The Best Poems Ever

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD’s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at peternicholson.com.au and at the NLA.

The best poems ever  a collection of poetry’s greatest voices edited by Edric S. Mesmer (Scholastic Inc. 2001).

Of course it can’t be anything of the kind. However, it is no more foolish than Fade To Grey, which is my imaginary name for various anthologies that come to mind. How could ‘best poems ever’ leave out ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, Goethe and Auden? Then there is the work chosen. Carl Sandburg’s ‘Buffalo Dusk’ sits next to ‘Ode On A Grecian Urn’, and Gertrude Stein’s ‘A Red Hat’ follows Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130. Where is Gwen Harwood? What happened to Hart Crane and Yeats?

However, strange as the contents may be for someone who knows the history of poetry, I can see where the editor is coming from, since this is a booklet designed for younger readers, and readers new to poetry. From that point of view Best poems ever is interesting, especially for younger teenagers at whom Best poems ever seems mainly to be aimed. This publication raises a very important question: how do you go about teaching poetry? Just as it would be wrong to introduce opera to children with Parsifal, so it would be unwise to try for slabs of Paradise Lost or The Cantos with younger readers, although there are always going to be a few who will take to the unlikeliest reading material like ducks to water. Here there is some real depth, plus some effective set pieces of the kind that appeal to younger readers, plus some banalities. All it requires is the right teacher to inculcate habits of critical reading, which can be done over time. Rush jobs don’t work in education. You have to think in year terms, not days or weeks. I can see how a good teacher could use this little edition—seventy-one pages—to get younger readers motivated. I always think longer recitation pieces work well, none of which are included here—Australian ballads, ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’, Alfred Noyes’ ‘The Highwayman’ or Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Children enjoy speaking verse aloud and begin to appreciate what language can achieve in poetic form. That is the main thing—to get children enjoying language.

It is not compromising art to put ‘The Highwayman’ before children. It isn’t one of the world’s great poems, but it is certainly well made, with excellent versification, music and rhyme. There is a poem from the Best poems ever which fills the bill to a degree— ‘When Great Dogs Fight’ by Melvin B. Tolson: ‘He padded through the gate that leaned ajar, / Maneuvered toward the slashing arcs of war, / Then pounced upon the bone; and winging feet / Bore him into the refuge of the street. // A sphinx haunts every age and every zone: / When great dogs fight, the small dog gets a bone.’

This poem would work well in class. Next to it is an extract from Shelley’s ‘To A Skylark’. Already you are on much more difficult ground, but it is still a poem that could be usefully looked at in the classroom. All children relate to birds, the idea of freedom, and escape: ‘In the golden light’ning / Of the sunken sun, / O’er which clouds are bright’ning, / Thou dost float and run, / Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.’

There is one poem of Emily Dickinson—’My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun’, which puts you into provocative territory, as Dickinson always does. However, young readers enjoy Dickinson on a certain level, just as they take to Robert Frost immediately. ‘The Road Not Taken’ is the poem used here.

Another thing in this edition’s favour is that it includes an equal number of female and male writers. Amongst the women, apart from Stein and Dickinson, there is Lucille Clifton, Anne Bradstreet, Aphra Behn, Lorna Cervantes, Sylvia Plath, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Phillis Wheatley, H.D., Emily Brontë, Gwendolyn Brooks, Barbara Guest, Christina Rossetti, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth I, Angelina Grimké, Elizabeth Browning and Marianne Moore. There is more than a touch of the politically-correct about this selection, and some of the poems aren’t up to much, in my opinion, but at least there’s a consciousness about representation. A teacher can do a great deal with these poems. Preparation for future experience comes readily to hand, as in this poem by Elizabeth I whose opening lines read: ‘The doubt of future foes exiles my present joy, / And wit me warns to shun such snares as threaten mine annoy. / For falsehood now doth flow and subject faith doth ebb, / Which would not be if reason ruled or wisdom weaved the web.’

Millay’s ideas don’t seem very interesting, but, once again, younger readers can relate to ‘My heart is warm with friends I make, / And better friends I’ll not be knowing; / Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, / No matter where it’s going.’

Each person is going to come up with their own anthology of poems, be it for younger readers, or readers generally. Here, gathering work for use in the classroom is the thing, and that is difficult. It’s no good putting together something the size of, say, the Faber Collected Poems of Ted Hughes, which students can’t be expected to lug around with them. Best poems ever isn’t big enough, but it is portable, and small enough to read on demand.

Older teenagers can get into Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’—there’s plenty of material close to hand for consideration there—or Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’—a pity to have missed the opportunity to put the original German next to the English translation. ‘Dover Beach’ waits with its sober melancholy. Favourites like Thomas’ ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ and Elizabeth Browning’s Sonnet 43 are good choices since these are two examples of memorable speech, hard to better, which is why they are rightly famous, ‘best’, if you like.

If I was putting together an anthology for use in schools I would do it differently. For one thing, I think it helps to relate some biography and history to place poems in an historical context. Photos of authors as children, and adults, are good too, so that readers realise poets are no different to them. An editor has to have done some hard thinking for teachers, always hard-pressed for time and harassed by the extraordinary demands made on them. You have to provide some work material concerning the poems chosen, and then at least the teacher can choose to use the associated material, or take the lesson along paths they’ve predetermined.

Well, everyone’s a critic. Best poems ever isn’t that, but it makes a stab in the direction of getting together a collection of poems that could be usefully taught in the classroom. At a time when actual study of poetry seems to be diminishing in lieu of rap songs, film scripts, advertising and text messaging, and when textbooks themselves are fast disappearing from the classroom, that is praiseworthy.

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