Yesterday, my friend Monica Sharman had a post about Every Day Poems, the subscription at Tweetspeak Poetry that delivers a poem a day to your email box. She said it had become a kind of “poem-ography” for her – introducing her to both newer and older poets.
I wondered what my own “poem-ography” might look like. Who were the poets who shaped and guided and led my thinking, my education and my own writing? It turns out that the answer is in two parts.
The first group of poets and poetry was the group that shaped by teachers in junior high and high school – the poets we studied and the poets they encouraged us to read: Stephen Vincent Benet, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale, Carl Sandburg, and Amy Lowell. These were the American poets of the first third to first half of the 20th century who were “modern” when my teachers were in high school and college.
Some of the British poets showed up as well, but mostly from the Romantic Period (Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge) and the Victorian Period (Tennyson). The only modern British poet I can recall studying in school was born an American – T.S. Eliot.
The poems that I studied during that period that I recall most clearly were Benet’s John Brown’s Body, Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (which I’ve read and reread many times), Four Quartets by Eliot, and several by Robert Frost – like “Mending Wall, ” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, ” “Birches, ” and “The Death of the Hired Man.”
In college, the only significant additions to the list above were Beowulf and Shakespeare’s sonnets.
The second part of my “poem-ography” started in the early 1980s. I began to read poetry again, largely inspired by full-time corporate speechwriting. And I ranged all over the literary map: William Cullen Bryant, Emerson, Longfellow, Poe, Whitman (I discovered why he was not much emphasized in high school), Emily Dickinson, the British poets of World War I, John Masefield, and lots more T.S. Eliot (like Murder in the Cathedral). Then came Dylan Thomas and Wallace Stevens, Robert Penn Warren and Robert Lowell.
I continued to read poetry right up to the present. Today, it’s Thomas Merton, Billy Collins, R.S. Thomas, and a number of newer, younger poets as well.
Something has definitely changed with poetry, and American poetry in particular. Even as late as the 1960s, there was a sense of “American poetry.” It was a sense a national poetry, yes, but also a sense of the poet as a representative of the nation’s “sensibility.” That is mostly gone today. Today, poetry is almost intensely private and individual. It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen.
But I go back from time to time and read Whitman and Edgar Lee Masters, Dickinson and Teasdale, Frost and Benet, the poets I learned and found, the poetry that shaped and guided me.
And I am thankful.
Who – what poems – would comprise your “poem-ography?”
Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $5.99— Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In May we’re exploring the theme Roses.
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