Poem Sampler

Canon Fodder

A list of poems that should be required reading.

by Susan Stewart

[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.]

What makes a poem stay out of an anthology? It can be too short or too long, too new or perhaps too old, too weighty or too light, in the wrong language, out of its time, or not at all characteristic of an author’s work as a whole. The English poems I have chosen meet some of these (un)criteria, but they are also poems that I carry around in the anthology in my mind, so they have some connection to life and, often, a memorable form. It is difficult to choose only nine of them, so I have cheated and in truth have named a dozen.

1. Gnomic verses from the Exeter Book, 7th–10th century
These earliest English poems are rarely included in anthologies, but they, like the riddles that also can be found in the thousand-year-old Exeter Book, are a treasure of images and thinking. Consider these lines, translated by Michael Alexander: “Frost shall freeze fire eat wood / earth shall breed ice shall bridge / water a shield wear. One shall break / frost’s fetters free the grain / from wonder-lock—One who all can.”

2. “Since There’s No Help” by Michael Drayton, from Idea, c. 1620
Less often considered than other Renaissance sonnet-sequences, Drayton’s Idea includes this wonderful breakup poem, a masterpiece of unsuccessful self-convincing. The best part is its emphatic “glad, yeah glad.”

3. “The Ballad of Sally in Our Alley” by Henry Carey, 1717
A lilting and joyful song by one of the saddest 18th-century poets. Once anthologized widely, this poem rarely seems to be read today. Here is what Carey himself wrote about how he came to write it: “in this little Poem he [the author] had no other view than to set forth the Beauty of a chaste and disinterested Passion, even in the lowest Class of human Life. The real Occasion was this: A Shoemaker’s ’Prentice making Holiday with his Sweet-heart, treated her with a sight of Bedlam, the Puppet-shews, the Flying-chairs, and all the Elegancies of the Moorfields: From whence proceeding to the Farthing Pye-house, he gave her a Collation of Buns, Cheesecakes, Gammon of Bacon, Stuff’d-beef, and Bottled-ale; through all which Scenes the Author dodged them (charm’d with the Simplicity of their Courtship), from whence he drew this little Sketch of Nature.”

4. “Work without Hope” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1825
Coleridge is less well known as a sonnet writer than are the other Romantics, yet here he turns the Petrarchan form upside down, as Shelley did in “England in 1819,” to show his contrary spirit. The poem begins with a buzzing, intense description of spring and a self-portrait of the poet: “I, the while, the sole unbusy thing.” Saying more would lessen the pleasure of reading the poem.

5. “Who Has Seen the Wind?” by Christina Rossetti, c. 1872
This “nursery rhyme” by Rossetti is the first poem I ever learned by heart, and its simplicity belies the enormous questions it holds: Why is feeling, like the wind, invisible? Does life reside in parts or in the whole? How do we know who we are via the remarkable and confusing technique of switching positions as “I” and “you”?

6. “Alone” by Edgar Allan Poe, 1875
Perhaps Poe’s most haunting and powerful poem, with a directness to match his usual obsessive sense of form.

7. “How She Went to Ireland” by Thomas Hardy, c. 1924
This lyric, from Hardy’s great last book, Winter Words, is a completely mysterious, out-of-the-blue work in that volume. It is nonsensical and profound at once.

8. “Love and wisdom have no home” by Malcolm Lowry, 1939–40, 1945–46
Although his reputation as a poet has been eclipsed by his great achievements as a novelist, Lowry nevertheless was a musical poet who worked with great economy. This work deserves to be in the anthology of great 20th-century villanelles, along with Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.”

9. For my ninth (tenth, and eleventh) choice, I’ll list three recent poems that are perhaps too new to be in anthologies: Susan Howe’s elegy, “The Nonconformist’s Memorial”; John Kinsella’s fervent ode, “Rain Gauge”; and Eleanor Wilner’s dream vision, “The Girl with Bees in Her Hair.”

And if I may add a twelfth poem—here, from Robert Herrick, is the best poem to put on a birthday cake—a large birthday cake:

Praise they that will Times past, I joy to see
My selfe now live: this age best pleaseth mee.

Originally Published: June 23, 2006

COMMENTS (3)

On January 30, 2007 at 11:41pm Doctor of Love wrote:
The Herrick poem is bollocks; put that on my birthday cake at your peril, Sue!

Better: He was young, never wise, always productive, and liked by few.

Yours Ever,
Tom Climo

On July 22, 2007 at 5:44am Russell Cayer wrote:
Christina Rossetti is ageless.

On April 4, 2008 at 9:22pm Dr Susan Ang wrote:
Re: Drayton: surely it's 'glad, yea, glad',

rather than 'glad, yeah, glad'? which

makes Drayton sound like some modern

teenage type; I rather doubt 'yeah' was

part of the lexicon of the times....

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 Susan  Stewart

Biography

In an interview at the University of Pennsylvania, Susan Stewart said that her primary goal as a poet is “to get people to read more slowly, and to reread, and to read a whole book and go back to the beginning of the book and see connections.” Her writing can be startlingly clear, while at the same time—in the words of the MacArthur Foundation, on the occasion of presenting her with a “Genius Award”—it makes “strange and . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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