With thanks to Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune, whose column for Sunday, April 11, listed parts of nine of her favorite poems, I’m joining in her celebration of National Poetry Month by listing at least part of ten of mine. (Catch up with the original column here.) I’ll include every word of the shorter poems.
“Epistle to a Young Friend,” by Robert Burns. Here’s a verse that helps keep me on the straight and narrow path, even as I remember that the poem ends with Burns’ hope that the young man he wrote to would follow the advice better than the advisor did:
The fear o’ hell’s a hangman’s whip,
To haud the wretch in order;
But where ye feel your honour grip,
Let that aye be your border;
Its slightest touches, instant pause-
Debar a’ side-pretences;
And resolutely keep its laws,
“Address to a Haggis,” by Robert Burns. Some people talk to their food, but Burns wrote to his, in this case — and I’m with him, well is it worthy of a grace as long’s my arm. It’s firmly in the Scots dialect, but easy Anglicized versions came up with an Internet search. It’s one of the funnier poems I’ve ever heard, and my dad could get every laugh out of it every year. (I did my best in his honor in 2020.)
“My Shadow,” by Robert Louis Stevenson. I got started on poetry early, thanks to Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses.” “My Shadow” is as familiar as its subject to generations of readers who may not even remember its author, but they remember its first verse:
I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.
“The Swing,” by Robert Louis Stevenson. No matter your age or how long it’s been since you tried one, I challenge you to sit on a playground swing and not think of this:
How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!
“If,” by Rudyard Kipling. If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, chances are you learned it from this Kipling treasure.
“Recessional,” by Rudyard Kipling. If around Veterans Day or Memorial Day you see something marked “Lest We Forget,” it isn’t properly used if all it’s calling for is remembering soldiers, sailors and marines who have died. Kipling’s “Recessional,” written in 1897, brings forward the warning in Deuteronomy 6:12, a call to beware forgetting God’s care. Each stanza of “Recessional” ends with “Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet/Lest we forget — lest we forget!” — each stanza, that is, until the last:
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!
“In Flanders Fields,” by Lt. Col. John McCrae. I’ve written elsewhere about this powerful poem. I recited it at a concert honoring the centennial of the end of World War I in November 2018, and I won’t soon forget practicing here at home and glimpsing a portrait of my great-grandparents, my grandmother, and her sisters and brothers. My two great-uncles died in World War I, and at the concert, I recited as if speaking to them:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
“The Daffodils,” by William Wordsworth. It’s not just a poem about the beauty of a a field of daffodils — it’s also about the wonder and joy of a good memory. It’s taken me until this masked spring to really enjoy being around daffodils, thanks to my pollen allergy, but I recognized the part about beautiful memories many nostalgic years ago:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
“Comment,” by Dorothy Parker. Don’t worry, not everything on my list is going to be Serious (even though it IS my list). Sometimes I like a little fun (or I hope it’s fun!), like this whole poem by Dorothy Parker:
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania.
“Celery,” by Ogden Nash, is a another short treat. I love Nash’s funny poetry in general, but so many of my favorites are for different times of year than this. Here’s his little dietary advice:
Develops the jaw,
But celery, stewed,
Is more quietly chewed.
There’s my list! Additions are welcome in the comments.
Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook.