13 Favorite Poems
Every now and then one of the students will ask me if I have a favorite poem.
I think that’s a kind and thoughtful question for someone to ask, but I always have to think about it for a bit before I can give an answer.
Do you have a favorite poem, or maybe several favorites? Has your favorite been your favorite since you first heard it or read it, or does your favorite change over time? Would it come to mind immediately were someone to ask you that question, or would you need time to think about it, too?
One of my professors told me he liked Wordsworth more and more as he got older. That made sense to me, though for me it has probably gone the other way around–not that I have ever come to dislike him. “Tintern Abbey” and The Prelude remain two of my favorites. Another professor chose Donne and Herbert: he said they had the best combination of intellect and emotion. Another favored Keats: she said she found the odes the greatest poetic achievement yet in English. Another favored Shakespeare, claiming he never wrote a bad line–as much as I love Shakespeare, that struck me as an overstatement.
In my experience, in general younger readers tend to prefer the Romantics: they like in their poetry what Wordsworth called the “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion recollected in tranquility,” though they often forget the remainder of Wordsworth’s statement, that it tends to happen only for those who have thought long and deeply. Sadly, many of the Romantics didn’t live long enough to think long and deeply.
Yet two of Keats’s poems have been among my favorites also: “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “To Autumn.”
As I’ve gotten older, a few others have climbed my list: Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into the Wreck,” Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Kitchenette Building,” A. E. Housman’s “On Wenlock Edge,” and Langston Hughes’s “Weary Blues.” Maybe you need to be a little older for those poems get a firm hold on you. Shakespeare’s sonnets 29 and 30 have been close to the top of the list since the first time I read them.
Many readers I’ve talked with chose their favorites almost exclusively by content regardless of what they or anyone might call independent poetic quality.
I know when the students ask that question they mean lyric poems, but can’t a person have an epic poem as his or her favorite? Sometimes I answer Paradise Lost or Beowulf or Omeros or even Dante’s Commedia or Blake’s Milton. Those answers tend to draw wide eyes and uncertain looks.
Another of my old professors, Dr. Margaret Berry, once said in class, “Students, The Iliad and The Odyssey: everything else is a footnote.”
And that leads to another interest question: between the two do you chose The Iliad or The Odyssey? The answer to that one can tell a lot about a person. Or do you make a bold leap for Aurora Leigh or Prometheus Unbound or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? I think with any of them,you’d find yourself in good company.
And how do you chose your favorite? Do you go for the poem or poems that you think the best, or those that stay in your memory and move your thoughts and emotions regardless of how you may rationally judge their quality? That question is, I think, especially worth asking–and answering.