Monday, March 19, 2007

The Poems in My Commonplace Book

As part of this year’s National Poetry Month celebration, the Academy of American Poets offers a list of 30 Ways to Celebrate that includes a wide range of options for exploring poetry. Of the many possibilities, the one that caught my eye was “Start a commonplace book,” which the site explains:

Since the Renaissance, devoted readers have been copying their favorite poems and quotations into notebooks to form their own personal anthologies called commonplace books.
What a challenge! Which poems to choose? How to narrow the options? I don’t have space to share them all, so I’ll share just one: “This Is Just to Say by William Carlos Williams. It may not seem like a likely choice for me. I spend much of my time exploring symbolic poetry, full of mythological allusions and deep, complex imagery. “This Is Just to Say” is such a straightforward, little poem—but that’s why I have chosen it.

This Is Just to Say” is a poem that is approachable. With no real effort, I can spout off the words from memory, and it’s a poem that anyone can understand. No special degrees in literature are necessary. I’ve used it successfully as a model poem for students to parody and I listen happily to the Prairie Home Companion “Guy Noir” parody of the poem.

Yet beneath that simplicity is the sharp wit and careful pen of a great poet. The poem’s line breaks and precise wording provide such a sharp image and message. The plums of the poem are like all poetry for me, a guilty pleasure that I indulge in against all the nagging demands of my daily life. Tonight, I have lesson plans to edit, laundry to wash, and an essay to write; but instead I found myself indulging in the poems I love—“Forgive me / they were delicious.”

11 comments:

Traci Gardner said...

What's your favorite poem, and why? Please take a few minutes to share a poem and why you love to read it!

Anonymous said...

Since high school I have loved Theodore Roethke's "Vernal Sentiment," especially at this time of year, when spring is just emerging from gray February:

"Though the crocuses poke up their heads in the usual places,/The frog scum appear on the pond with the same froth of green,/And boys moon at girls with last year's fatuous faces,/I never am bored, however familiar the scene.

When from under the barn the cat brings a similar litter,--/Two yellow and black, and one that looks in between,--Though it all happened before, I cannot grow bitter:/I rejoice in the spring, as though no spring ever had been."

I respect the desire to see anew, to not grow jaded by commonplace events and images, and I love the last line.

Larry Levy
Midland, MI

Traci Gardner said...

Nice choice, Larry. I like Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay" for similar reasons. I remember a teacher reading it to the class when I was in college and then asking us to look at the huge tree shading our 3rd floor classroom. Fresh with emerging buds and tiny leaves, the tree did indeed look more golden and yellow than green. I think of that poem every spring when I see those first golden sprouts on the trees.

Laura said...

One of my favorites is Frost's "The Road Not Taken". There have been times in my life I needed to choose which way to go and I always hear "I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference." For me, life is about following your own path-- wherever it leads. While it may be the one less traveled, it is the one that is right for you. At least, that's what I like to tell my students and my friends.

Anonymous said...

Lovely choices.

Every spring, though, as I really look at the new shoots of February and the tiny March leaves on the roses and the maples, I want to shout "Frost was wrong! Nature's first green is red."

I'd nominate, as one of the most incantatory poems in the English language, Yeat's "Lake Isle of Innisfree"--"I will arise and go now..."

Anonymous said...

Since I've begun teaching, I keep a folder on my flash drive of poems I hear on the Writer's Almanac, American Life in Poetry, and other sources. I return to this folder when I need a shot of rejuvenation, a reminder that the written word can transcend the page. Two poems I read often are "The Blessing" by James Wright and "Two-headed Calf" by Laura Gilpin. "Blessing" is beautiful in its figurative language; I love the final image of the narrator blossoming from the experience with the horses. However "Calf" is more startling, more realistic, yet still beautiful in its imagery. The narrator knows the fate of this little life (the calf's eventual placement as a laboratory subject), but also depicts the wonder, the beauty of the moment:
"But tonight he is alive and in the north / field with his mother. It is a perfect / summer evening: the moon rising over / the orchard, the wind in the grass. And / as he stares into the sky, there are / twice as many stars as usual."
The poet has taken what my students would call a "freak" and shown the potential positives of the situation...having two heads is an abnormality, but it allows this calf to enjoy the world twice as much, if only for the night.

Lisa said...

As an elementary teacher, I loved to use Shel Silverstein with my students. His poems seemed to be very easy for students to remember and they loved to recite them aloud. The poems also worked as nice model texts for writing poetry of our own. I use them now with my college students and Silverstein's poetry seems to take them back to their youth.

Anonymous said...

On evenings when I am most reflective, or want to be most reflective, I often turn to Tolkien's "The Sea Bell" and "Little Princess Mee". These poems always set me in a quiet, thoughtful mood. The images of Mee as "she walks by day" and "dances at night", and the loneliness of Frodo's alienation, fire my imagination. I love Tolkien's metric and rhyme schemes (internal and external), the resonance and vividness of his words and his use of literary devices and figures of speech to evoke emotion and vision in the mind of the reader. Many a night I have watched Frodo and Mee as they travelled through the worlds of their poems.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember reading "Vernal Sentiment" before, and it is a beautiful spring poem.

One of my favorites is Gerard Manley Hopkins' "As Kingfishers Catch Fire": "As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;/As tumbled over rim in roundy wells/Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's/Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;/Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:/Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;/Selves--goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,/Crying What I do is me; for that I came./I say more: the just man justices;/Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;/Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is--/Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,/Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/To the Father through the features of men's faces."
I love the way in which Hopkins' words multiply meanings and images: "roundy," "finds tongue," "goings graces," "plays in ten thousand places"--and the wonderful unity of life and the hymn of praise provoked by catching a glimpse of a shy bird dipping over a river....

Anonymous said...

As someone else mentioned, "A Blessing" is one of my all time favorite poems. James Wright hits me right at my emotional center with his idea of stepping out of my body into blossom. The poem is full of wonderful imagery, but those last few lines really do it.

I also enjoy most of what e.e. cummings wrote, but especially lines like "somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond/any experience,your eyes have their silence:" and "it's/spring/and/the/goat-footed/balloonMan whistles/far/and/wee" He plays with the words and conventions. He creates moods through clever word choice, word placement, and the unexpected.

Billy Collins was mentioned in your opening comments, so I thought I would share one of my favorite Collins poem --- "Another Reason Why I Don't Keep a Gun in the House" makes me smile and makes me wish I wrote it.

Finally, Nikki Giovanni rocks as a poetic superstar. Her "Nikki Rosa" is a powerful poem that has stuck with me for years. One of my best memories is of hearing her read that poem with her own pauses and emphasized words.

As you can see, I have no favorite poem. I love poetry. I like to create it, but I love to consume it.

Aram K.

Anonymous said...

It sounds corny but...My favorite poems are the poems my students write and share. Every year we do an "Anthology of Myself" (forgive me Walt) and they have the task of writing and collecting poetry that has a connection to themselves and their lives. They also reflect on each choice and why it is in their anthology, which to me is sometimes the most valuable part of the process.