I am not generally fond of poetry, but there are a few poems that really stand out in my mind. Seeing as how a friend decided she would celebrate Poem in the Pocket Day, I thought it might be appropriate for me to create a list of a few of my favorite poems to share with whomever it is that reads this blog.
The Tuft of Flowers
I'll start with Robert Frost's The Tuft of Flowers. It's about an afternoon groundskeeper who is going about his job mowing a large lawn with a scythe. He mulls over how his work keeps him alone, separated from contact with others, concluding that this is how all men work, even if they happen to have coworkers around them. Yet then he he notices a small tuft of flowers beside the brook that the morning mower had not cut. As he, too, decides to not cut these flowers, he realizes that he has made a connection with his coworker closer than most will ever achieve, even though his coworker works in the morning, and he never sees him face-to-face.
To me, the poem represents the wonders of the internet, where I can find and enjoy friendships that are rare to find "in real life".
Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach is also quite moving to me, but not for the same reason most who like it cite. It is about the spiritual doubts of a believer who has his faith shaken by the realization that all he previously believed was false. It is a description of the pain one undergoes when they move from a belief in solid values to the seemingly obvious conclusion that the basis for all values are invalid.
As a rationalist skeptic, I no longer believe in "value" of the sort described in fairy tales or religion, so in a way, I identify strongly with the ending lines of Dover Beach. Yet I also have come to believe in the worthwhile nature of creating one's own value from the sea of valuelessness, sort of how J. L. Mackie describes his worldview on this issue.
My favorite nonsense verse is definitely Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson)'s Jabberwocky, from Through the Looking Glass. Carroll is a wonderful writer, especially when it comes to logical word play.
The poem is complete nonsense, yet it is a peculiar sort of nonsense that nevertheless makes sense. Even though every other word is made up entirely by the author, you can sort of make out from context what the poem is saying, which is a really strange thing in and of itself, if you think about it. Carroll has taken the idea of discerning a word through context and pushed it to its utter limits, by writing an entire poem that can only be understood through context. Yet even with no reference point to clue you in on what the poem is about, readers can nevertheless find themselves following the story as it is told.
Jabberwocky is an amazing construction to behold, and earns its spot on my list of favorites by virtue of its form rather than any of its contents, unlike most other poems on this list.
l(ae. e. cummings' l(a is another poem whose form I cannot help but to admire. The structure of the poem is meant to represent a leaf falling -- the letters themselves represent the leaf graphically -- and the text reads "loneliness", with "a leaf falls" inserted between the first "l" and the next three letters: "one". The font used in the poem makes the "l" look a lot like the numeral "1". There is a lot going on in this poem, even though it consists of very few characters, and much of the meaning comes from the common trope among poems of his era representing loneliness by a single falling leaf. There is something about the way the typeface seems to show the leaf drifting from side to side as it falls that never ceases to get to me. l(a is definitely one of my favorite poems.
Dulce et Decorum est
Wilfred Owen's Dulce et Decorum est is a poem of war. It describes soldiers in the first world war dying from poison gas. Owens stringently denies Horace's famous line that "it is sweet and right to die for your country"by describing the true horror of war. I cannot help but to envision the scene vividly every time I read this poem, and the thought of people drowning where they stand turns my stomach every single one of those times. Patriotism is indeed one of the worst traits I can imagine that some people actually seem to think is laudable.
The Hollow Men
Perhaps my favorite poet of all is T. S. Eliot, and while The Wasteland is a masterpiece when it comes to literary appreciation, I nevertheless find myself always returning to The Hollow Men whenever I want to reread Eliot. If you have not read Dante, much of the poem will be lost on you, but assuming you are familiar with the works he alludes to, the message Eliot gives in this poem is both dramatic and powerful. There are even references to ancient Greek philosophy in there at the key turning point of the poem, so the only real way to read Eliot is with notes close at hand.
At its heart, the poem is about morality, focusing clearly on what the most immoral thing to do is. Although he does not reference it in the poem, the real issue here is that of Buridan's ass as it applies to choosing an ethical action. Inaction, Eliot attempts to point out, is the worst state of all when it comes to matters of ethics.
I'm sure that my personal interpretation is not shared by all readers of Eliot, but I like to look at it from a consequentialist point of view, instead of the religious view Eliot himself probably meant when he composed the poem. Even if your action results in worse consequences, one must at least attempt to do good in the moment. I look at the issue from the point of view of Bayesian probability with regard to consequentialistic choices; we are not all-knowledgeable, but we can calculate Bayesian probabilities, and we should undertake actions which Bayes would agree with, even if they result in worse consequences.
I fully realize that the last paragraph is not a standard interpretation of The Hollow Men, but it is nevertheless what I see every time I reread the poem. Eliot is trying to ensure we realize the true horror of inaction when we have reason to believe action should be taken. Being sinless is not enough -- we must also do in order to be rightly called good.
I will end with a poem too long to summarize in a few short sentences: John Milton's Paradise Lost. This epic poem is a retelling of the beginning of Genesis, describing the fall of Satan and the events of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Strangely, the author says himself in Book One that the purpose of the poem is to justify God's actions, but my reading of the text is that Milton is doing the exact opposite. Satan's portrayal is dreadfully convincing. His argument that God's nature is tyrannical despite its benevolence is extremely powerful, and resonates even to this day.
My interpretation here is reminiscent of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. Torvald is a wonderful husband in the sense that he is doting and kind. He takes care of his wife dutifully and kindly. Yet, nevertheless, their relationship is utterly horrid. As the man, he is in charge, so no matter how kind or good he tries to be with his wife, he can never interact with her on anything like an equal level. This power differential underlies every action he takes, even if he has no ill intent whatsoever. Despite his benevolence, the very fact of his position over her is what makes living under him so terrible. Even if he tries to connect with her on an equal level, it cannot work, because the fact remains that if he wanted to be mean, he could, and she would have no recourse.
Similarly, Satan argues that God, despite his benevolence, is nevertheless tyrannical. Following him is unjustified, even if he has nothing but good intentions at heart. Milton does not say this explicitly, but I understand the situation like this: The only way God would be justified in being a ruler over others is if the power of that rule comes from the ruled in addition to benevolence; benevolence is not enough. Imagine Ulysses in the scene of Homer's Odyssey where he must sail past the sirens. Ulysses is captain, and justly retains power over the sailors because the boat must have a captain in order to sail. Yet he voluntarily relinquishes this power to the sailors while they go past the sirens, since their calls will make him mad. Homer describes Ulysses tied to the masthead barking orders that the sailors justly ignore. In this moment, the sailors rule over Ulysses benevolently, but not in the same way Torvald or God does. The sailors do not rule over Ulysses because they are better than him, but because they were given the power to do so by Ulysses in advance. It is a combination of voluntary rule and benevolence that justify the sailors' domination over Ulysses. Meanwhile, both Torvald and God have only the benevolence part -- they do not have any voluntary rule, as Satan rightly points out.
Of course, from what I understand of history, John Milton did not share the interpretation I give in the above paragraphs when he wrote Paradise Lost. But I nevertheless see the above when I think of Satan's arguments against God's rule.
While these are just a few of my favorite poems, I have to admit that there really aren't that many more that speak to me at the same level that these do. My problem with ancient Greek poetry is that I know just enough koine to stumble through them in the original, making it extremely difficult for me to simultaneously follow complex literary themes. And I know no Latin at all, so most Latin poems based on wordplay do absolutely nothing for me. Meanwhile, more recent classics are hit or miss with me, and really depend on my mood. The above listed poems really and truly are the best of the best that I've run into so far in my life -- although admittedly I don't exactly read new poetry often, so I'm likely missing a number of gems out there.
If you take issue with any of my interpretations, feel free to let me know in the comments. I'd love to hear just how wrong I am about this stuff.
Thanks to Elizabeth Herboso for spurring me to compose this blog entry.
?? I doubt half the people here have even heard of paradise lost... I took a whole class on the damn thing. And I'll tell you: It's stupid - Satan doesn't want God to be God but he wants to rule all pandemonium, does he not? So whatever he says is just an attempt to deceive the reader to take his side. He's a trick. Don't look too much into it. And stop reading Milton, seriously.ReplyDelete
Why? Paradise lost was beautifulDelete
maybe if you are old and like renaissance thous and thees and shitDelete
Right. Who needs shakespeare and Milton when we have poets like... Who do we have again?Delete
You can at least stay in the 20 - 21 century range.. Sylvia Plath, T S Eliot, Pablo Neruda, Emily Dickinson, to name a few - and my new favorite currently alive poet, Amiri Baraka.Delete
T s Eliot was a God, but he isn't a poet of today. And if he were here he would tell you that poetry is timelessDelete
some poetry is timeless and Milton is not one of those poets...Delete
Then you sir are no lover of poetryDelete
its not even a poem - its an epicDelete
Dickinson was 19th century.Delete
damnit close enough lolDelete
i'm not wrong, sigh all you wantDelete
WHO NEEDS FUCKIN' BEETHOVEN WHEN YOU HAVE DUBSTEP?!?!?! Amidoinitright?Delete
not really.. try Radiohead thoughDelete
re: "its not even a poem - its an epic"Delete
it's epic poetry. It's most certainly a poem, whether or not you like it is your business.
i'll agree with epic poetry. still not the same as a poemDelete
If it is epic poetry, would it not be an epic poem? And therefore be a poem?Delete
Still not the same as your favorite style of poetry is what you mean. Poetry comes in multiple forms. It's cool you've found one style you like, but claiming that Haiku and Epic Poetry and etc. aren't real styles of poetry is on the same level as claiming rock is the only "real" style of music.Delete
okay, lets start quoting the odyssey now!!Delete
||| not really.. try Radiohead thoughDelete
I know I'm getting trolled, but you don't think Thom Yorke is a fan of Beethoven? I feel sorry for you that you have such a narrow view of the world. Milton is so grand, so lush - Paradise Lost is like a Hollywood blockbuster.
Hollywood blockbusters are the worst.. they aren't art; they are money making machines that give people what they want to see. Ill go to the indie theatre instead please..Delete
and yes, this is 50 percent troll
"i'm not wrong, sigh all you want"Delete
If you say so amigo
yo no soy tu amigo, pendejo ;)Delete
Blow it out jur culo putaDelete
re: "okay, lets start quoting the odyssey now!!"Delete
I don't follow. Sarcasm?
Regardless, I prefer the Iliad to the Odyssey. I didn't like the Odyssey's more flippant tone as much, and the quick Deus ex Machina ending with Athena was a bit of a cop out.
I think one of Milton's purposes with the character of Satan is to seduce you into finding his arguments sound and reasonable, at least at first. Keep in mind that, whatever else Satan says, his actual goal throughout the poem is absolute power. Also consider the English history Milton had just participated in when writing the poem, and the types of politicians he would have been hobnobbing with.ReplyDelete
Ninjacunthole: Are you actually a character from Brave New World? Does your critique of one of the cornerstones of western literature really boil down to its age? Even ignoring that travesty of thinking, why on earth would you tell someone to stop reading something based on the fact that you have failed to get anything out of it? Are you really that small minded?ReplyDelete
Shakespeare is worth reading. Milton was a religious fanatic. The only reason we still read it is because we inherited Western Religious culture.. It's not any good...Delete
Okay, you're beginning, just barely, to edge toward a semblance of a reasonable argument, but since this is poetry we are talking about I don't think you can dismiss any poem on theme alone. It is in no small part about his use of the language. What is your theory of poetry? Right now it seems like it's "some things are okay to write about, others aren't. People I disagree with need not apply."Delete
i'm coming across as arrogant on purpose.. i really just have personal hatred for this epic... its not so much the theme as much as his whole intent behind the piece. he is an extremely prideful and arrogant man.. he thought god chose him personally to write the greatest epic to ever be written.. if we werent familiar with the bible, the work would be an absolute piece of crap and you can't base a whole work off of the Bible...Delete
I would disagree. I know people who were not familiar with the Bible that thought of Paradise Lost as one of the best epics they had ever read.Delete
yeah, epic. go to /r/epics then...Delete
There is no r/epics. Therefore the epic poem belongs here in r/poetry.Delete
Ninjacunthole: Your impression of Milton smacks of a tired professor at a failing community college.Delete
I go to a highly rated liberal arts school....Delete
edit: internet timed out sorry
"The only reason we still read it is because we inherited Western Religious culture"Delete
I won't even begin to describe how stupid this sentence is. Let me guess, you learned what postmodernism is (you think you did anyway) so now you see rejecting everything as a means to look thoughtful and educated. Of course Shakespeare gets a pass because your professors were rather fond of him...
no, shakespeare is good because he's non religious and frankly vile at times in a time when you could be killed for that shit...Delete
Nice post. My favorite poem is One of Shelley'sReplyDelete
Ozymandias makes me think of all the deserted blogs that will cover the internet in a hundred years when we're all long dead. I wonder if future readers will look back on our poor sites and wonder at how distant we feel to them.Delete
Milton's intentions are something to be guessed at but never assumed to be held in knowledge. The poem isn't about god, it's about men and the way we choose to live our lives.ReplyDelete
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