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Posts Tagged ‘American Poetry Anthology’

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.

101 Great American Poems

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.

 

First Fig

 

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.

 

 

Still Here

 

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.

 

 

 

Fog

 

By Carl Sandburg

 

The fog comes

on little cat feet.

 

It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on.

 

 

Euclid

 

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.

 

 

 

The Lesson

 

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?

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