I discovered ‘101 Great American Poems’ last week by accident. I was trying to buy some other book at the online bookstore when this title popped out. It wasn’t a thick book – it was slightly less than a hundred pages – and so I thought why not give it a try. I got it last week, dipped my toe into it and then got submerged into this poetic ocean. How a slim, thin book can also be so vast – I have no idea. It made me think of a line I read somewhere on how sometimes the inside of a house or a room can be bigger than the outside (I think I read that either in Boris Vian’s ‘Foam of the Daze’ or in Diane Duane’s ‘So You Want to be a Wizard’ or probably in both). That totally applied to this book.
Now more about the book. ‘101 Great American Poems’ contains a selection of American poetry from the seventeenth century till around the time of the Second World War. Most of the greats are covered – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, T.S.Eliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Langston Hughes. I am sure there are significant omissions which a discerning reader will be able to spot, but for an amateur poetry reader like me, I think the list of poets featured is pretty good. The only complaint I have is that just ten women poets are featured (out of a total of thirty-nine poets). One of the reasons for this might be because of the time period this book covers – it features only poetry written till around the time of the Second World War. So there is no room for Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov, Linda Pastan, Rita Dove, Sylvia Plath, Pat Schneider. It is a real shame and unfortunately it is something that we have to live with. Other than this issue, I found the selection of poets and poems quite excellent. (I also have a minor complaint – my favourite Emily Dickinson poem ‘For Each Ecstatic Instant’ was not featured. But that is a playful complaint, not a serious one.)
Some of my favourite reading moments while reading this collection were :
Reading the legendary line ‘It was evening all afternoon’ in Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’
Reading about a candle burning at both ends in Edna St.Vincent Millay’s poem ‘The Fig’ (probably the first ever time this phrase was used)
Discovering that when the characters in the movie ‘Dead Poets Society’ said ‘Oh Captain! My Captain!’, they were probably making a reference to Walt Whitman’s poem of the same name
Reading again those two famous poetic lines from Robert Frost’s poems – ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I– / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference’ (from ‘The Road Not Taken’) and ‘But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep’ (from ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’)
Discovering that there is a Robert Frost poem called ‘Fire and Ice’ (Did George RR Martin get inspired by Frost’s poem when he named his series ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’? What do you think?)
Falling in love with Emily Dickinson all over again
Falling in love with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow all over again
Discovering that William Cullen Bryant was just seventeen when he wrote his profound meditative poem ‘Thanatopsis’ (‘Meditation on Death’)
Discovering to my surprise, that Abraham Lincoln has written a poem (In case you are curious, it is called ‘My Childhood’s Home I See Again’)
Discovering the amazing Langston Hughes for the first time
Discovering the wonderful Paul Laurence Dunbar for the first time
Discovering that America’s first published poet was a woman, Anne Bradstreet
Smiling while discovering that both T.S.Eliot and W.H.Auden were both featured in the collection (Eliot was born American and then later became a British citizen, while Auden was born British and than later became an American citizen. Who is British and who is American? Do these distinctions matter while experiencing the beautiful pleasures of poetry?)
Smiling while reading Walt Whitman describing his own poetic style as ‘barbaric yawp’
Reading the baseball anthem ‘Casey at the bat’ by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, for the very first time
Discovering beautiful poems by new-to-me poets – Frances Harper, Emma Lazarus, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Vachel Lindsay, Sara Teasdale, Claude McKay
Here are some of my favourite poems from the book. I have included only the shorter ones.
By Edna St. Vincent Millay
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But, ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –
It gives a lovely light.
By Langston Hughes
I’ve been scarred and battered.
My hopes the wind done scattered.
Snow has friz me, sun has baked me.
Looks like between ‘em
They done tried to make me
Stop laughin’, stop lovin’, stop livin’ –
But I don’t care!
I’m still here!
‘Hope is the thing with feathers’
by Emily Dickinson
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard,
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strongest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
The Arrow and the Song
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.
I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?
Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.
By Carl Sandburg
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
By Vachel Lindsay
Old Euclid drew a circle
On a sand-beach long ago.
He bounded and enclosed it
With angles thus and so.
His set of solemn greybeards
Nodded and argued much
Of arc and of circumference,
Diameter and such.
A silent child stood by them
From morning until noon
Because they drew such charming
Round pictures of the moon.
Fire and Ice
By Robert Frost
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
By Paul Laurence Dunbar
My cot was down by a cypress grove,
And I sat by my window the whole night long,
And heard well up from the deep dark wood
A mocking-bird’s passionate song.
And I thought of myself so sad and lone,
And my life’s cold winter that knew no spring;
Of my mind so weary and sick and wild,
Of my heart too sad to sing.
But e’en as I listened the mocking-bird’s song,
A thought stole into my saddened heart,
And I said, “I can cheer up some other soul
By a carol’s simple art.”
For oft from the darkness of hearts and lives
Come songs that brim with joy and light.
As out of the gloom and the cypress grove
The mocking-bird sings at night.
So I sang a lay for a brother’s ear
In a strain to soothe his bleeding heart,
And he smiled at the sound of my voice and lyre,
Though mine was a feeble art.
But at his smile I smiled in turn,
And into my soul there came a ray;
In trying to soothe another’s woes
Mine own had passed away.
Have you read ‘101 American Poems’? Which were your favourite reading moments while reading the book?