J.H. Danville—“Self Dependence” by Matthew Arnold
Matthew Arnold’s “Self Dependence” has been haunting me for weeks. Reading and rereading it, the opening lines echo deeper and more deeply into this season of the world. “Weary of myself, and sick of asking / What I am, and what I ought to be,” feels like a perfect encapsulation of the current mood. The speaker explores themselves standing on a ship at night, seeking the calm and expansiveness of stars and sea. The exploration settles with “”Resolve to be thyself; and know that he, / Who finds himself, loses his misery!”” The loss of which seems almost too precious these days.
“The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens
I love “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens for its last line—“Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”— and for breathtaking surprises along the way. It pretends to be about a child’s snowman, but Stevens slyly uses the impersonal “one”: snowman? human? Similarly, the first two stanzas pretend to be complete thoughts: “One must have a mind of winter/ To regard” etc. But in stanza 3, it’s suddenly clear these were merely hypotheses in a more complex thought: to regard x and to behold y, without thinking of z. In fact, the entire five-stanza poem is a single sentence, with masterful punctuation and line breaks. In its wonderful sonic quality and grammatical sleight of hand, it’s the work of a great American poet at the height of his craft.
Frank O’Brien—“Pied Beauty” by Gerald Manley Hopkins
Though my “favorite” poem changes frequently, the one poem I keep going back to every year for the sheer brilliance of its word play is “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Since Hopkins had basically only one theme, he was totally free to concentrate on all other aspects of the art, even coming up with a whole new concept, “sprung rhythm”, in doing so. Although very much English, he picked up the use of alliteration from his studies of the Welsh language (most Celtic languages rely more heavily on alliteration than they do on rhyme). The way Hopkins welds together images with striking word selections and inventive alliteration remains amazing to me after decades of reading and repeating his poems. If you’re not in any way religious, the poesy itself should be inspiring; if you are indeed religious, then you should find it to be as good a single prayer as any you might have learned at school.
Claire Weiner — “PostScript” by Seamus Heaney
I find the opening words of Postscript by Seamus Heaney difficult to ignore. “And some time make the time to drive out west…” What an invitation—gentle and imploring at the same time. An invitation that mirrors the natural setting he describes: “the ocean on one side is wild…. and inland among stones the surface of a slate grey lake…” The yin and yang woven throughout this short poem continues with his magnificent description of the swans, “tucked or cresting or busy underwater.” He captures a moment that never fails to blow me away.
Naomi Shihab Nye—“Kindness”–https://poets.org/poem/kindness
Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Kindness,” has been for me both a source of inspiration and solace. In this poem she takes us with her on an ordinary bus ride to remind us that “Before you know what kindness really is/you must lose things.” I have a sister who is terminally ill and it seems all I have to give her right now is kindness. But Nye tells us in this poem that kindness is the only thing “that makes sense anymore,” that it can go with us “everywhere/like a shadow or a friend.” In addition to this being a beautiful poem, it is a fine example of how poetry can bring grace when it seems there is none.
“The Garden” – Andrew Marvell
As a lifetime gardener, I can’t help but admire Marvell’s “The Garden,” with its metaphorical twists and turns reflecting on themes of human vainglory, nature’s gifts of calm meditative repose, and Biblical references. My introduction to the poem was at a project meeting when it was read by a landscape architect describing a garden design. My favorite part of the poem is in the sixth stanza.
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.
Yes to annihilating all this world’s strivings, trials, and even joys into a green thought in a green shade. Yes to getting back mentally and physically to our home in the natural world!
On Visiting Herbert Hoover’s Birth and Burial Place by Thomas Lux
I admire Thomas Lux’s villanelle, “On Visiting Herbert Hoover’s Birth and Burial Place,” especially because the conversational banal tone hides misfortune. At the prairie’s edge, tents flourish, a reference to Hoovervilles. His message is still relevant: “What you spent was what you earned and not a dime in banks accrued.” Like then, “so many people can’t pay their rent.” The speaker is also humble, saying if he is wrong, he ‘repent[s], but don’t too many people dream of meat in their soup?” The greater divide between rich and poor—“some eat white bread, some get screwed”— due to greed is repeated. But would we, if in power, make any difference? The confusing syntax in the middle asks, “. . . how, can we prevent our oblivion?”
Hugo was an early hero of mine. He still is. His poems are rich and thick with imagery, and they’re fun to read out loud. But he’s also a poet not afraid to journey close to the edge of sentimentality in his writing and then move away. To me, the very best poems, like this one, combine emotion with images, feeling with sensory details in a style that moves us when we read. It’s obvious that this little town, Philipsburg, triggers the poem for Hugo, but the writing takes us below the surface of the human condition, reaching toward truth.
– David James
This short poem by Thomas Lux, whom we sadly lost a couple of years ago, is one I like to read often. It is so much a poem for today and it expresses one of our least admirable human traits with just the right balance of truth and humor. His mantra “we do this, they do that” capsulizes perfectly how little we have changed in 10,000 years.