Poem Sampler

Canon Fodder

A list of nine poems that should be required reading.

by Donald Revell

[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.]

I believe in the poignancy of reading, a thing I first imagined when I saw the closing moments of François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. Tenderly, lyrically, the camera follows men and women walking in a snowy woodland as all recite, in a future where books must burn, the books they have become. My teaching has taken much instruction from the image. I urge my student poets each to become a canon unto himself or herself. Surely, an education in poetry, a life in poetry, is simply this: the unique assembly or concord of poems present whenever a poem is read or whenever one is newly written. The nine poems I’ve chosen here are strong in my assembly and essential to the concord I prize. They are, variously, poems of landscape, and in the passages of landscape, they severally happen upon true Faith and upon the reality of Happiness. Nine pastorals, then, and not a shepherd to be seen.


1. “The Yellowhammer’s Nest” by John Clare
Much is made of the pathos of John Clare’s madness and of the quiet courage with which he endured it. His much-anthologized poem “I Am” embodies these magnificently. But we could never attend enough to the greater body of his works: poems characterized by the serenity of a steady, loving gaze. Among these is a wonderful sequence devoted to birds’ nests. To my mind, “The Yellowhammer’s Nest” is the masterpiece. Here, close attention to minute detail—“Five eggs pen-scribbled over lilac shells”—leads to a discovery of identity when Clare embraces the yellowhammer as a fellow poet. And from identity flows compassion, and with compassion comes the peace and sanity of perfect understanding.


2. “The Mango Tree” by Hart Crane
The final years of Hart Crane’s writing life have largely been abducted by biography and biographical speculation. The promise and autodidactic innovations of White Buildings are much praised, even as the vaunting, catastrophic ambitions of The Bridge are well beloved. But among the later poems, only “The Broken Tower” has entered the canon. At the end of his life, Crane was writing no mere coda. There is a playfulness, a colloquial intimacy and ease in so many of his last poems that it is impossible not to find in them a lucent forecast of the Beats and the New York School and all the best mischief of postmodernism. “Up jug to musical, hanging jug just gay spiders” anticipates so much, even as it delights in the moment of its sound. And there are many such moments in “The Mango Tree.”


3. “My Father Photographed with Friends” by William Bronk
In the poetry of William Bronk, meanings stride forward through particulars, forever warm with the striving. His is the plainsong of an undeceived, deep faith in details. In this poem Bronk assembles God and man, mortality, and all the wishful thinking behind the camera until the poem inclines toward an eternity it cannot prove or show. The poignancy of reading knows its keenest pathos here. “God sweeten the bitter judgments of our lives. We wish so much.”


4. “An Altogether Different Language” by Anne Porter
When I first added the poems of Anne Porter to the syllabus of my New York Poets seminars, the students were flummoxed and a bit cross. How could such transparency and unadornment jibe with the extravagant indirections so vividly deployed by Ashbery, O’Hara, and Koch? But then . . . but then . . . The same calm, levitated isolations and the “gestural realism” that we so value in the paintings of her husband, Fairfield Porter, drift through this poem like little portions of miracle. Her lines are each a place apart, but mutually aware and awaiting concord, something “we have still to learn.”


5. “The Bluet” by James Schuyler
And if we speak of portions of miracle, we must speak very soon of James Schuyler. I can say it without reservation: “The Bluet” is a perfect poem. Here the quiet timeliness of eternity breaks forth as a particular flower and then, by miracle, becomes a friend. Poetic authority is simply the stamina of attention surcharged by color, circumstance, and sense. The upshot is shattering: “That bluet breaks / me up.”


6. “Harp Trees” by Robin Blaser
Beginning in the 1950s and continuing to the present day, Robin Blaser has been assembling an epic of increments, wholly unaggressive: The Holy Forest. It is an epic of purely lyrical events whose heroic virtue adventures amity among all figures in a lyric’s field. In “The Harp Trees,” amity finds “a kind of speech / at the edge of thought,” and with that speech it moves outward in many directions (including memory, including metamorphosis), encountering everywhere and in every thing “kindness” and “greenness.” I have never, in any other poem, experienced such a gentle transformation. And yet the transformation is absolute.


7. “Letter from the Mountains” by James K. Baxter
This is the closing piece from the New Zealand poet’s final collection, Runes, composed at Jerusalem, a Maori settlement to which Baxter had been summoned in a dream and from which, having abandoned his university position, he went out as a social worker to the drug-addicted and the poor. Here, amity begins as the forgotten message of amity and becomes a pilgrim. Like Bunyan’s Pilgrim, Baxter abandons his City of Destruction and makes his way to “[t]he mountain that has taken [his] being to itself.” This is allegory without symbolizing: real thorns and rocks and tears. And so the allegory is endlessly immediate, always open: “My door has forgotten how to shut.”


8. “What the Leaf Told Me” by Ronald Johnson
Ronald Johnson was the William Blake of erasure, palimpsest, and collage, an American Visionary Museum unto himself. Beginning with a passage from The Diary of the Reverend Francis Kilvert (an all-too-little-known masterwork of the 19th century), this poem unfolds a moment of effortless amazement into telling brightness. Bedazzlement begins to rival the sun. And then the brightness comes to rest “In a Wren’s Eye.” This is a poem that Plotinus (who once said, “Nothing not exactly like the sun can see the sun”) would have rejoiced to read.


9. “O Heart Uncovered” by Joseph Ceravolo
The deep delight of Ceravolo’s poetry is all in distances instantaneously traversed. This poem moves from “snow range” to an “Arizona room,” from wintry bedazzlement to desert darkness, in something short of the blink of an eye. And the movement, like a heartbeat, outspeeds knowledge. “O Heart Uncovered” wears itself on an unraveling sleeve. And the unraveling is Vision. When it ends, “we see the mountains.”

Originally Published: July 20, 2007

COMMENTS (2)

On July 23, 2007 at 7:16am Ange Mlinko wrote:
Poems after my own heart! Thank you for this

sublime list.

On August 31, 2007 at 12:27pm Marion Conger Stewart wrote:
Nice selections. I knew none of them. My

favorites, perhaps, maybe, right now, are

Blaser's "Harp Trees", Schuyler's "The Bluet",

and "Buried at Spring."

Thanks, PoetryFoundation.org

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Related

 Donald  Revell

Biography

Born in the Bronx, Donald Revell received his PhD at SUNY Buffalo and is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, translations, and essays. Steeped in the work of Henry David Thoreau and William Carlos Williams, Revell’s poetry is “seriously Christian but not doctrinaire, mystical without setting intellect aside, angry over political matters without ever growing stale or shrill, and more often joyful than any other . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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