Suggestion — April 11, 2013, 5:15 pm

Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America

Imagining a renewed role for poetry in the national discourse — and a new canon

( 10 of 10 )

The Fatal Card: The powerful drama, by Haddon Chambers & B. C. Stephenson. Library of Congress, Cabinet of American Illustration collection

The Fatal Card: The powerful drama, by Haddon Chambers & B. C. Stephenson. Library of Congress, Cabinet of American Illustration collection

I could go on with more examples. My list is ready — I am only waiting for the president to give me the go-ahead. Perhaps twenty other experienced readers of poetry might come up with twenty other lists of poems that might similarly serve, poems that could be smuggled into twenty-first-century life as amulets and beatitudes to guide, map, empower, and console. The argument of this essay is not complex; the poems are richly so.

Poems build our capacity for imaginative thinking, create a tolerance for ambiguity, and foster an appreciation for the role of the unknown in human life. From such compact structures of language, from so few poems, so much can be reinforced that is currently at risk in our culture. As an American writer, I long for the art form to be restored to its position in culture, one of relevance and utility, to do what it can. In everything we have to understand, poems can help.

To implement a program of poetry reading and appreciation across the educational system, in prep schools and charter schools as well as in public schools, would take daring and conviction and willingness. It would take the willingness of teachers to enjoy poems themselves, to handle a kind of material that aims not to quantify, define, or test but to open one door after another down a long hallway. To communicate credulity requires credulity, the faith that a small good thing contains the potential for great transformations. Yet our own lives provide the testimony that futures are formed from such chance encounters, such small receptions and affections. In increment after increment, the grace of the future depends on the preparation and generosity of the past. It is that incidental, almost accidental, encounter with memorable beauty or knowledge — that news that comes from poetry — that enables us, as the poem by William Stafford says, to think hard for us all.


TONY HOAGLAND’S TWENTY POEMS

Twenty-First. Night. Monday., by Anna Akhmatova
God’s Justice, by Anne Carson
memory, by Lucille Clifton
A Man and a Woman, by Alan Feldman
America, by Allen Ginsberg
Bamboo and a Bird, by Linda Gregg
A Sick Child, by Randall Jarrell
Black People & White People Were Said, by Kerry Johannsen
Topography, by Sharon Olds
Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver
Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car, by Dan Pagis
Merengue, by Mary Ruefle
Ballad of Orange and Grape, by Muriel Rukeyser
Waiting for Icarus, by Muriel Rukeyser
American Classic, by Louis Simpson
The Geraniums, by Genevieve Taggard
Song of Speaks-Fluently, by Speaks-Fluently
Traveling Through The Dark, by William Stafford
When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer, by Walt Whitman
Our Dust, by C. D. Wright

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’s books include What Narcissism Means to Me (Graywolf). He teaches at the University of Houston, and through the organization The Five Powers of Poetry.

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