Different poetry anthologies are compiled on very different principles. Some are collections made to appeal to a broad audience, and the content reflects that. And some are written to represent the canon, a concept that has various interpretations: it may be the “best” poems of each type, the most characteristic poems of each type, the most influential poems, etc. But most anthologies are a mix of these sorts of notions. And some, of course, are like a huge museum where the work of the dead is gathered to show what artists have done over time, without much regard for whether it is great or mediocre.
Everyone who loves poetry would like to have her own personal anthology—all of the poems she likes collected together in one spot. Inevitably, such an anthology would be like a CD of the “100 Greatest Overtures,” an assemblage of famous pieces, many of them familiar to many listeners. It’s like a get-together with old friends. And best of all, they are not crowded in, shoulder to shoulder with those who have pretensions of importance, like guests at a hideous cocktail party.
Over the years, students have asked why the poems I assigned are so often about death or love, though this isn’t quite accurate (like many student impressions). I usually told them that great poetry is often the expression of deep, sincere emotion; it isn’t mechanical, contrived, or sentimental. And some fine poems are dry, witty, precise observations of life (Phyllis McGinley’s “Occupation: Housewife”) or broadly-humorous commentaries (Wilbur’s “Pangloss’s Song”). Others are like metaphorical, metrical puzzles (Ransom’s “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter”). Some are celebrations, perhaps witty (Wilbur’s “A Simile for Her Smile”). Still others are incantations that wrap us in sound—and though we respond, we may not be certain what has happened and what is happening (Robinson’s (“Luke Havergal”). Fine poems offer very much more than the poems we usually see: which tell us “I saw this,” described by many metaphors—or “I saw this, and felt this and that,” or even “I’ve been thinking of this.”
Here are some short poems that I would include in my personal anthology—and if I were to actually put such a book together, I might arrange it chronologically, or thematically, or by mood—or perhaps I would randomize the poems so that each successive poem might be a surprising change. I hope that anyone who is interested will look at these. Almost all can be found on-line.
(Most English poetry is written in accentual-syllabic verse patterns of stressed and less-strongly stressed syllables, but two of the poems are quantitative verse, the type of verse written in Ancient and Classical Greece. It is based on patterns of long quantity and short quantity–the amount of time taken to pronounce the syllables. It is extremely difficult to write in English, and very few poets have succeeded in using it well. In reading it, one must pay close attention to quantity, not to stress; it has an unusual sound but it can be very enticing.)
Mathew Arnold: Dover Beach.
Hilaire Belloc: The Chief Defect of Henry King.
William Blake: London; The Tiger.
Emily Bronte: Remembrance.
Robert Browning: My Last Duchess; Meeting at Night.
George Gordon, Lord Byron: “She Walks in Beauty”; “So We’ll Go No More A-roving.”
Thomas Campion: “Rose-cheeked Laura, come . . . .”
Lewis Carroll: Jabberwocky.
Arthur Hugh Clough: The Latest Decalogue.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Kubla Khan.
Stephen Crane: War is Kind.
Countee Cullen: Yet Do I Marvel.
Sir John Davies : “The sacred muse that first made love devine.”
Walter De La Mare: The Listeners.
Emily Dickinson: “A route of evanescence . . . “; “My life closed twice . . . “; “I felt a funeral in my brain . . . “; “I reason, earth is short . . . “; “Much madness is divinest sense . . . ”; “He preached upon breadth.”
Michel Drayton: Sonnet 7. Since There’s No Help . . . .
Edward Fitzgerald: The Rubaiyat, quatrains– 14 “The worldly hopes . . . ;” 16 “Think, in this battered . . . ;” 18 “I sometimes think . . . ;” 19 “And this delightful herb . . . ;” 20 “Ah, my Beloved . . . ;” 21 “Lo! Some we loved . . . ;” 22 “And we that now make merry . . . .”
Robert Frost: Spring Pools; Design; Range Finding, Come In.
Thomas Hardy: The Ruined Maid; Ah, are you digging on my grave.
William Ernest Henley: Madame Life’s a Piece in Bloom.
Gerard Manley Hopkins: God’s Grandeur; Pied Beauty; Spring and Fall; “I wake and feel the fell . . . ;” “Thou art indeed just . . . ;” “No worst, there is none . . . .”
A.E. Housman: With rue my heart is laden; “Terence, this is stupid stuff . . .”; “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now . . .”; A Shropshire Lad. 32—“From far, from eve and morning.”
Leigh Hunt: Rondeau.
John Keats: Bright Star; Would I Were Steadfast . . . ; To Fanny; La Belle Dame Sans Merci.
Walter Savage Landor: Rose Aylmer.
Philip Larkin: Home Is So Sad; Next, Please.
Edward Lear: The Owl and the Pussycat.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: The Cross of Snow.
- D. H. Lawrence: Piano.
Richard Lovelace: To Lucasta, Going to the Wars.
Archibald MacLeish: Ars Poetica; “Nor Marble nor the Gilded Monuments”; The End of the World.
Andrew Marvell: To His Coy Mistress.
Phyllis McGinley: Evening Musicale; Occupation: Housewife; The 5:32; Midcentury Love Letter.
John Milton: On His Deceased Wife.
George Meredith: Modern Love. Sonnet 1—”By this he knew she wept . . . .”
Alexander Pope: Epigram.
Wilfred Owen: Arms and the boy; Anthem for Doomed Youth; The Send-Off; Futility.
John Crowe Ransom: Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter; Piazza Piece.
Henry Reed: Naming of Parts.
Adrienne Rich: Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers.
Edwin Arlington Robinson: Luke Havergal; For a Dead Lady.
Theodore Roethke: Elegy for Jane.
Christina Rossetti: Sleeping at Last; Remember.
Siegfried Sassoon: Base Details.
William Shakespeare: Sonnets. 73. “That time of year . . . ;” 18. “Shall I compare thee . . . ;” 29. “When in disgrace . . . ;” 71. “No longer mourn for me . . . .”
Percy Bysshe Shelley: Ode to the West Wind; To ———.
Stevie Smith: Not Waving but Drowning.
Robert Louis Stevenson: Requiem.
Trumbull Stickney: Mnemosyne.
Algernon Charles Swinburne: Sapphics. (quantitative verse)
Alfred Lord Tennyson: Tears, Idle Tears; Sweet and Low; Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal; Crossing the Bar; It Is the Miller’s Daughter.
Edward Thomas: Adelstrop.
Richard Wilbur: A Simile for Her Smile; Pangloss’s Song; First Snow in Alsace.
William Carlos Williams: Queen-Ann’s-Lace.
William Wordsworth: Composed upon Westminster Bridge . . . ; The world is too much with us . . . .
Elinor Wylie: Puritan Sonnet.