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

Previous Page Next Page
10 of 10
’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.

More from Tony Hoagland:

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

  • Wes

    It seems that we still have yet to break ourselves from Plato’s message in the Republic that poetry only serves to arouse the passions of the polis

    • http://dadpoet.wordpress.com/ David J. Bauman

      Excellent suggestion, Wes!

  • thoughtsarefree

    Thank you for writing this article. This is relevant for non-American readers, as well. I feel that the teacher’s failure to guide students into seeing the beauty of poetic language has made studying poetry into an awful bore. I’d include Carolyn Forche’s The Colonel in the list — it’s a powerful poem that resonates with each reading.

    • http://twitter.com/confettifoot confettifoot

      Amazing that you’d say that – I’d just been sitting here thinking the same thing.

  • Zach Mathews

    I agree with the sentiment, but I’m and English teacher in Vancouver and I’m not teaching the old canon described. I teach poems that interest me, that are recent, and that I think my students will like. It’s not much more complicated than that. Also, at least around here, this approach isn’t unique.

    For instance, I typically teach “Heartbeat” by Jose Gonzalez and the students dig it. Then I put on the “The Knife” version and the kids say “wow! Wwwhat is this?” Get them to guess which is the original and you can blow their mind!

    Anyhow, I guess I saying, “come on, give us teachers a little credit!” Hopefully the people teaching Frost are retiring.

    • thoughtsarefree

      Sounds like an interesting lecture! I love both versions of Heartbeats. How do you tackle it?

  • April Ossmann

    Excellent, on-point, beautifully clear, and leavened with characteristic good humor (in both senses), thank you, Tony Hoagland! I will quarrel only with the statement about popular culture:

    • Kathleen Cain

      Ditto on the Princess Di story. Your words echo those of an essay by Camille Paglia (remember her?) on the same topic. The mythology’s constantly being updated.

    • http://dadpoet.wordpress.com/ David J. Bauman

      I love this article for many reasons, and I cheer on Tony Hoagland for even more reasons, but he does have a tendency to overshoot the mark in his passionate enthusiasm. I think you are right here. He says, “Just as junk food mimics nutritious food,fake culture mimics and displaces the position of real myth.” But at the same time supports a poem with a fake flower rather than a real flower. There is beautiful commentary worth discussing, and arguing about, not just about aesthetics, in that piece. I support you, Tony, and I marvel happily that you have this bravery to charge forward into the fray as you do, despite critics among your contemporaries, but your bent toward overstatement sometimes gives them too much ammunition against you.

  • Susan

    Thank you for this essay. Like the commenter from Vancouver below, I teach poetry that interests me and the students, and if at times I feel like abandoning it because of a few students who just won’t come along, there are many, many occasions that remind me poetry does reach people. This essay is one of those occasions, and next time I feel like quitting I will go back to it.

  • julie ann

    So good!

  • will08smith

    Holy ED Hirsch Batman! It’s a wheezy breezy rootin’ tootin’ rebootin’ of the canon!

    And almost complete sanctimonious nonsense. One doesn’t even know where to begin.

    • DrunkenOrangetree

      Maybe one could enlighten us simpletons?

  • will08smith

    Doesn’t this essay presume too much: “A reader who first falls in love with Billy Collins or Mary Oliver is likely then to drift into an anthology that includes Emily Dickinson and Thomas Hardy.”

    Dickinson is for sale in every bookstore and Mary Oliver in a smaller number for a reason: ordinary readers buy and read her poetry. It’s almost certainly true that more people in 21st-century America have gone on to read Oliver by first reading Dickinson than the other way around.

    Oliver’s new and selected poems: Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #28,238 in Books.

    Dickinson’s Collected Poems (only one of the dozens of out-of-copyright versions): #8,932 in Books

    • Kathleen Cain

      An interesting point but numbers alone can’t tell the full story. Dickinson’s bound to be required reading in more places than Oliver is, thus more sales. Just sayin’.

  • courtney

    a compelling and terrifically written piece – thanks, Tony.

  • Kathleen Cain

    I appreciate the care and thoughtfulness – as well as the knowledge of poetry – that went into the writing of this article. After teaching genealogy many years ago, I’ve long since thought that poetry (and literature) should be approached the same way: work from what you know back to what you don’t know. I’ve been spoiled, though, in having a chance over the years to work with the fine teachers at the Denver School for the Arts, where daily infusions of poetry are fresh and synergistic and the canon is renewed like spring run-off in a good year; and also to be acquainted with the work of another high school instructor in Lincoln, NE whose slam poetry team just won the state championship (now there’s a team that deserves a full field house and sold-out season tickets for the next 20 years!). With a fellow poet I’m in the process of organizing a round of “conversations” on behalf of a local literary magazine, The Bloomsbury Review. I don’t think it will take much convincing, since my co-facilitator is also a poet, but I hope we can feature your article as a centerpiece for one of our discussions and get those who attend involved in this effort. P.S. I love your audacity to imagine that poems could/can save America. Bravo!

  • Rex

    Perhaps Mr Hoagland (and a few others) should look at Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska – for two years, the Nebraska Writers Collective, and Louder than a Bomb Nebraska, in affiliation with the enthusiastic support of many high schools in Nebraska, have exploded performance poetry into the classroom and stages here – check out http://ltabomaha.org/ and http://newriters.org/ .. AND, the NE Writers Collective funds trips into the classrooms by Nebraska poets, which produces ENthusiasm for writing, editing, reading, reviewing, and reciting — POETRY ROCKS in Nebraska!!

    • http://dadpoet.wordpress.com/ David J. Bauman

      I’ve seen this in Poetry Out Loud via some of our local schools, and it’s exciting. I do think Tony has some points though, even if he generalizes a bit in his exuberance. We certainly need more changes like what has been happening in Nebraska. Thanks for the great links!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Christina-Stopka-Rinnert/1168070351 Christina Stopka Rinnert

    Thank you for choosing poems from such a wonderful cross-section of American poetry. Gorgeous article.

  • Charlene

    I don

    • Krystin

      So glad to see someone bring up LTAB and Poetry Out Loud. Here in Alabama, the Poetry Out Loud competition has an original work component as well, which actually does away with any kind of “canon” or “curation” of already-existing poets, at least from the beginning. I think the beauty of this program is that it brings young readers to poetry via the creation of it. As a teacher/coach, my favorite part of POL is looking at a student’s work and giving them recommendations based on what they’ve created. They figure out their own poetic lineage, their own personal canon, who inspired them before they knew they were inspired, who thought and felt and expressed ideas just like them. Not only does this instill a personal commitment and accountability to poetry within the student, I find it is more “American” in nature, that personal journey, culling from a great expanse of time and place. I still “curate” a “canon” for the student in the same way Hoagland has here, except the standards with which I choose poets I think a student will like are geared more towards the student rather than some arbitrary definition of what I think “American” is.

  • tiojo

    Really interesting opening for a discussion! At one point Hoagland mentions the scaffolding of cultural identity. What about the scaffolding of the poem itself? I did not see much discussion here about poetic craft

  • http://www.facebook.com/raymmax Ray Max

    Twenty-First. Night. Monday

    Twenty-first. Night. Monday.
    Silhouette of the capitol in darkness.
    Some good-for-nothing — who knows why–
    made up the tale that love exists on earth.
    People believe it, maybe from laziness
    or boredom, and live accordingly:
    they wait eagerly for meetings, fear parting,
    and when they sing, they sing about love.
    But the secret reveals itself to some,
    and on them silence settles down…
    I found this out by accident
    and now it seems I’m sick all the time.

    Anna Akhmatova

  • DxRachel

    “But largely, c

  • Weldon Goree

    Did I really just read 10 pages about the death of poetry among the young in which hip hop was not mentioned once?

    • DxRachel

      ^ my sentiment, also, but expressed more crisply by you.

  • Marija Liudvika

    The article by Tony Hoagland has refreshed my mind, highlighting American poetry in particular. Thank you.

  • Ken Bullock

    “As for public relations, Yeats said, They do not like poetry; they like something else. But they want to think that
    they like poetry.” ~ Pound, ‘Confucius to Cummings

  • teaching English in Paris

    I will be the first to buy your Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry for the classroom. When will it come out?

  • heyitsgogi

    Why is Tony Hoagland being so awful? The idea that literature should edify or instruct us morally is 19th century era outdated and sadly myopic. Do people pick the five movies everyone in ‘Murica needs to watch to be ‘Murican? Or the ten trees we all need to climb? How about we don’t give people a list of poems they can check off their to-do lists before getting back to office, and instead we all read a lot, and share poems a lot, and not worry too much if we’ve read the right ones or the wrong ones or what ever.

    • DrunkenOrangetree

      Go back and read the essay again.

  • Dee El Bach

    It is sad that poetry seems to be dying, especially in American schools. My sister home schools my niece and as it is a mandate in the curriculum she taught it. I tried to help as I a a poet, however, I believe my sister has allowed her distain for poetry (even though she claims to love songs) to influence her daughter to where she feels the same way at 13 years old.

    I do not recall really having any lessons about poetry until 7th grade in junior high school. Our English teacher taught poetry for a quarter semester. This is when, as a very shy and backward girl, found my voice and my place to belong. In 45 years I have written more poems than I can count and even have one book of poetry published on Amazon. My work ranges from simplistic to involved. However, I have had many tell me that, in general, they do not like poetry, but find something in mine for them them to hold onto.

    Failing to teach our nation’s children this vital genre of creativity will only hinder growth and moral perspective. Had my teacher not taught poetry to my class, I would be completely lost. I would not be the woman I am today.

    National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo) should be observed in every school around the world to help children to better understand what poetry is all about and develop a deeper understanding for themselves and the world around them. Just a thought.

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Arab artists take up — and look past — regional politics
“When everyday life regularly throws up images of terror and drama and the technological sublime, how can a photographer compete?”
“Qalandia 2087, 2009,” by Wafa Hourani
Post
“There was torture by the previous regime and by the current Iraqi regime,” Dr. Amin said. “Torture by our Kurdish government, torture by Syrians, torture by the U.S.”
Visiting His Own Grave © Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Article
The Tale of the Tape·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Heroin isn’t the weakness Art Pepper submits to; it’s the passion he revels in.”
Photograph (detail) © Laurie Pepper
Criticism
The Soft-Kill Solution·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Policymakers, recognizing the growing influence of civil disobedience and riots on the direction of the nation, had already begun turning to science for a response."
Illustration by Richard Mia
New Books
New Books·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

 
“Almond insists that watching football does more than feed an appetite for violence. It’s a kind of modern-day human sacrifice, and it makes us more likely to go to war.”
Photograph by Harold Edgerton

Chance that a movie script copyrighted in the U.S. before 1925 was written by a woman:

1 in 2

Engineers funded by the United States military were working on electrical brain implants that will enable the creation of remote-controlled sharks.

Malaysian police were seeking fifteen people who appeared in an online video of the Malaysia-International Nude Sports Games 2014 Extravaganza, and Spanish police fined six Swiss tourists conducting an orgy in the back of a moving van for not wearing their seatbelts.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today