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.

Previous PageNext Page
1 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 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2018

The Wizard of Q

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Punching the Clock

Family History

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Combat High

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Last Best Place

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Sound of Madness

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Combat High·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Afew months before the United States invaded Iraq, in 2003, Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary at the time, was asked on a radio show how long the war would take. “Five days or five weeks or five months,” he replied. “It certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.” When George W. Bush departed the White House more than five years later, there were nearly 136,000 US soldiers stationed in the country. 

The number of troops has fallen since then, but Bush’s successors have failed to withdraw the United States from the region. Barack Obama campaigned on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, only to send hundreds of troops into Syria. For years Donald Trump described America’s efforts in Afghanistan as “a waste” and said that soldiers were being led “to slaughter,” but in 2017 he announced that he would deploy as many as 4,000 more troops to the country. “Decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk of the Oval Office,” he explained. Every president, it seems, eventually learns to embrace our perpetual war.

With the Trump Administration’s attacks on affordable health care, immigration, environmental regulation, and civil rights now in full swing, criticism of America’s military engagements has all but disappeared from the national conversation. Why hasn’t the United States been able—or willing—to end these conflicts? Who has benefited from them? Is victory still possible—and, if so, is it anywhere in sight?

In March, Harper’s Magazine convened a panel of former soldiers at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. The participants, almost all of whom saw combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, were asked to reflect on the country’s involvement in the Middle East. This Forum is based on that panel, which was held before an audience of cadets and officers, and on a private discussion that followed.

Illustration (detail) by John Ritter
Article
Comforting Myths·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before he died, my father reminded me that when I was four and he asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be a writer. Of course, what I meant by “writer” then was a writer of Superman comics. In part I was infatuated with the practically invulnerable Man of Steel, his blue eyes and his spit curl. I wanted both to be him and to marry him—to be his Robin, so to speak. But more importantly, I wanted to write his story, the adventures of the man who fought for truth, justice, and the American Way—if only I could figure out what the fuck the American Way was.

Artwork by Mahmood Sabzi
Article
The Sound of Madness·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Sarah was four years old when her spirit guide first appeared. One day, she woke up from a nap and saw him there beside her bed. He was short, with longish curly hair, like a cherub made of light. She couldn’t see his feet. They played a board game—she remembers pushing the pieces around—and then he melted away.

After that, he came and went like any child’s imaginary friend. Sarah often sensed his presence when strange things happened—when forces of light and darkness took shape in the air around her or when photographs rippled as though shimmering in the heat. Sometimes Sarah had thoughts in her head that she knew were not her own. She would say things that upset her parents. “Cut it out,” her mother would warn. “This is what they put people in psychiatric hospitals for.”

Painting (detail) by Carlo Zinelli
Article
Looking for Calley·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the fall of 1969, I was a freelance journalist working out of a small, cheap office I had rented on the eighth floor of the National Press Building in downtown Washington. A few doors down was a young Ralph Nader, also a loner, whose exposé of the safety failures in American automobiles had changed the industry. There was nothing in those days quite like a quick lunch at the downstairs coffee shop with Ralph. Once, he grabbed a spoonful of my tuna-fish salad, flattened it out on a plate, and pointed out small pieces of paper and even tinier pieces of mouse shit in it. He was marvelous, if a bit hard to digest.

The tip came on Wednesday, October 22. The caller was Geoffrey Cowan, a young lawyer new to town who had worked on the ­McCarthy campaign and had been writing critically about the Vietnam War for the Village Voice. There was a story he wanted me to know about. The Army, he told me, was in the process of court-martialing a GI at Fort Benning, in Georgia, for the killing of seventy-five civilians in South Vietnam. Cowan did not have to spell out why such a story, if true, was important, but he refused to discuss the source for his information.

Photograph © Bettmann/Getty Images
Article
The Last Best Place·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The family was informed they would be moving to a place called Montana. Jaber Abdullah had never heard of it, but a Google search revealed that it was mountainous. Up to that point, he and his wife, Heba, had thought they’d be moving from Turkey to Newark, New Jersey. The prospect of crime there concerned Heba, as she and Jaber had two young sons: Jan, a petulant two-year-old, and Ivan, a newborn. 

Montana sounded like the countryside. That, Heba thought, could be good. She’d grown up in Damascus, Syria, where jasmine hung from the walls and people sold dates in the great markets. These days, you checked the sky for mortar rounds like you checked for rain, but she still had little desire to move to the United States. Basel, Jaber’s brother, a twenty-two-year-old with a cool, quiet demeanor, merely shrugged.

Illustration (detail) by Danijel Žeželj

Average amount Microsoft spends each month assisting people who need to change their passwords:

$2,000,000

Chimpanzees who join new groups with inferior nut-cracking techniques will abandon their superior techniques in order to fit in.

Trump leaves the Iran nuclear deal, Ebola breaks out in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and scientists claim that Pluto is still a planet.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today