My favorites for National Poetry Month

My favorites for National Poetry Month
Robert Louis Stevenson

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,
Uncaring consequences.

“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:

Celery, raw
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.


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  • Address to a Haggis: I'm not sure if itis an ode to the disgusting sausage or the glutton who eats it.

  • In reply to jack:

    "Address to a Haggis" is an ode to the delicious "chieftain of the pudding (i.e. sausage) race," with some fun at the expense of those of us who eat it, versus those who eat French ragout (stew) or fricassee.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    In short, both.

  • In reply to jack:

    Don't knock it until (and unless) you've tried it.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    I suppose I could recommend anythig fermented in Joong Boo Market but not a poet to accompany it.

  • In reply to jack:

    Don't worry, Jack, you've stumped me now.

  • If there is an American Civil War version of In Flanders Fields it would be the more grizzly The Wound-Dresser by Walt Whitman, drawn from his experience as a volunteer in military hospitals during the war.

    On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
    The crush’d head I dress, (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage
    The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through I
    Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life
    struggles hard,
    (Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!
    In mercy come quickly.)

  • In reply to jnorto:

    Whew! Mercy indeed. Thank you for sharing it.

  • Ode to Blinding Beauty
    Her looks transcend the barrier called fair / His heart and will to resist her she binds / Thinking naught but of her smile he pines / For the release of her bouncy brown hair / Her leaving his small realm he could not bear / Like the silky long curls her finger winds
    He's limp, all for that beauty that blinds / From all else yet at her helpless he'd stare. // While seeing the shallows though not the signs / Showing more than a pretty visual layer / Whether the twain may too meet with their minds / Hearts will share their most secrets should they dare / Feelings far further than vague dating lines / To know eternity their souls shall share.

  • In reply to franksterlejr:

    Thank you for your contribution, franksterlejr. Who wrote it, please?

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Frank Sterle Jr.

  • In reply to franksterlejr:

    Thank you -- and now that I see the difference in spacing, congratulations.

  • Excellent post, thank you. Yes, we need poetry more than ever--and there are people reading and writing poems every day!

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    You're welcome. I enjoyed Mary Schmich's list and figured that we could use another, so it was a good exercise to think of (and think over) ten of my own.

  • I congratulate you on your list. You've given me much to think about, too. So many poets! So many poems! So hard to choose.

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    Thank you. It was harder and harder to choose as I got near my limit of ten. But I think this is one of the great things about a poetry month -- thinking about it. Thanks again to Mary Schmich, whose list in her column got me started.

  • Funny you included Ogden Nash's "Celery". Last night I caught some of "It's Always Fair Weather" on TCM. Three army buddies---Gene Kelly, Dan Daily, and Michael Kidd---reunite ten years after WWII. In the scene I reference, they're sitting in a restaurant with a live performance of "The Blue Danube" in the background. Each of them starts working his jaw with a stalk of celery. While this is going on, each expresses inwardly his disappointment in the others---on the screen, separated from the other two at the table.. Their words are sung to the tune of "The Blue Danube". .

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Hmm, expressing disappointment inwardly but still using words. I need to see that. I've heard of cherry pit-spitting to "The Blue Danube," but not celery chewing... another reason to check it out. Thank you.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Found it -- I like YouTube more and more. Here's the celery-eating scene you described:

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Much healthier than ceegars, on many levels.

  • Save the Earwig!
    We protest whilst demanding that all life / all living creatures have the right to live / but we humans in ways still primitive / readily cause so much life so much strife / until our misdeeds cut like a knife / our deserving conscience since we give / naught towards the creatures’ cause, dismissive / are we of our apathy so rife. // But the creatures about which we don’t preach / the bugs that can’t bring us to them adore / their ugliness our hearts they can’t reach / their lives we don’t at all care to restore / instead we stomp on them, their ‘rights’ we breach / the creepy crawler lifeforms we’ll ignore. (Frank Sterle Jr.)

  • In reply to franksterlejr:

    Cleverly written, Frank, but I am glad you put "rights" in quotation marks. I can admire bugs from a safe distance.
    P.S. Have you considered pitching a poetry blog to Chicago Now?

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