elation, and that have filled our souls with the fire of life and the light of the stars; these are the poems that reference the vital elements of nature’s alchemical mystery : earth, air, water, and fire. These are the poems that are listed here.


Such a poem is “America the Beautiful.”

POEM : America The Beautiful *
PUBLISHED : circa 1895, (Harris -1988)
POET : Katherine Lee Bates (1859-1929), Pamela Haines (?)

TEXT :

Refrain
Oh, Beautiful for spacious skys for amber waves of grain.
For purple mountains majesty above the fruited plain.
America, America, God shed his grace on thee.
And crown thy good with Brotherhood from sea to shining sea.

Stanza 1
O beautiful for pilgrim feet whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness
America! America! God mend thy every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law

Stanza 2
O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife
Who more than self their country loved & mercy more than life
America! America! May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness & every gain divine.

Stanza 3
O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years
Thy alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears
America! America! God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with Brotherhood from sea to shining sea.

Pamela Haines Stanza
O beautiful for working folk who forged the wealth we see
In farm & mill, in home and school unsung in history
America! America! may race nor sex nor creed
No more divide, but side by side, all rise united, freed!


NOTES

According to the Academic American Encyclopedia (1980), this song, now the unofficial national anthem of the United States, appeared as a four stanza’d poem by Katherine Lee Bates in the Congregationalist Magazine, July 4, 1895, and was later set to music by Samuel Ward. The above refrain which is only the refrain of the song, is, in my opinion, a poem, and the only poem Americans know by heart. I have yet to meet anyone who can sing the three verses of the full poem without a book in front of them. Despite that, there is no other poem that I know of that brings up such intense emotion in a public American setting. That this poem continues to generate strong feeling and poetical expression is evidenced by the rousing gospel rendition of this song done by Whitney Houston as a part of Super Bowl XXV, and additional stanzas being added by current poets.

For me, this poem has been an integral part of my morning meditations, and it usually comes to mind as I am driving to work in the early morning hours. While I usually object to the God reference in public, secular documents, I am continually attracted to this poem for its power to elicit my strong feelings of community.

Three stanzas and a refrain totaling some 16 lines of iambic heptameter, echoing the biblical cadence of iambic pentameter, America the Beautiful is a hymn to America with an invocation to God : first, for God to “mend its flaws,” then “refine its Gold,” and lastly, to twice “shed his grace,” --the last two lines of both stanza 3 and the refrain. Each invocation is at the third line of the stanza-- so what we have here is progression of blessings-- with the first two lines of each stanza devoted to an honoring and remembrance of past contributions by “pilgrims” (stanza 1), “heroes” (stanza 2), and “patriot’s [dream]” (stanza 3), this last remembrance in adjectival form on “dream,” dream suggesting future time, which completes a historical progression of the stanzas from past (stanza 1), to present (stanza 2), to future (stanza 3) ; a tight consistent structure of design. And wouldn't you know it, there’s more.

Within this framework, Bates has also established a sequential social commentary on America’s challenges, using a pattern of 4 metrical feet to "X", then 3 metrical feet to "Y", in each of the first two lines and the last line of each stanza ; X and Y being in most cases labels of particular social forces that are in dynamic tension, i.e. antithetical elements. If we list those antithetical elements, it is surprising how current, or perhaps how timeless are the parameters of the American experience.


Stanza 1
line 1 null
BATES thoroughfare vs wilderness MODERN sprawl vs open space
line three null
BATES soul vs self control MODERN right to life vs choice
BATES liberty vs law MODERN individual vs collective


Stanza 2
BATES self vs country MODERN career vs country
BATES mercy vs life MODERN altruism vs ego
BATES Materiality vs nobleness MODERN me-ism vs respect
BATES gain vs the divine MODERN greed vs ethics


Stanza 3
BATES dream vs years (status quo) MODERN possibilities vs same old
BATES cities vs tears MODERN rewards vs sacrifaces
(material) good and Brotherhood
(West) sea and (East) sea


Refrain
sky and grain (land)
mountain and plain
(material) good and Brotherhood
(West) sea and (East) sea

The refrain stands outside of this 4-3 pattern and the anti-thetical pairings, its content being less historical and less political, and more theological. The refrain is also the fundamental basis of the content of the stanzas, the refrain's content being the five natural elements which we all share :

earth (grain, mountain , plain),

air (spacious sky),

water (shining
sea),

fire (
shining sea).

That the last half of the refrain is repeated as the last two lines of the last (third) stanza bridges the stanza's "vs" pairings to "and" pairings, and ties the fundamental content (of the natural elements) to the historical content of all the stanzas, another reminder that America may be its people and their actions, but “the beautiful” (natural elements) are the resources we are stewards of.

Refrain
Oh, Beautiful for spacious skys for amber waves of grain.
For purple mountains majesty above the fruited plain.
America, America, God shed his grace on thee.
And crown thy good with Brotherhood from sea to shining sea.

* From
Rise Up Singing, ed. by Peter Blood-Patterson, Sing Out Publications, 1988, p.1.
___________________________________________________________________

POEM : "Fire and Ice" *
PUBLISHED : circa 1923
POET : Robert Frost (1874- 1963)

TEXT :
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire,
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if I had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.


NOTES

"FIre and Ice" is but nine lines of 51 words (one word less than Lincoln's Address) with only five denotative common nouns : fire, ice, desire, hate, and destruction. These five nouns are the five elements of the poem, and they carry the message of the poem like a carrier pigeon : one wing of fire/desire, another of ice/hate. Of pronouns, there are only four : one personal pronoun :" I"; one demonstrative pronoun : "those" ; and two indefinite pronouns : "some" , and "it". The poem reminds me of poems chiseled into granite New England tombstones in the Shaker villages of Massachusetts, artistic footnotes to lives long lived and piously suffered.

Fire and Ice, I think, is in this tradition : brevity of expression, surface simplicity, philosophic depth, wry understatement, all of which are taught as the Frostian signature as well as the New England mode of communication. Like the stonecutters and craftman of the mid-19th century New England, Frost left New England for the gold of somewhere else, in his case, the American communal clusters of literati in Europe at the turn of the 20th century. He returned to New England 2 years later, an expatriate re-patriated to the fire and ice of New England weather and the hot and cold of American politics, to try his hand at farming. That too was short-lived. He turned his hand to writing poetry.

Have you ever have tried to write poetry in breath-cold, un-insulated cabins of New England? The very air demands long concentrations and brief exposition. It sharpens the mind as it numbs your fingers. Maybe that's why I like this poem, aside from its craftsmanship. What I think this poem is about is the experience of extremes, the extreme's of "warmth : extreme excess, extreme lack." That polarity dominates the poem. And while excesses may be typical of New England weather, the narrator, however, is not Frost himself living in New England, but someone, the "I", living in the "world" where (s)he has experienced those polarities. The I, of course, is you and me, the voice of humanity speaking in simple words of deep wisdom, like the narrator in Blake, or Dickinson. We have all tasted desire, we have all known hate, we have all participated in the destruction of the world. We burn people with our desire and we chill them with our hate. The narrator is expressing a formula here re-enforced by the structure of the poem on the page.

Fire and ice end line 1 and line 2, respectively : the thesis lines, the proposition. Desire and fire are linked as rhyming end words at lines 3 and 4 respectively ; hate and ice are linked as unrhymed end words at line 6 and 7 respectively. I am rushing at "the meaning" here, obviously, but I want to get to the enigma of line 5 : "But if I had to perish twice//," the kernel line, the line from which for me the message or significance of the poem radiates. To get at this lines import, cut and paste : take out "if I had to perish twice//," leaving line 6 to absorb the "but" into itself so line 6 would read "But I think I know enough of hate//." Omitting the enigma omits the vital suggestion that hatred leads to two deaths. And the ponderousness of two deaths is re-enforced by semantic contrast : sensation/softness of the fire choice (taste,desire,favor- pun on flavor?- fire) with hardness of the mental/ice choice(I think I know), where "ice" and great" get heavy end line emphasis because of the awkwardly divided three word lines of both line 8 and 9 ("Is also great//And would surfice"//).

So what do we now know from the narrator. We know now that the world dies once from desire, twice from hatred. Can we now interpolate what the second death might be? Even if we haven't explicated what the first one is? I think not. We have this same problem in St. Francis of Assisi's "Canticle", don't we? And we've had this same problem in the New Testament with writers talking about being born again.

Birth and death: fire and ice; still an enigma.

*From : Modern American and British Poetry, ed. by Louis Untermeyer,
Harcourt,Brace and World, N.Y., 1955, page 59.
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POEM : "LOVE’S GROWTH"
PUBLISHED : circa 1633
POET : JOHN DONNE (1572- 1631)

[Love's growth poem goes here]

John Donne’s poem “Love’s Growth,” one of 22 poems and 7 Holy Sonnets selected for the
Fourth Norton Anthology of Poetry, Fourth Edition, exhibits many of the signative qualities of Donne’s work, especially the distinctness of the literary persona, that is, the voice in the poem or sonnet which illicits our response. It also exhibits a complex matrix of metaphors which were the Renaissance poet’s image stock : tropes or conceits on the subjects of alchemy, the five elements, the muses, the heavenly spheres and angels, like-cures-like, lovers frozen by neglect, etc. (See footnote 1 )

My response to this poem, what I hear, is a poem that begins as many of his do, with a clear conversational-toned “I” statement about an issue, given directly to me, the reader, almost as if the persona speaking were sitting next to me on a park bench reflecting on life’s lessons. The lesson here , as I hear the persona or perhaps the personas , is that because love is “..as all else,..elemented too,” i.e. composed of the finite elements of earth, air, fire, and water-- “all stuff paining soul and sense”--and is not a perfect balance of them, i.e. a “quintessence”, as he had been taught--compare “The Fifth Element” recently screened-- love can paradoxically increase.

The persona of the first stanza is pondering on the mutability of all things, and, in this case, both that of his attitude, and of [his?] “Gentle love deeds.” That is, the persona thought his love absolute, unsullied by material level elements, but now his love has changed and grown. So has his opinion. The concluding line of the poem, “No winter [of absence?] shall abate the spring’s increase [of love]", perhaps says it all. But, of course, while a poem may have something to say, that’s not all there is to a poem. Because the poem functions as a matrix of tensions within itself and within me the reader. That is what I want to talk about, these creative tensions : both this feeling of tension between a persona of spontaneous feeling and thought, and another persona, one of strict conscience and deep reflection, (both of whom seem to speak as one in stanza one but separate in later stanzas), as well as the tension (and cohesion) between and among the interweaving metaphors within the poem (See footnote 2 ). But first, some groundwork about the poem’s rhetorical substance.

As a sonnet, the poem’s line count is greater than the traditional sonnet of 14 lines. “Love’s Growth” is 28 lines, divided into a pair of two stanzas of 14 lines each, with the sestets at stanzas one and three and the octets at two and four, thus doubling and inverting the standard Italian sonnet (eight first and six second) as the Norton footnote points out. Thus it is a double sonnet; two sonnets in one, appropriate for a sonnet about increase. Perhaps it is, as the Norton footnotes suggest, a poem about pregnancy.

It has a formal rhyme scheme, i.e. ABABCC DEEDFFGG HIHIJJ KLKLMMNN, expresses different aspects of a single thought, which is resolved or summed up, as I noted by the last line of the poem, inside a concluding couplet. And, interestingly, the concluding couplet (climactic structure) of all but the last couplet which concludes in one line-- speak with a certainty and resolve ; this, I think, is the persona of strict conscience and judgment. And in each couplet, love as the topic (the tenor of the metaphors) is imaged intimately with natural things or natural processes or is personified by such (the vehicles).

stanza one couplet -- infinite, spring
stanza two couplet -- elemented, contemplation,doing
stanza three couplet -- blossoms, bough, root
stanza four last line -- winter, spring

The effect of this “positioning” of love is somewhat similar to the effect of a product advertisement : the product (love) is consistently associated with healthy, clean, natural, uplifting images. Here the consistency results in love’s linkage with nature’s seasons and growth cycles.

The other persona, therefore, if there is another, contributes all the other lines before the concluding couplets: this is the voice of spontaneity and poetic fancy, doubts, scientific babbling, confessions, and self recriminations, the voice which brings up “all else.” If we start with the diction of the rest of these lines and list all the nouns, we get a sense of the world of the other persona as well as the things that support the poem’s matrix of metaphors, a matrix usually termed “metaphysical conceits” by the literary critics.

vicissitude, season, grass, medicine, sorrow, quintessence, stuffs, soul, sense, sun, vigor, mistress, muse, firmament, stars, sun, water, circles, additions, spheres, heaven, spring, heat, princes, action (war), taxes, peace.


Is this really two persona, or am I just evidence gathering for a forced conclusion? That there are two persona in this one poem may be debatable. But what is obvious is a kind of dialectic : a going out, and then a coming back in ; first a sensitivity to the outer world and its complexities, and then a drawing back to a smaller quieter space to point to the parallel between the outer and the inner, with resolving end couplets at lines 5&6,13&14, 19&20, and 27&28 to finalize the dialectic, and reify (and perhaps deify via multiple metaphors ) nature’s processes of growth.

This dialectic within the persona, or by the personas, of the poem places the poet in a certain posture to his subject. While I cannot identify that posture or give it a term from literary criticism, I sense that the posture here in “Love’s Growth” is common to both Donne and to the sonnets of the Renaissance, and was of great appeal to his Renaissance audience. While literary discussions today, for instance the symposium “Poetry--Who needs it?” at Lynchburg College (March 14, 2000), focus on the question of “where have all the audiences gone,” a more productive focus, I think, would be on where has all the knowledge gone”. For I think that Donne’s personas had great appeal precisely because they were not “idiots”-- see footnote 8, Elegy VII, line1-- and could display their knowledge of the best available ideas about the workings of nature while skillfully templating that knowledge into the sonnet obsession and sexual interest of their audience (See footnote 3).

Where or how the meter of this poem under girds these thematic and semantic events is not entirely clear to me, but several matters are worth mentioning. Of the poems 28 lines, 22 are pentameter, 4 are trimeter, and one is hexameter. Of the poems 133 feet, 75 are iambic, 33 are trochaic, 25 are spondaic and pyrrhic, and 1 is dactylic. One pattern of these scansion elements is as follows :


stanza 1 iambic 69% trochaic 12% iambic excess over trochaic +47%

stanza 2
iambic 43% trochaic 29% iambic excess over trochaic +14%

stanza 3
iambic 46% trochaic 34% iambic excess over trochaic +12%

stanza 4
iambic 67% trochaic 22% iambic excess over trochaic +45%


I would argue that this distribution of the accentual patterns speeds up stanza two and three giving them, as the Norton Anthology editors put it, a “ lighter, quicker, more buoyant movement,” while in comparison, stanza one and four are slower and closer to the “biblical cadence” of iambic pentameter. Could I suggest that this is a mime of the rhythm of love making?

In any case, “Love’s Growth”, also titled “Spring” in some printings (See footnote 4 ), is a delight of double-entendres (puns) which serve to fuse the primary thematic units of the poem : the persona's consciousness fusing with love in the first two stanzas, and then love fusing with the seasons and heat in the last two, the “turn” occurring in each case at the beginning of the last quatrain of the 14 line sonnet units. Repeated readings only re-enforce my impression that this poem is an intricate semantic machine of the highest order : persona, theme, rhyme, meter, diction, and sonnet structure all lean in and away from each other in a rhythm that creates a dynamic tension no different than a windmill and its blades. And there is constant delight in feeling the wind of its turning.

FOOTNOTES

footnote 1
“signitive qualities”: Donne’s particular genius of poesy and insight, his signature, so to speak : reflections on life’s and love’s apparent paradoxes in a rich tapestry of conceits that reflect the general five element science and heaven-earth polarity politics of his day, using an evocative elder narrator who seems to be talking directly to male relational dilemmas with the female sex, employing the element of “syntactical surprise.” For example, Holy Sonnet #5 , lines 1&2: “I am a little world made cunningly// Of elements and an angelike sprite..”

footnote 2
Handbook to Literature, ed. by Thrall,Hibbard, and Holman, The Odessy Press, p.218. I am indebted to the editors for the distinction “spontaniety of consciousness vs strictness of conscience” used in defining hebraism and hellenism as forces in tension in western literature.

footnote 3
Here in our narrative we could comment on the steady compartmentalization of knowledge since the 16th century, and how Donne’s readers could flatter themselves that they knew all about nature because they could read and understood sonnets of the times.

footnote 4
See Norton Anthology of Poetry, Fourth Edition, page 269, footnote 4.
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[UNDER CONSTRUCTION]

POEM : “Song of Myself” *
PUBLISHED : circa (1891-92)
POET : Walt Whitman (18XX - XXXX )


I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass...

*See
The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 4th Edition, page 961.