by Britton Gildersleeve
It depends on what you mean by favorite—
A recent social media question asked, What is your favorite poem? Really? You
want me to narrow down my love of poetry to Just. One. Poem . . . ? Ack!
I thought longer on this than I should probably admit to, given it was, after all, only a FB question. But it set me thinking, as almost anything about poetry will. What poems would I insist folks read, if I ran the poetic universe? Would I require Shakespeare? (Nope.) How about Eliot? (Nope to him, too.) Yeats? Dickinson? 👎🏼 Not, you understand, because I don’t like Shakespeare, Eliot, or Yeats and Dickinson; I do. But they’ve never hooked a piece of my life and kept it captive in a few stanzas. They don’t make my favorites list(s).
So who has? (And it would be WONDERFUL if folks responded with their own favorites!) What makes a poem or poet a favorite? I’m not certain we shouldn’t begin there, defining what it means to be a “favorite” poem or poet. Is your favorite the one you teach? The one you turn to over and over again, drawing comfort from its indefinable music? What about the one you didn’t like at first but grew to love later? Or the one that you struggled to understand until it suddenly blossomed for you? Or the one, like a blind date, that snuck up on you and suddenly was your best beloved?
I have to start with Ezra Pound, on whom I spent inordinate amounts of time in grad school. I’ve always loved “In a Station of the Metro”—its haiku-like compression, the Imagist magic of petals on a wet, black bough. It’s never left me, and I return to it often. So when I had the opportunity to explore Pound’s work in more depth, I took it. It’s been true love ever since, his (several!) personal foibles aside.
All of Pound’s Chinese translations (which Chinese scholars I know also love, just FYI) sing for me. “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” for instance, is one of the few poems I’d call perfect: The paired butterflies are already yellow with August/Over the grass in the West garden;/They hurt me./I grow older. Who paints desolate separation more eloquently?
Or Seamus Heaney’s Glanmore sonnets . . . How can you not bow in humility before a line like He lived there in the unsayable lights . . . ? Or eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise/Their wind-compounded keen . . . ?
And what about the poems I’ve used in so many classes—Auden’s masterful “Musée Des Beaux Arts,” for instance? With its lyric gestalt of the 2-dimensional paintings by Brueghel—an Auden mashup—and Auden’s own genius?
Then there’s Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” that wrenching elegy to grief: the art of losing’s not too hard to master/though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster. And B. H. Fairchild’s “Body & Soul.” And younger, less mainstream poets—Robin Coste Lewis, dg nanouk okpik, Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Poets you’ve never heard of, who offer me their chapbooks. Friends who write. All the words that help me sort out my chaotic interior landscape. It would be easier for me to say what poems/poets are just Meh!
What fascinated me most about my response to the initial question—a single favorite?—is my inability even to say what single poems are that important to me. Poetry (at least for me) is like music: I like periods of music, genres. I love most of what Bach wrote, like I like almost all of the late, lamented W. S. Merwin’s work. Same with William Stafford, or Naomi Shihab Nye. I’m still stymied by the narrowing the word favorite necessitates, but at least I can begin to list something!
Ultimately, I took the question to the floor. Or, in my case, my inimitably brilliant poetry book club. After trying to understand why I was in an uproar, they had the answer: Why do you have to have just one favorite poem? Brought home to me resoundingly by a brand-new (to me) poem shared that day that immediately made my favorites list: Rumi’s “Where Everything Is Music.” N.B. & true confession: Rumi is one of my favorite poets, so perhaps this poem isn’t as new an addition—even though I hadn’t read it previously—as it seems. But then again . . .
So: what do you all think? What poems or poets continue to engage you? What new ones resonate for you? And why? That conversation is one we all can have fun with! In the meantime? A quick plug for this amazing literary community—Nimrod—where I’ve discovered so many of my favorite poems and poets! And where those poems continue to move from my new list to my favorites list.
Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.