Great poetry is personal. Like a seashell held to your ear, a poem resonates to the beating of your heart, matching the design of its inner chamber to the contours of your mind. The poet brings the words, you bring your life and together you make the song.
The stories of great poetry are familiar. Constructed from the culture and the symbols the writer and reader have in common, a poem can present a personal experience so truthfully that it is not read, as Robert Frost said, so much as it is recognized. The account of life it offers can be so accurate and self-effacing that it becomes our own, informing our memory, extending our vision and clarifying our thoughts. We find our feelings given voice. We get involved.
The language of great poetry, too, is like our own. It invites us in. All poems capture thought in a rhythmic narrative that is easy to remember, and to that extent poetry is little more than a device - a chant, a mantra, a prayer. But the rhythms employed in great poetry are more intimate: the studied stride of formal speech, the monotones of madness, the quiet sighing of despair, the blurting out of love. And through image, irony and symbolism the message is structured to turn on us in surprise like life itself. While the syntax may be as difficult to parse as a midnight thought, great poetry breaks through to a higher grammar of ideas and feelings. Let go of the rhyme and listen. Modern verse in particular speaks as we do, using the power of plain words, searing and unadorned.
Too often, though, in our efforts to understand and discuss it with others, we hold poetry at arms length, concentrating on it as a cultural specimen or a puzzle to be solved: here the poet reveals her neurosis; there the stain of his times shows through. We shine a light into the poet's eyes: what exactly did you mean by that? Yes, it does deepen our understanding to know a little about the circumstances in which the poem was written. Friends often ask that kind of knowledge of each other. And, yes, we must sometimes enter into a poem's strangeness, however discomforting and difficult the lesson may be. Our closest friends, too, can be demanding and obscure. But great poetry should be held up close. It is often your life and not the poet's that gives the language meaning. The great poems are usually about you.
Is it dangerous to get so personally involved? Poetry takes your mind off the job; it raises questions; it gets your blood boiling. Plato banished poetry from his Republic because it might encourage troublesome ideas that were in conflict with official doctrine. Aristotle replied that it should be permitted to continue because it can be made instructive and of service to the State. But both seem equally wrong. Poetry is no servant, it is another regime, a parliament of ideas in permanent session, still working its colorful and circuitous way through the whereases. Poetry has been banished a thousand times and we still have poetry. States rise and preen and march and have their day, and it is poetry that survives. It is in poetry, not on the Senate floor, that we debate the issues of honor, loyalty, love and respect for nature that are the foundations of our society.
The aim of this anthology has been to re-emphasize the personal aspect of poetry, to select from 500 years of American and English literature several hundred of the best and most evocative poems and to put them in a small book that can be carried in a suitcase or chucked into the glove compartment. That is the way poetry is supposed to work.
Not included here are long masterpieces like T. S. Eliot's “The Wasteland” and Coleridge's “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Others like Whitman's “Song of Myself” are represented only by excerpts. A few poems have been chosen to serve as foils for others and one selection by Dylan Thomas is not a poem at all but part of a short story. Generous helpings have been taken from Edna St. Vincent Millay and Carl Sandburg who have been inexplicably neglected in these post-modern times. But with such eccentricities acknowledged, the great poems are here.
Although there was no intention to be representative, half the poems are by Americans and half by English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Canadians. There are translations from Middle English, Sanskrit, Russian, Bengali and Japanese. And the selection is modern: a third of the poems in this anthology were written in the last fifty years and a third were written between 1900 and 1945. The date given in each case is the date of first publication unless an earlier date of composition is known.
Finally, they have been arranged by subject. Great poems can be read this way. They transcend style; they speak beyond their time; they sing together and in counterpoint, given half a chance. Denise Levertov and Mitchell Goodman, for example, were married, and their poems about the ache of it appear here side by side. Robert Frost and Edward Thomas were friends while Frost was living in England; their poems about the dark forest are here together. (Thomas died in the first world war, and Frost continued to be obsessed by this image throughout his life.) Poets as diverse as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Sara Teasdale and Gary Snyder echo the themes and images of “Western Wind” hundreds of years later as if it were some universal subtext to which we all return. Maya Angelou, Jane Flanders and D. H. Lawrence, like talk show guests sitting on stools, describe their mothers. Separated by more than a century, Robert Browning and Richard Wilbur talk about how men look at women. Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg call back and forth to each other about the America the have found. And between the surreal rage of W. D. Snodgrass' “Examination” and the irony of Auden's “Unknown Citizen”, Lewis Carroll's “The Walrus and the Carpenter” can be seen for the sad, cynical tale it is, as if, against the harsh light of the others' anger, we could trace its awful bones.
The poems follow the contours of life, the loneliness of the artist, the uses of war, the role of nature, the constancy of love and the coming on of death. This is the singing of our tribe, called out across the noisy business of daily life. Take it personally. Sample these poems in a generous spirit, prepared to hear your own heart roaring in your ear.