There is a post floating around Facebook called “12 poems every human should know by heart.” It’s a nice list, and I’m obviously for the promotion of poetry, but that title seems a little ignorant and judge-y.
First of all, not “every human” speaks English. These 12 poems are all written in English. Let’s rename it, HelloGiggles (who put out this list and post) to maybe something like “12 poems in English…”
Secondly, to memorize a poem shouldn’t be work. It shouldn’t be required beyond a 10th grade English class. (Miss Herrenger, my own 10th grade English teacher, made us memorize Shakespeare soliloquies. I’m glad she did, but I certainly wouldn’t want to do it now.) And it’s not necessary to be a human, as the title of that post insinuates. I would much rather a person recognize each poem than ask they try to commit it to memory. Reading poetry should be fun; meaningful. Memorizing poetry sounds like work.
(Sidenote: when I had to memorize a passage of Pope in college, bits and pieces of everything I ever had to memorize came out: a list of prepositions, “The Raven”, Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…” speech from Julius Caesar, and the preamble to the Constitution.)
I do like the idea of a list of poems to read, recognize, revel in. Here are my 12 poems, totally biased to my tastes and in no particular order. Also, you do not need to memorize them to claim your human status:
1. Tell all the truth but tell it slant (1263) by Emily Dickinson
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.
Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.
Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don’t have a baby,
call you a bum.
The reason people want M.F.A.’s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else’s mannerisms
3.) The Tooth Fairy by Dorianne Laux
They brushed a quarter with glue
and glitter, slipped in on bare
feet, and without waking me
painted rows of delicate gold
footprints on my sheets with a love
so quiet, I still can’t hear it.
My mother must have been
a beauty then, sitting
at the kitchen table with him,
a warm breeze lifting her
embroidered curtains, waiting
for me to fall asleep.
It’s harder to believe
the years that followed, the palms
curled into fists, a floor
of broken dishes, her chainsmoking
through long silences, him
punching holes in his walls.
I can still remember her print
dresses, his checkered Taxi, the day
I found her in the closet
with a paring knife, the night
he kicked my sister in the ribs.
He lives alone in Oregon now, dying
of a rare bone disease.
His face stippled gray, his ankles
clotted beneath wool socks.
She’s a nurse on the graveyard shift,
Comes home mornings and calls me,
Drinks her dark beer and goes to bed.
And I still wonder how they did it, slipped
that quarter under my pillow, made those
Whenever I visit her, I ask again.
“I don’t know,” she says, rocking, closing
her eyes. “We were as surprised as you.”
I have wanted excellence in the knife-throw,
I have wanted to use my exceptionally strong and accurate arms
and my straight posture and quick electric muscles
to achieve something at the center of a crowd,
the blade piercing the bark deep,
the haft slowly and heavily vibrating like the cock.
I have wanted some epic use for my excellent body,
some heroism, some American achievement
beyond the ordinary for my extraordinary self,
magnetic and tensile, I have stood by the sandlot
and watched the boys play.
I have wanted courage, I have thought about fire
and the crossing of waterfalls, I have dragged around
my belly big with cowardice and safety,
stool charcoal from the iron pills,
huge breasts leaking colostrum,
legs swelling, hands swelling,
face swelling and reddening, hair
falling out, inner sex
stabbed and stabbed again with pain like a knife.
I have lain down.
I have lain down and sweated and shaken
and passed blood and shit and water and
slowly alone in the center of a circle I have
passed the new person out
and they have lifted the new person free of the act
and wiped the new person free of that
language of blood like praise all over the body.
I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,
Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing,
I and the other women this exceptional
act with the exceptional heroic body,
this giving birth, this glistening verb,
and I am putting my proud American boast
right here with the others.
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
I would have been as great as George Eliot
But for an untoward fate.
For look at the photograph of me made by Peniwit,
Chin resting on hand, and deep-set eyes
Gray, too, and far-searching.
But there was the old, old problem:
Should it be celibacy, matrimony or unchastity?
Then John Slack, the rich druggist, wooed me,
Luring me with the promise of leisure for my novel,
And I married him, giving birth to eight children,
And had no time to write.
It was all over with me, anyway,
When I ran the needle in my hand
While washing the baby’s things,
And died from lock-jaw, an ironical death.
Hear me, ambitious souls,
Sex is the curse of life!
Our bond is no little economy based on the exchange
of my love and work for yours, so much for so much
of an expendable fund. We don’t know what its limits are–
that puts us in the dark. We are more together
than we know, how else could we keep on discovering
we are more together than we thought?
You are the known way leading always to the unknown,
and you are the known place to which the unknown is always
leading me back. More blessed in you than I know,
I possess nothing worthy to give you, nothing
not belittled by my saying that I possess it.
Even an hour of love is a moral predicament, a blessing
a man may be hard up to be worthy of. He can only
accept it, as a plant accepts from all the bounty of the light
enough to live, and then accepts the dark,
passing unencumbered back to the earth, as I
have fallen tine and again from the great strength
of my desire, helpless, into your arms.
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime
You may for ever tarry.
I don’t think that I’ve been in love as such,
Although I liked a few folk pretty well.
Love must be vaster than my smiles or touch,
For brave men died and empires rose and fell
For love: girls followed boys to foreign lands
And men have followed women into Hell.
In plays and poems someone understands
There’s something makes us more than blood and bone
And more than biological demands…
For me, love’s like the wind, unseen, unknown.
I see the trees are bending where it’s been,
I know that it leaves wreckage where it’s blown.
I really don’t know what “I love you” means.
I think it means “Don’t leave me here alone.”
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
She wrote, “They were making love
up against a gymnasium wall,”
and another young woman in class,
serious enough to smile, said
“No, that’s fucking, they must
have been fucking,” to which many
agreed, pleased to have the proper fit
of word with act.
But an older woman, a wife, a mother,
famous in class for confusing grace
with decorum and carriage,
said the F-word would distract
the reader, sensationalize the poem.
“Why can’t what they were doing
just as easily be called making love?”
It was an intelligent complaint,
and the class proceeded to debate
what’s fucking, what’s making love,
and the importance of the context, tact,
the bon mot. I leaned toward those
who favored fucking; they were funnier
and seemed to have more experience
with the happy varieties of their subject.
But then a young man said, now believing
he had permission, “What’s the difference,
you fuck ‘em and you call it making love;
you tell ‘em what they want to hear.”
The class jeered, and another man said
“You’re the kind of guy who gives fucking
a bad name,” and I remembered how fuck
gets dirty as it moves reptilian
out of certain minds, certain mouths.
The young woman whose poem it was,
small-boned and small-voiced,
said she had no objection to fucking,
but these people were making love,
it was her poem and she herself up against
that gymnasium wall, and it felt like love,
and the hell with all of us.
There was silence. The class turned
to me, their teacher, who they hoped
could clarify, perhaps ease things.
I told them I disliked the word fucking
in a poem, but that fucking
might be right in this instance, yet
I was unsure now, I couldn’t decide.
A tear formed and moved down
the poet’s cheek. I said I was sure
only of “gymnasium,” sure it was
the wrong choice, making the act seem
too public, more vulgar than she wished.
How about “boat house?” I asked.
She has laughed as softly as if she sighed,
She has counted six, and over,
Of a purse well filled, and a heart well tried –
Oh, each a worthy lover!
They “give her time”; for her soul must slip
Where the world has set the grooving;
She will lie to none with her fair red lip:
But love seeks truer loving.
She trembles her fan in a sweetness dumb,
As her thoughts were beyond recalling;
With a glance for one, and a glance for some,
From her eyelids rising and falling;
Speaks common words with a blushful air,
Hears bold words, unreproving;
But her silence says – what she never will swear –
And love seeks better loving.
Go, lady! lean to the night-guitar,
And drop a smile to the bringer;
Then smile as sweetly, when he is far,
At the voice of an in-door singer.
Bask tenderly beneath tender eyes;
Glance lightly, on their removing;
And join new vows to old perjuries –
But dare not call it loving!
Unless you can think, when the song is done,
No other is soft in the rhythm;
Unless you can feel, when left by One,
That all men else go with him;
Unless you can know, when unpraised by his breath,
That your beauty itself wants proving;
Unless you can swear “For life, for death!” –
Oh, fear to call it loving!
Unless you can muse in a crowd all day
On the absent face that fixed you;
Unless you can love, as the angels may,
With the breadth of heaven betwixt you;
Unless you can dream that his faith is fast,
Through behoving and unbehoving;
Unless you can die when the dream is past –
Oh, never call it loving!