Poetry is an art. Some artists paint, others sculpt, and still others create through the written word. Poetry can express a variety of emotions. It can be beautiful, enlightening, dramatic, gloomy, and even comedic. But while I have been a lifelong lover of prose when it comes to poetry this is one form of art that has always eluded me. Not to say that I don’t enjoy it from time to time, but it has definitely not been my forte.
As a child, one of my favorite poems was a little poem about the phases of the moon called “The Moon’s the North Winds’ Cooky” by Vachel Lindsay. The rhythm of this charming poem made it easy to memorize and now years later I enjoy reciting it to my daughter. In addition to the poems that tell fun little stories I have also been partial to those that rhyme, such as Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. In both cases the poems are easy to follow and fun to read. These are what I might call “soothing poetry,” but obviously not all poetry fits into this category.
It is the deeper, richer, epic verse that has always intimidated me. As a teenager I would attempt to read a sonnet by William Shakespeare and be left puzzling over what exactly was meant. Did he mean exactly what he wrote or was there some deeper meaning that I was missing? Other times I would pick up an edition of some popular poetry and find it far too moody for my taste. (You know the type – it’s poetry you might hear muttered by some bohemian in a dimly lit smoke filled café.) In either case whenever I have attempted to “educate” myself in the realm of poetry I have always been left feeling overwhelmed and discouraged and because of this I have had little interest in reading it for leisure.
So when it was proposed at one of my book club meetings that our group read and discuss a book of poetry I was skeptical to say the least. Still, I voted in favor of the suggestion because I knew it’d be as good a chance as any for me to really learn if I could ever love poetry. I became even more intrigued when the book suggested turned out to be a collection of what is considered by many to be the 100 greatest poems from the last five centuries.
The Classic Hundred Poems: All Time Favorites is just that, a collection of 100 poems selected from a survey of more than 1,000 anthologies and edited by William Harmon. The poetry spans nearly five hundred years from the early 1500s to the mid 1960s. The list of poets included is a “who’s who” of history in literature: Williams Shakespeare, Lord Alfred Tennyson, William Butler Yeats, Lewis Carroll, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and T. S. Eliot are just a few. The poems include a wide range of themes from the historical and thought provoking, to the dark and dreary, to the sweet and romantic, to the humorous and even slightly ridiculous. To aid with the reading process William Harmon has prefaced each poem with an introduction to the poem and mini biography of its author. In addition he has included footnotes for each poem and a separate set of end notes for the entire collection where the reader can learn more about a specific poem, author, or even words used within the text.
For a poetry-novice like myself this is awesome! I quickly realized I had nothing to fear when reading this book of poetry. I could choose to read a poem first and then turn to the explanation; or I could read up on the background of the text and the author before diving into the poem. Either way it was extremely helpful. I finally understood what I was reading and I could appreciate and enjoy the author’s sense of humor, or feel their grief, or just ponder their ponderings where otherwise I might have missed the meaning altogether.
Something else that surprised me was how much poetry itself has impacted and influenced literature over the ages. One example is within the world of poetry. In one particular poem William Wadsworth tells the tragic story of a young woman who dies unloved and unknown by everyone, but the narrator. A generation or two later another author penned a parody of this poem that leaves the reader chuckling instead of feeling misty eyed. This type of playing off another author’s work occurred time and time again throughout this collection. Another example of poetry impacting literature occurs when a phrase from a poem is used for the title of a book or movie. Two such examples include “Far From the Madding Crowd” (a phrase from a poem used for the title of a novel and later a film) and “No Country for Old Men” (the opening line of a poem used for the title of a film). What I learned from this was to keep my eyes open. I just never know when I might catch a familiar phrase from long ago in the title of a modern work – be it book, music or film.
Looking back to how I used to feel about poetry to how I now feel having completed The Classic Hundred Poems I guess you could say I’ve been converted. I may never write poetry, I still can’t dissect a poem, and I probably will find myself puzzled from time to time over a line of verse; but I definitely have a new appreciation for poetry as an art form and as a form of literature. Poetry is a direct view into the soul of the poet. Sometimes it’s beautiful, sometimes it is puzzling, sometimes it is dark, but overall it can be both fascinating and enriching to the reader. If you’ve never given it a thought, or even a second glance, I encourage you to check out The Classic Hundred Poems; you might change your mind.
The Classic Hundred Poems was originally published by Columbia University Press in 1990 and is now in its second edition. Copies are available in paperback, hardcover, electronic, and audio form.
Guest contributor S. Mehrens has been an avid reader even before she could read. The books in her “to be read pile” always outnumber those she has read, but she is a firm believer that a library is a hospital for the mind, so she’s just fine with that. You can find her blogging about books at A Library is a Hospital for the Mind
Interesting! I’ve never been terribly big on poetry, but I’ve also always felt like I *SHOULD* be. 🙂 Maybe this is the perfect introduction. Thanks for the post!
Carrie, Reading to Know says
I’m not big on poetry either but I do think the idea of reading it as part of a book club is a great idea! People to share the misery – or the explanations of what things mean – with! I like hearing about your experience with it.
Thanks for sharing!
Jennifer (5 Minutes for Books) says
I think you sold me on this! I had just been thinking that I wanted to get a good anthology of poetry, and I like the idea that the poet’s background is explained.
I’m currently reading Harmon’s book of 500 Best Poems which is a little daunting. Sounds like your book would be a little easier to take in. Glad you are a “convert”. I think most people who don’t like poetry just haven’t been introduced to the right poems.