I’ve been reflecting on my quest to select ten works of poetry that I consider the most important.
A person I greatly respect asked me this question four years ago. We never set a specific date, though I hoped to deliver within the year And here I am four years later, still looking for my answer. To accomplish this, I do need to consider what “most important” means to me. The person asked me not to be swayed by form or technique (as my education may dictate me to do). I discover that for the moment I’m most drawn to Wordsworth. Among Polish poets it’s Leopold Staff and some Leśmian. I like single poems from a few poets like Rilke or Langston Hughes. I have a fondness for Yeats.
But what is most important? What speaks to me, what resonates in my heart? What marks my growth as a person perhaps? Or what speaks universal truths? Is it poetry that breaks new grounds in techniques and storytelling? Or perhaps poetry that touches on relevant issues? Or maybe a piece that has been formative to literature in some way? Then that would be The Odyssey for me, for instance. Or maybe it’s those poemsthat continue generating creative retellings and responses. Again, Illiad and the Odyssey make the cut in this case. One criterion I am finding important is that it has to “call to me”, I must be drawn into its rhythm, the music it makes and story it creates. But I also want to feel the power of poetry of making me “feel” and “see”. And not just a picture, but the insides, the heart, the message.
One favourite for this reason is the popular Road not Taken. Or Langston Hughes’s Dreams. Are those easy poems? Do I only like easy reads when it comes to poetry? Can I even make my list of ten important works of poetry this way? I’m looking for my answer. And for my canon.
And here’s Darwin on reading poetry, novels, and listening to music. I found his comments interesting, if only because I’m 36 and Wordsworth still has major appeal to me but it made me wonder on how over time our preferences do change. I wonder what irritated him in Shakespeare in later years.
Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoollioy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fiine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did. On the other hand, novels which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end un happily-against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person who one can thoroughly love, and if a pretty woman all the better.
This curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes is all the odder, as books on history, biographies, and travels … and essays on all sorts of subjects interest me as much as ever they did. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constitated than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered;
and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possilily be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.
From: The life and letters of Charles Darwin
And there was this quote I found somewhere
So,what are “most important” works of poetry? I guess I must make several lists to try and come up with an answer. One with the very big names like Homer and Shakespeare. One with ten poems/ collections I simply love. Another with the most popular poems. Another with some concepts I found clever. Maybe the answer lies in between. Or maybe there’s no point in making a list, because the choices will change over time. Maybe just go with the flow, as long as you read. Maybe this question is just thst- encouragement not to forget poetry. Perhaps I’m still to immature to come up with an appropriate answer. Or maybe the answer is simply to read. Making a list of choices seems counterproductive since favourites change over time. Formative to my own growth is perhaps another approach. Or formative to literature in some way. I do, however, want the person to know that the question asked four years ago continues to resonate with me and guide me – and I’m grateful for it. I won’t forget, even if that person does. I value the question. If I ever come up with a list, that person will be the first to know. But even if I don’t…. the question seems to have pushed me on a worthwhile internal journey. Isn’t that a good answer in itself?