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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Poets who shaped poetry provide good reading for NaPoMo and beyond

This last day of National Poetry Month can begin a new or renewed commitment to poetic excellence in your own work as you resolve to read some of our most influential poets before the next NaPoMo. At first that may sound a little like a homework chore, but if you’re beyond the public school years, you might be as surprised as I was when I re-read and totally got those “Say what?” poems from high school days.

Since my favorite example gave me the shock of understanding and actually liking the once-baffling poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” let’s start with Pru’s poet-maker.

T.S. Eliot – Recently reviewed in The New York Times, this Nobel Prize poet reflected less than noble views as a man of the times who recorded what he saw. A long list of still-familiar quotations may give you a truer perspective of his perspective, but regardless, notice the brilliant metaphors in Prufrock, then read the poem aloud to hear the amazing musicality. Also, contemplate the multiple meanings in another must-read, “Journey of the Magi.” If you like Eliot’s poems, as I do, you might want to check out his essays on poetry too.

Ezra Pound – A friend of Eliot, but frankly not mine, this controversial figure and founder of the Imagist movement wrote essays about poetry, got arrested for his fascistic views, and was eventually declared insane. Acclaimed though he continues to be, I never connected with Pound or his poetry, yet he wrote one of my all-time favorite poems in two exquisite lines, “In a Station of the Metro.”

Robert Frost – Despite a whirl of poetic movements moving around him, Robert Frost kept writing in traditional forms and meter, winning four Pulitzers in the process. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” reminds me to say that most people warmed to Frost, whose poems these are we think we know, but if you read his work again and aloud, you might be surprised how the possibilities for interpretation continue to snowball.

Gerard Manley Hopkins – This inventor of tightly compressed “sprung rhythm” became a Jesuit priest who wrote religious poetry of high literary quality that continues to be appreciated today. For example, “Windhover” orchestrates a symphony of sound echoes, and “God’s Grandeur” pictures the shining of shook foil, but my favorite is the insightful, quietly sensitive response to a young child in “Spring and Fall.”

Emily Dickinson – Reclusive for reasons people still speculate about, the real Em comes through her recently published letters and the museum that honors her. Numerous websites post her poems too, but as you read her work, listen for the music of a traditional ballad form and look for dashes of punctuation that show her dash of thought.

Walt Whitman – Known as a liberator of free verse in America, Whitman liberated lines of poetry and lines of thought in the expansive, inclusive lists or catalogs in his poems, many of which can be found on the Internet. Like Pound and other well-known poets who invented or re-invented poetic forms and styles, Whitman self-published his early work, including a slim volume that kept growing and growing as Leaves of Grass.

This list could keep growing, too, but not begin to touch the hundreds, indeed, thousands of years of great poets who greatly influenced poetry – poets such as Horace, Sappho, Basho, Aristotle, Petrarch, Shakespeare, Donne, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Yeats, and Auden. Hopefully, you’ll read them all!

If you already have a favorite, you’re once again invited to add the name of an influential poet or poem in the Comments section below.


(c) 2011, Mary Harwell Sayler

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