Poem Sampler

Canon Fodder

A list of poems that should be required reading.

by Cole Swensen

[Note from the editors: Maybe some poems just don’t get the respect they deserve. We've asked nine poets to recommend nine poems that they think should be added to the canon: poems that should be taught, anthologized, revered. We will be adding their recommended poems to our archive as we obtain permissions for them.]

The invitation to present nine poems not previously anthologized made me think about the practicalities of anthologizing. Much has been written about the politics of anthologizing, but, though much more mundane, practical considerations and conceptual limitations have at least as great an influence. I chose the nine poems below first because I love them and second because they each demonstrate one or more difficulties in print anthologizing. Electronic publication, with its radically different sense of space, may change all this greatly.

1. “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts” by Wallace Stevens
This first poem presents not a technical difficulty but a “difficulty of habit.” The major poets of any period tend, over time, to get represented by a narrower and narrower body of signature poems—“The Emperor of Ice Cream,” “The Anecdote of the Jar”—greatly reducing the general understanding of the poet’s range. This one captures the haunted nobility that marks so much of Stevens’s work: “And nothing is left except light on your fur—” !!! To make the reader suddenly aware of her/his fur is an elegant gift. The whole poem seems to be about a triumph related not to conquest but to elegance.

2. “Or a valentine” by Louis Zukofsky
Occasional poems are often assumed to be trivial, or at least so context-dependent that they could hold their own only in an anthology focused on their particular subject. But Louis Zukofsky wrote dozens of valentines, and they’re all both ingenious and sentimental—and greatly underrated. Zukofsky was a master of the occasional poem, demonstrating that it need not be either trivial or ephemeral. Instead, he showed, it can be the occasion for saying something that points to its moment by transcending it, thus showing how any occasion can be a pointer pointing out of itself to something greater. In this one, he uses Valentine’s Day to make an unusual observation on the nature of time.

3. “I am the last . . .” by Charles Simic
I could have picked almost any poem from this book—both because they’re all the epitome of the stunning possibilities of the deep-image extension of surrealism, and, a propos of this anthologizing question, because poems that are part of a series or that are untitled very rarely get anthologized. Do we rupture a unity by presenting one alone? In this case, I think not; each piece is a unity in itself—and taken together, they all add up to a different whole. This one gets at the relentlessness of history, and with that almost-macabre humor that makes this book so complex. (I was tempted to use the preceding poem, which begins with a well-known joke: “We were so poor I had to take the place of the bait in the mousetrap.”) To underscore the eerieness at the heart of all jokes is to do the kind of digging into the social psyche that only poetry can do well.

4. “Concord Hymn” from “Homage to Creeley” by Jack Spicer
This poem, like Simic’s above, questions what “a poem” is—is this a whole or a fragment?—as well as what poetry is—do the prose lines at the bottom “count” as part of the poem? Questions of wholeness are also raised by Spicer’s looking back to Emerson and playing with the notion of authorship. Throughout this series, there’s a wonderful tongue-in-cheek humor that, by contrast, emphasizes the delicate beauty of Spicer’s traditional nature imagery.

But this poem poses an additional problem for an anthology: it is printed in gray text and requires a large amount of white space. The potential and importance of white space are discounted in most anthologies, which aim to include as many poems as possible, but this implicitly argues that a poem is only words and not also the space the words exist within.

5. “Dissonance Royal Traveller” by Barbara Guest
Like many other poets, Guest is represented in anthologies only by her shorter poems. This one is particularly unlikely to be anthologized not only because, like the Spicer above, it makes an uncommonly lavish use of white space—in the book, it covers six pages, and yet only two might seem to the layperson to be fully used—but because it uses the turning of the page as an important element. The action gives us a moment of suspension, leaves us a second blinded, as if turning a blind corner. This action echoes the continual opening of the traveler, which is the poem’s theme, and contributes to the slow accretion of detail that gives the poem its rich surface and sparkling depth.

6. “Present present presentness” by Susan Howe and Susan Bee
This poem also presents the problem of the serial—because it’s extracted from a book of similar morsels, all nicely compacted squares that suggest self-sufficiency, we’re still never sure that we’re not violating some larger argument. But here it’s perhaps the visual element that would present the biggest obstacle to anthologizing it; it would likely be argued to be “not poetry,” and yet the poem’s echo with the notion of doubling gives it an essential additional dimension, and thus is truly part of it. This piece offers the added problem of collaboration—we’re never sure how to handle multiple-author pieces, so we often end up not including them at all. Yet this is just another aspect of the doubling that operates all through this small work, from the multiple possibilities of the first line to its overall dual role as poetic play and philosophic point.

7. pages 8 and 9 from A Little White Shadow by Mary Ruefle
The visual element here, facsimiles of a 19th century text and the Wite-Out Ruefle used to alter the original, would be very difficult to reproduce in most print anthologies, and yet the texture of the Wite-Out and the contrast between the white and the ecru paper are crucial, as are the original typeface and format. This work offers another angle on collaboration—can one collaborate with a text itself rather than with an author? The validity of erasure texts and other forms of collage is also frequently questioned, and yet Ruefle’s process here is a condensed version of what all poets do—consider the field of language and make careful choices. By selecting words with large fields of connotations, she develops a rich, haunting atmosphere that hints at narrative while leaving it in suspension.

8. “The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance” by Ezra Pound
Translations offer a different angle on the multiple-author problem. The anxiety of authorship that they engender results in translations’ never attaining the status of poems in their own right, and appearing in anthologies only if carefully qualified as “translations,” often organized by original language. This particular translation presents further problems with its “note,” which, though it represents a radically changed tone and even genre, is an essential element of the piece—it multiplies its dimensions, not only through explication but also through detail and, above all, humor. This example shows how translation can grow a poem, as well as how much of himself Pound brought to his translation work and how inventive he was on a formal level.

9. Selections from “A Tomb for Anatole” by Stéphane Mallarmé
Not only is this a translation, but it’s a translation of something that was not considered a poem by its author, or at least not considered a finished poem. These five sections are from some 200 notes of similar length that Mallarmé made as he sat beside his young dying son. From a perspective of a hundred years, we can see how only such a fragmentary, stuttering composition could do justice to that grief. It’s an emotion that has been attempted by many other poets, most of whom failed because they insisted on finish, which necessarily belies the experience. Here, we get the flickering immediacy, the stunned acceptance, and the refusal to accept—the contradictory and colliding emotions that will not make a smooth poem, but that in their shattered state come as close to conveying this central emotion as any have.

9. “Fire” by Francis Ponge
This short, tight, lively piece by Ponge presents almost all the obstacles of the previous eight all at once—it’s a translation, its genre is indeterminate, it’s part of a series, it has no real title, and in its original publication it required an entire page. But like so many of Ponge’s prose poems, it gives life. There’s a will to animation, a sense of stumbling upon sentience in unexpected places, in so much of his work. The fusion of destruction and creation at play in this one is underscored by the quick transformation of its vivid images

Originally Published: June 23, 2006



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Cole Swensen was born and raised near San Francisco and earned her BA and MA  from San Francisco State University and a PhD from the University of California Santa Cruz. She is a former director of the creative program at the University of Denver and taught in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. She is currently a professor in the literary arts program at Brown University and founder and editor of La Presse, a . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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