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

What went wrong? Somehow, we blew it. We never quite got poetry inside the American school system, and thus, never quite inside the culture. Many brave people have tried, tried for decades, are surely still trying. The most recent watermark of their success was the introduction of Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg and some e.e. cummings, of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “In a Station of the Metro” — this last poem ponderously explained, but at least clean and classical, as quick as an inoculation. It isn’t really fair to blame contemporary indifference to poetry on “Emperor of Ice-Cream.” Nor is it fair to blame Wallace Stevens himself, who also left us, after all, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” a poem that will continue to electrify and intrigue far more curious young minds than are anesthetized by a bad day of pedagogy on the Ice Cream Poem. Let us blame instead the stuffed shirts who took an hour to explain that poem in their classrooms, who chose it because it would need an explainer; pretentious ponderous ponderosas of professional professors will always be drawn to poems that require a priest.

This essay will appear in Tony Hoagland’s collection of essays on poetry, forthcoming in 2014 from Graywolf Press.

Still, we have failed. The fierce life force of contemporary American poetry never made it through the metal detector of the public-school system. In the Seventies, our hopes seemed justified; those Simon and Garfunkel lyrics were being mimeographed and discussed by the skinny teacher with the sideburns, Mr. Ogilvy, who was dating the teacher with the miniskirt and the Joan Baez LPs (“Students, you can call me Brenda”). Armed with the poems of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Richard Brautigan, fifteen-year-olds were writing their first Jim Morrison lyrics, their Kerouacian chants to existential night.

But it never took. We flunked. We backslid.

Sure, there would always be those rare kids who got it anyway; who got, really got “We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!,” got it because they were old souls, preternaturally, precociously alert to the pitfalls of grown-up life, the legion opportunities for self-betrayal, the army of counterfeit values surrounding them. They were the ones who memorized “Dover Beach” and throatily recited it to their sweethearts, in the back seat of a Chevrolet on the night of junior prom, and then once more for select friends at the after-party.

But largely, c’mon — you and I both know — real live American poetry is absent from our public schools. The teaching of poetry languishes, and that region of youthful neurological terrain capable of being ignited and aria’d only by poetry is largely dark, unpopulated, and silent, like a classroom whose door is unopened, whose shades are drawn.

This is more than a shame, for poetry is our common treasure-house, and we need its aliveness, its respect for the subconscious, its willingness to entertain ambiguity; we need its plaintive truth-telling about the human condition and its imaginative exhibitions of linguistic freedom, which confront the general culture’s more grotesque manipulations. We need the emotional training sessions poetry conducts us through. We need its previews of coming attractions: heartbreak, survival, failure, endurance, understanding, more heartbreak.

I have met, over the years, many remarkable English teachers, God bless them, who make poetry vivid and real to their students — but they are the exception. By far the majority of language-arts teachers feel lost when it comes to poetry. They themselves were never initiated into its freshness and vitality. Thus they lack not only confidence in their ability to teach poetry but also confidence in their ability to read poetry! And, unsurprisingly, they don’t know which poems to teach.

The first part of the fix is very simple: the list of poems taught in our schools needs to be updated. We must make a new and living catalogue accessible to teachers as well as students. The old chestnuts — “The Road Not Taken,” “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” “Do not go gentle into that good night” — great, worthy poems all — must be removed and replaced by poems that are not chestnuts. This refreshing of canonical content and tone will vitalize teachers and students everywhere, and just may revive our sense of the currency and relevance of poetry. Accomplish that, and we can renew the conversation, the teaching, everything.

But, I hear some protest, aren’t the old poems good enough? Aren’t great poems enduring in their worth and perennial in their appeal? Love, death, strife, joy, loneliness — aren’t these the recurrent, always-relevant subject matter of our shared songs? In catering to the tastes of the present, wouldn’t we be lowering the caliber of the art we present to our youth? Isn’t this a capitulation to a superficial culture and the era of disposability?

Such questions are beside the point, since poetry is not being transmitted from one generation to the next. The cultural chain has been broken, as anyone paying attention knows. Moreover, the written word always needs renewal. Art must be recast continually. “Dover Beach” and “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” are not lost, but instead are being rewritten again and again, a hundred times for each new generation. Culture is always reanimating itself, and when it does so, it validates, reorganizes, and reinvigorates the past as well as the present.

If anthologies were structured to represent the way that most of us actually learn, they would begin in the present and “progress” into the past. I read Lawrence Ferlinghetti before I read D. H. Lawrence before I read Thomas Wyatt. Once the literate appetite is whetted, it will keep turning to new tastes. 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.

The second part of the fix is rather more complicated: in addition to rebooting the American poetic canon as a whole, we must establish a kind of national core curriculum, a set of poems held in common by our students and so by our citizens. In the spirit of boosterism, I have selected twenty works I believe worthy of inclusion in this curriculum — works I believe could empower us with a common vocabulary of stories, values, points of reference. The brief explications and justifications I offer below for nine of these poems are not meant to foreclose the interpretive possibilities that are part of a good poem’s life force. Rather, I hope they will point to areas worthy of cultivation in that mysterious inner space, the American mind.

POETRY TEACHES THE ETHICAL NATURE OF CHOICE

To visualize this poetry-enriched near-future, please imagine that somewhere in the echoey, high-ceilinged meeting rooms of our nation’s Capitol, a congressional committee is in session. It is midsummer in Washington, D.C., and a pitcher of water is on the table, beads of condensation on its side; the ice has melted. A difficult bill is also on the table, one in which the exigencies of the political present must be weighed against the needs of the future — say, for example, that the subsidized production of corn for ethanol might be given priority over other alternatives to gasoline. Too many Midwestern farmers have become dependent on these subsidies. But if policy is changed now, they will suffer.

“It’s like that William Stafford poem,” says one congressional aide. “What’s the title — the one about the deer?”

“Traveling through the Dark,” says a representative from Missouri. The poem begins:

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

“That’s the one,” says the aide. “Yeah, that scene where the guy has to decide whether to push the mother deer over the edge of the cliff to make the road safer — even though the deer is pregnant, with a fawn inside her.”

“To swerve might make more dead,” says someone else.

“Yes,” says the first legislator, “here we are, getting ready to choose some lives over others, to clear the road for traffic. Are we going to push the deer over the side of the highway?”

“When you put it like that,” says another, “I think we should wait.”

“That’s not deciding,” says a third congressman, “that’s procrastinating. I say we vote right now.”

Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;?
under the hood purred the steady engine.?
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;?
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all — my only swerving —,?
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

“Traveling through the Dark” is a well-known poem, but one with legs yet — it offers a lucid ethical dilemma that foregrounds the nature of moral choice.

POETRY RESPECTS SOLITUDE AND SELF-DISCOVERY

Here’s another scenario. A woman, recently divorced from her husband of twenty-five years (he fell in love with his yoga instructor). Living in the city where they shared a life together, she’s discovering what it’s like to be single at fifty. She has a busy professional life and can handle the daylight hours, but the nights are hard, and she’s decided she’d better stay away from wine in the evening. She believes she might be alone for the rest of her days.

One night on the train home, she remembers a poem from tenth grade called “Bamboo and a Bird.” When she gets back to her apartment, she looks it up on the Internet. It’s by Linda Gregg.

In the subway late at night.
Waiting for the downtown train
at Forty-Second Street.
Walking back and forth
on the platform.
Too tired to give money.
Staring at the magazine covers
in the kiosk. Someone passes me
from behind, wearing an orange vest
and dragging a black hose.
A car stops and the doors open.
All the faces are plain.
It makes me happy to be
among these people
who leave empty seats
between each other.

Reading the poem, the divorcée finds focus. “It reminded me,” she says to her friend the following week, “that there can be dignity in being alone. Remember the woman in the poem? She sees everything so clearly because she’s alone.”

“Yes,” says the friend. “She has this pride about being alone.”

“No, it’s not pride, exactly — she just sees what is in front of her. Because she’s tired. She can see because she’s exhausted and by herself. And even though those other people are maybe unhappy and poor, like her, she isn’t responsible for them. They don’t need to be changed. They can’t change. All of them, they just are what they are.”

“No shame, no pity.”

“It’s all right to be lonely, because everyone else is, too. There’s company in loneliness.” She pauses.

“It’s like existentialism with a hand warmer.”

“What about that guy in the poem, who goes past, pulling the hose? We could never figure that out in class. “

“I don’t know what that hose is about. Does everything have to represent something?”

POETRY STIMULATES DARING

At this point, perhaps, you may feel you are on the receiving end of a William Bennett–style sermon on Poetry as Moral Improvement. That intuition is only partially right. Not all of the twenty poems I’ve selected have “instruction” as their agenda. Their usefulness is not so constrained or predictable. Poems are existentially unconventional: though some may look like philosophical fitness equipment, designed for self-improvement, others may look like Siamese cats. Consider, as an example of something unpredictable, the following poem by Kerry Johannsen:

Black People & White People Were Said 

to disappear if we looked at
each other too long
especially the young ones —
especially growing boys & girls
the length of a gaze was
watched sidewise
as a kingsnake
eyeing a copperheadwhile hands
of mothers and fathers gently
tugged their children close
white people & black people were said to
disappear ifbut nobody ever said it
loudnobody said it
at all& nobody ever
talked about where
the ones who didn’t listen
went

Johannsen’s poem helps us to name a feature of the social landscape that every American will recognize; it drags into plain sight, and into our common vision, the mystery of race and the ominous way it plays out in our collective social life. It describes the haunted condition that results from repressed knowledge. Moreover, Johannsen’s poem does not avoid complexity in order to create agreement. It does not accuse or judge or cry out; it speaks from the position neither of the oppressor nor of the victim. The poem’s vocal tone is largely one of wonder, which makes it an unthreatening starting point for conversation about a touchy subject.

Alarmed by the rapid erosion of shared knowledge among Americans, the liberal scholar E. D. Hirsch, Jr. took on the role of cultural correctionist with his best-selling book, Cultural Literacy (1987). Hirsch argued that, without the propagation of a common vocabulary — Benedict Arnold, Sigmund Freud, King Lear, “revenue-ers,” the Cold War, Emmett Till, gerrymandering — the American cultural fabric would fray and fall apart. Indeed, unless we continue to renew and supplement our common intellectual property, we can and will get stupider, less comprehending of one another, more disconnected.

The scaffoldings of cultural identity can be either trivial or profound, toxic or sustaining, ephemeral or lasting. The celebrity culture that seems ubiquitous in our moment is a kind of fake surrogate for the culturally significant place gods and myth once held in the collective imagination. The saga of Princess Di, or Michael Jackson, or Amy Winehouse is a shallow substitute for the story of Persephone, lacking the structure to edify but charismatic to many people nonetheless. Just as junk food mimics nutritious food, fake culture mimics and displaces the position of real myth. Real culture cultivates our ability to see, feel, and think. It is empowering. Fake culture makes us passive, materialistic, and tranced-out.

Culturally important artworks establish new benchmarks of relevance, break icons, embody new recognitions for a people and a time. “Diving into the Wreck,” Citizen Kane, “Prufrock,” Glengarry Glen Ross. In poetry, as in other art forms, some works are of significance for cultural reasons, some for aesthetic. Both categories are legitimate, and, of course, they sometimes overlap. Artworks may sometimes lose their shape and resonance, their intensity and relevance, in five years, or ten, or fifty — and what’s wrong with that? The relative value of the “immortal” and the “contemporary” has been the subject of many intellectual battles, but why can’t these categories coexist?

The idealized America envisioned by Hirsch — one shored up by the deliberate revival of old and new traditions — would be one in which poems were part of the civility and pleasure of the dining table, in which guests and hosts staged impromptu readings, in which poems could usefully and naturally be worked into a conversation about anything at all. Is such a culture so far from possible?

POETRY REHABILITATES LANGUAGE

Muriel Rukeyser’s “Ballad of Orange and Grape” can teach us something about the fundamental import of language. Charming and didactic, the poem asks what it means when language is allowed to be unreliable. What, it wonders, happens to culture then?

After you finish your work
after you do your day
after you’ve read your reading
after you’ve written your say —
you go down the street to the hot dog stand,
one block down and across the way.
On a blistering afternoon in East Harlem in the twentieth century.

. . .

Frankfurters, frankfurters sizzle on the steel
where the hot-dog-man leans —
nothing else on the counter
but the usual two machines,
the grape one, empty, and the orange one, empty,
I face him in between.
A black boy comes along, looks at the hot dogs, goes on walking.

I watch the man as he stands and pours
in the familiar shape
bright purple in the one marked ORANGE
orange in the one marked GRAPE,
the grape drink in the machine marked ORANGE
and orange drink in the GRAPE.
Just the one word large and clear, unmistakable, on each machine.

I ask him: How can we go on reading
and make sense out of what we read? —
How can they write and believe what they’re writing,
the young ones across the street,
while you go on pouring grape into ORANGE
and orange into the one marked GRAPE — ?
. . .

He looks at the two machines and he smiles
and he shrugs and smiles and pours again.
It could be violence and nonviolence
it could be white and black  women and men
it could be war and peace or any
binary system, love and hate, enemy, friend.
Yes and no, be and not-be, what we do and what we don’t do.

On a corner in East Harlem
garbage, reading, a deep smile, rape,
forgetfulness, a hot street of murder,
misery, withered hope,
a man keeps pouring grape into ORANGE
and orange into the one marked GRAPE,
pouring orange into GRAPE and grape into ORANGE forever.

Rukeyser’s overt educational intention here may evoke a reflex uneasiness among some poetry lovers. When a work of art aims directly at “the public welfare,” the first objection concerns the proper motive of art. What is it art for? Beauty or truth? Entertainment or character building? Is Painting X worth looking at because of its subtle color, its ugliness, its idealism, its truth-telling, or because of its conversation with the history of aesthetics? Is the essence of art the unique expression of individuality, or of a cultural condition? When art is evaluated or loved for its “utility,” its ethical benefits, artists and intellectuals object that it has been demeaned, commodified, and oversimplified. The civic bureaucracy, meanwhile, argues that art is just not verifiable enough in its beneficence. But if we said that elementary-school playgrounds, with their monkey bars and swing sets, were intended to build hand–eye coordination and balance, would that make playgrounds oppressive, or less fun?

Rukeyser’s poem delivers its crucial idea in brief and forceful form, and although poems need no motive of instruction to justify themselves, hers accomplishes its mission memorably. The American who has read it will never take as given the duplicitous, inaccurate language that surrounds us commercially and politically in the way that Rukeyser’s speaker does. She urges us instead to see the corruption of language as it should be seen: as an ethical betrayal, as nothing less than an existential insult, one with snowballing consequences. Orange for grape, grape for orange — such a commonplace misrepresentation may seem trivial alongside fibs about weapons of mass destruction, yet it can lead into the valleys and mountains of bad faith. “The Ballad of Orange and Grape” provides anyone who has encountered it with a correlative, a reference point by which to recognize how certain worldly forces (in this case, indifference) anesthetize our language and thereby steal our reality.

Obviously, poems in a curriculum may usefully complicate and contradict one another. “The Ballad of Orange and Grape” addresses the ethics of language and the need for trustworthy speech. Against Rukeyser’s urgent formulation of that truth, one might, in our imaginary curriculum, counterpose Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” which asserts the superiority of silence and nature to scholarly language and ideas. In Whitman’s poem, two kinds of learning are opposed to each other, and the speaker advocates playing hooky:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” represents a streak of anti-intellectualism that is a familiar part of the American tradition of self-sufficiency and independence. The natural man, claims the poem, has little need for arid recitations of classroom knowledge. Rather, as Emerson suggested, it is the true work of each American to go outside and forge her own original relationship with the universe. Whitman’s lyric embodies that American narrative.

Is it so hard to believe that only twenty poems, commonly possessed and mutually valued, could make a difference in American culture? Our skepticism is founded in our ingrained impression of poetry as anemic, difficult, and obscure. We believe that, like other kinds of “high” art, poems must be force-fed to people; that poems are prissy, refined, cerebral, rhymed; that they are a kind of test devised to separate the bumpkins from the aesthetes. At bottom, such a prejudice, pervasive as it is, imagines that culture is a side dish on the meal of economic realism, an innocuous auxiliary to our lives.

To underestimate the appeal of art is to underestimate not only poetry but also human nature. Our hunger for myth, story, and design is very deep. I hold these poems’ truths to be self-evident. If we are not in love with poems, the problem may be that we are not teaching the right poems. Yet ignorance of and wariness about art gets passed on virally, from teacher to student. After a few generations of such exile, poetry will come to be viewed as a stuffy neighborhood of large houses with locked doors, where no one wants to spend any time.

POEMS DEFUSE SEXUAL ANXIETY AND ACKNOWLEDGE THE NATURALNESS OF CURIOSITY

Sharon Olds’s “Topography” could perhaps shatter the petrified classroom notion that poetry has no libido or sense of humor. The poem’s narrative achievement is to be both playful and wholesome on the subject of sex. “Topography” is also a tutorial in the pleasures of extended metaphor and language itself, allowed as it is to somersault in a non-directive, extracurricular capacity.

After we flew across the country we
got into bed, laid our bodies
delicately together, like maps laid
face to face, East to West, my
San Francisco against your New York, your
Fire Island against my Sonoma, my
New Orleans deep in your Texas, your Idaho
bright on my Great Lakes, my Kansas
burning against your Kansas your Kansas
burning against my Kansas, your Eastern
Standard Time pressing into my
Pacific Time, my Mountain Time
beating against your Central Time, your
sun rising swiftly from the right my
sun rising swiftly from the left your
moon rising slowly from the left my
moon rising slowly from the right until
all four bodies of the sky
burn above us, sealing us together,
all our cities twin cities,
all our states united, one
nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

The former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky once said that American poetry would be a warmer, more inviting place if it included more sex, humor, and violence — if, in some ways, it artfully incorporated some of the “life-affirming vulgarity” of the popular entertainment that has, it sometimes seems, elbowed it aside. Olds’s poem dispels the atmosphere of stodginess and elitism we culture lovers must constantly resist. It also sets the table for a host of subsidiary conversations on subjects ranging from patriotism to porn, from the curious pleasure of phonemes (“Sonoma”) to the nature of innuendo (“Fire Island”). The god of play is Eros, and sometimes art leads with the libido. If Americans only knew that poetry is sexy, surely more books would be checked out of the library. “Topography” demonstrates one of the wondrous facts of American poetry — its populist brilliance and range. It can be high and low, entertaining, erudite, provocative, rude, brainy, and mysterious.

POEMS ACKNOWLEDGE TROUBLE AHEAD

Gender is such an inextricable part of our lives and our identities that we spend our lives trying to untangle its truths and mysteries. The literature of gender is vast because the struggle to understand it is a fundamental one; yet the incisive swiftness of poetry cuts to the heart of most subjects, including this one. Whereas “Topography” praises the united states of sex, the inevitable difficulties between male and female are addressed more seriously in “A Man and a Woman,” by Alan Feldman. In fierce, fast-moving, broken-off lines, the poem catalogues the passionate suspicions and doubts of each gender towards the other. Feldman’s poem opens door after door for discussion, and closes none of them:

Between a man and a woman
The anger is greater, for each man would like to sleep
In the arms of each woman who would like to sleep
In the arms of each man, if she trusted him not to be
Schizophrenic, if he trusted her not to be
A hypochondriac, if she trusted him not to leave her
Too soon, if he trusted her not to hold him
Too long, and often women stare at the word men
As it lives in the word women, as if each woman
Carried a man inside her and a woe, and has
Crying fits that last for days, not like the crying
Of a man, which lasts a few seconds, and rips the throat
Like a claw — but because the pain differs
Much as the shape of the body, the woman takes
The suffering of the man for selfishness, the man
The woman’s pain for helplessness, the woman’s lack of it
For hardness, the man’s tenderness for deception,
The woman’s lack of acceptance, an act of contempt,
Which is really fear, the man’s fear for fickleness,
Yet cars come off the bridge in rivers of light,
Each holding a man and a woman.

The difficulties and differences are immense — “Yet cars come off the bridge in rivers of light/ each holding a man and a woman.” Feldman’s poem is tough, true, and vivid enough to deserve registration in our communal anthology. It begins, artfully, with a declared but never explicitly answered question. The anger between the man and the woman is “greater” than what? Love? Greater than the other sorts of anger we feel? The way this opening grammar hangs, semantically incomplete, is one of the poem’s many charms and sophistications. The catalogue of gendered differences, clearly compiled from experience in the field, is a provocative pleasure of its own. It is not hard to imagine the difference this poem might make in helping a husband and wife to consider the reasons for tolerance.

POEMS REHEARSE THE FUTURE

Poems, some more than others, are songs, passed down through time. It is amazing how far and how long they can travel and still remain fresh. Was there ever a poet named Speaks-Fluently? That is the name assigned to the author of this Native-American poem of Osage origin, passed on to me by another poet. “Song of Speaks-Fluently” is as light as a nursery rhyme and as serious as a gospel; wry, yet firm about the facts of life. And what a flavor of reliability it bears from its at once distant and personal source.

To have to carry your own corn far —
who likes it?
To follow the black bear through the thicket —
who likes it?
To hunt without profit, to return without anything —
who likes it?
You have to carry your own corn far.
You have to follow the black bear.
You have to hunt without profit.
If not, what will you tell the little ones? What
will you speak of?
For it is bad not to use the talk which God has sent us.
I am Speaks-Fluently. Of all the groups of symbols,
I am a symbol by myself.

Here is the news, says the poem sympathetically: You too shall labor, and on Tuesday your enterprise shall not succeed, and on Wednesday you shall bend again to the labor before you. Now, this is a message well worth inclusion in the speech of any high school valedictorian in America. Instead of demanding favors of the universe, Speaks-Fluently tells us, we must cultivate the wisdom of the shrug and exercise the muscle of persistence. “You have to carry your own corn far. You have to hunt without profit.”

With its images of ancient farming and hunting, “Song of Speaks-Fluently” carries another quiet implication — that we readers, whatever our work, are connected to the oldest rhythms of human effort and human survival. The necessities and hazards of our lives have changed in appearance, but not in essence.

A thousand kinds of poems exist, and they point in an infinite number of directions.

POEMS TEACH AESTHETICS THAT ARE OF BROAD APPLICATION

Another dividend of even a basic investment in poetry is the way it refines our sensitivity for tone, for subtleties of inflection, which in turn enables us to navigate the world more skillfully. Take the delicate, tentative mix of irony and affection in “The Geraniums,” by Genevieve Taggard:

Even if the geraniums are artificial
Just the same,
In the rear of the Italian café
Under the nimbus of electric light
They are red; no less red
For how they were made. Above
The mirror and the napkins
In the little white pots . . .
. . . In the semi-clean cafe
Where they have good
Lasagna . . . The red is a wonderful joy
Really, and so are the people
Who like and ignore it. In this place
They also have good bread.

Taggard’s poem, delivered in a reflective, tender, meditative voice, is about aesthetics. It asks an interesting question: Can a thing be simultaneously false and beautiful? Is the modern world, with its manifold illusions, nonetheless an environment in which the soul can find nourishment? What do we see and what do we habitually ignore? Can we train ourselves to appreciate any environment? Consider the loveliness of the humble fake flowers! To cultivate an ear for tone is, oddly enough, to cultivate one’s own perceptual alertness. In “The Geraniums,” irony and wonder (the “semi-clean” cafe and the “wonderful joy, really” of red) collaborate intricately in the speaker’s casually unfolding voice. To develop an ear for such delicate modulations is in fact a survival skill that can aid one for a lifetime.

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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  • 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.

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