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.