Favorite Poems

March 5, 2023


     I assume you’re all familiar with the Favorite Poem Project that was founded by Robert Pinsky when he was US Poet Laureate in 1997.  Eighteen thousand people responded, from all across the country, and videos are available online.  It’s incredibly moving to listen and watch as people read the poems and say why they chose them, and always reminds me of the place of poetry in our ongoing lives.   This statement on the Project home page describes my own sense of poems: “Poetry is a vocal art, an art meant to be heard in the reader’s voice—whether actually read aloud or in the inner voice of the imagination. The experience, in both ways, is bodily. As with conversation and song and many other uses of language, understanding is rooted in sound.”  Pinsky describes why he shaped the project as he did: “When you say a poem aloud by William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson or Langston Hughes, or even imagine saying it aloud, your voice becomes the artist’s medium. It is a form of collaboration, or mutual possession.”

I’ve often thought about what poems I might choose to submit, and of course it’s a wide, various, fluid group.  I chose two to post here, an old favorite and a newer one.  I first read “To Earthward” as a teenager, then memorized it as I circled my tiny bedroom.  I was just discovering the pleasures of touch, the overwhelming sensations and emotions, the intensity, but I could even then, imagine a little–thanks to the poem–what it would mean to lose them.  And of course Frost was imagining the future too–he was just forty when he wrote it.  I was also writing poems myself, so I noticed the beautiful rhythms and word sounds and rhymes (honeysuckle/ knuckle!)  I heard the speed and lightness of the first line, and later the slowing down of “Now no joy but lacks salt”–six monosyllabic words, six stresses.  I felt the poem not just in my ears, but in my whole body–and I still do.

I discovered Alice Oswald’s poems much more recently, and find them literally breathtaking–sometimes I realize I’m holding my breath as I read.  Her imagery is vivid and unexpected, and in “Swan” I don’t know what I’m seeing until it’s too late, I can’t close my eyes.  She’s made something horrifying and sad into something beautiful–that’s a work of art.  But she shows us the beauty and sadness first, the imagined, long before she ever offers a glimpse of how the encounter began.  I think almost any other poet would have begun with finding the swan and them perhaps moved to the transcendental, so it’s a moment of real genius to me that she doesn’t.

So here’s your assignment: choose a favorite (two if they’re short), post them in Comments (just click on Favorite Poems in red on the right and scroll down), along with a brief statement of why you’re choosing them, and plan to read them at this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) discussion.



Robert Frost


Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air

That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of—was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Downhill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they’re gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.

I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung.

Now no joy but lacks salt,
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault;
I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love,
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.



Alice Oswald


A rotted swan

is hurrying away from the plane-crash mess of her wings

one here

one there


getting panicky up out of her clothes and mid-splash

looking down again at what a horrible plastic

mould of herself split-second

climbing out of her own cockpit


and lifting away again and bending back for another look thinking




what are those two -white clips that connected my strength

to its floatings


and lifting away again and bending back for another look

at the clean china serving-dish of a breast bone

and how thickly the symmetrical quill-points

were threaded in backwards through the leather underdress

of the heart saying





it’s not as if such fastenings could ever contain

the regular yearning wing-beat of my evenings

and that surely can’t be my own black feet

lying poised in their slippers

what a waste of detail

what a heaviness inside each feather

and leaving her life and all its tools

with their rusty juices trickling back to the river

she is lifting away she is taking a last look thinking





say something to the

frozen cloud of the head

before it thaws


whose one dead eye

is a growing cone of twilight

in the middle of winter


it is snowing there

and the bride has just set out

to walk to her wedding


but how can she reach

the little black-lit church

it is so cold


the bells like iron angels

hung from one note

keep ringing and ringing




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  • Reply Elizabeth Brown March 6, 2023 at 6:24 am

    My favorite poems are continually changing, but I always circle back to those that impart a kind of truth. I feel less alone in reading them. I feel there is–someone in the world–who understands.

    The Peace of Wild Things
    by Wendell Berry

    When despair for the world grows in me
    and I wake in the night at the least sound
    in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
    I go and lie down where the wood drake
    rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
    I come into the peace of wild things
    who do not tax their lives with forethought
    of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
    And I feel above me the day-blind stars
    waiting with their light. For a time
    I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

    by Tadeusz Dabrowski

    It’s as if you’d woken in a locked cell and found
    in your pocket a slip of paper, and on it a single sentence
    in a language you don’t know.

    And you’d be sure this sentence was the key to your
    life. Also to this cell.

    And you’d spend years trying to decipher the sentence,
    until finally you’d understand it. But after a while
    you’d realize you got it wrong, and the sentence meant
    something else entirely. And so you’d have two sentences.

    Then three, and four, and ten, until you’d created a new language.

    And in that language you’d write the novel of your life.
    And once you’d reached old age you’d notice the door of the cell
    was open. You’d go out into the world. You’d walk the length and breadth of it,

    until in the shade of a massive tree you’d yearn
    for that one single sentence in a language you don’t know.

    (translated from the Polish, by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

  • Reply Mary Jane White March 6, 2023 at 10:10 am

    This is a poem in translation which I first encountered as a sophomore at Reed College. Lines of this translation of Cavalcanti’s (Dante’s great friend’s) canzone on love (Pound translated it twice, this was his first translation, the one I prefer, probably because it is the one I encountered first; the second appears in the Cantos) were a source of courage to me very often when I needed to enter a courtroom and speak as the mouthpiece for some client, however wretched, and they came as comfort to me later after occasions when I felt forced to advocate into the face of administrative indifference, reduced to using every awful trick in the book, when I was moved by love for my little son, suffering and working his way out of autism.

    Donna mi Prego
    (Dedicace—To Thomas Campion his ghost, and
    to the ghost of Henry Lawes, as prayer
    for the revival of music)

    Because a lady asks me, I would tell
    Of an affect that comes often and is fell
    And is so overweening: Love by name
    E’en its deniers can now hear the truth,
    I for the nonce to them that know it call,
    Having no hope at all
    that man who is base in heart
    Can bear his part of wit
    into the light of it,
    And save they know’t aright from nature’s source
    I have no will to prove Love’s course
    or say
    Where he takes rest; who maketh him to be;
    Or what his active virtu is, or what his force;
    Nay, nor his very essence or his mode;
    What his placation; why he is in verb,
    Or if a man have might
    To show him visible to men’s sight.

    In memory’s locus taketh he his state
    Formed there in manner as a mist of light
    Upon a dusk that is come from Mars and stays.
    Love is created, hath a sensate name,
    His modus takes from soul, from heart his will;
    From form seen doth he start, that, understood,
    Taketh in latent intellect—
    As in a subject ready—
    place and abode,
    Yet in that place it ever is unstill,
    Spreading it rays, it tendeth never down
    By quality, but is its own effect unendingly
    Not to delight, but in an ardour of thought
    That the base likeness of it kindleth not.

    It is not virtu, but perfection’s source
    Lying within perfection postulate
    Not by the reason, but ‘tis felt, I say.
    Beyond salvation, holdeth its judging force
    Maintains intension reason’s peer and mate;
    Poor in discernment, being thus weakness’ friend,
    Often his power meeteth with death in the end
    Be he withstayed
    or from true course
    E’en though he meet not with hate
    or villeiny
    Save that perfection fails, be it but a little;
    Nor can man say he hath his life by chance
    Or that he hath not stablished seigniory
    Or loseth power, e’en lost to memory.

    He comes to be and is when will’s so great
    It twists itself from out all natural measure;
    Leisure’s adornment put he then never on,
    Never thereafter, but moves changing state,
    Moves changing colour, or to laugh or weep
    Or wries the face with fear and little stays,
    Yea, resteth little
    yet is found the most
    Where folk of worth be host.
    And his strange property sets sighs not move
    And wills man look into unformed space
    Rousing there thirst
    that breaketh into flame.
    None can imagine love
    That knows not love;
    Love doth not move, but draweth all to him;
    Nor doth he turn
    for a whim
    to find delight
    Nor seek out, surely,
    great knowledge or slight.

    Look drawn from like,
    delight maketh certain in seeming
    Nor can in covert cower,
    beauty so near,
    Not yet wild-cruel as darts,
    So hath man craft from fear
    in such his desire
    To follow a noble spirit,
    edge, that is, and point to the dart,
    Though from her face indiscernible;
    He, caught, falleth
    plumb on to the spike of the targe.
    Who well proceedth, form not seeth,
    following his own emanation.
    There, beyond colour, essence set apart,
    In midst of darkness light light giveth forth
    Beyond all falsity, worthy of faith, alone
    That in him solely is compassion born.

    Safe may’st thou go my canzon whither thee pleaseth
    Thou are so fair attired that every man and each
    Shall praise thy speech
    So he have sense or glow with reason’s fire,
    To stand with other
    hast thou no desire.

    By Guido Cavalcanti, a friend of Dante
    Tr. Ezra Pound

    As to the “envoi” by which Cavalcanti sends off his song into the world, it makes me laugh to remember a judge who offered me a useless compliment from the bench, “Miss White, that may be the most eloquent argument I have heard in this courtroom. (Little pause for dramatic effect, to let that land). You will be overruled.”

  • Reply Sharon March 6, 2023 at 3:15 pm

    from Martha:

    Fern Hill

    Dylan Thomas – 1914-1953

    Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
    About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
    The night above the dingle starry,
    Time let me hail and climb
    Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
    And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
    And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
    Trail with daisies and barley
    Down the rivers of the windfall light.

    And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
    About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
    In the sun that is young once only,
    Time let me play and be
    Golden in the mercy of his means,
    And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
    Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
    And the sabbath rang slowly
    In the pebbles of the holy streams.

    All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
    Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
    And playing, lovely and watery
    And fire green as grass.
    And nightly under the simple stars
    As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
    All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
    Flying with the ricks, and the horses
    Flashing into the dark.

    And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
    With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
    Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
    The sky gathered again
    And the sun grew round that very day.
    So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
    In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
    Out of the whinnying green stable
    On to the fields of praise.

    And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
    Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
    In the sun born over and over,
    I ran my heedless ways,
    My wishes raced through the house high hay
    And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
    In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
    Before the children green and golden
    Follow him out of grace,

    Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
    Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
    In the moon that is always rising,
    Nor that riding to sleep
    I should hear him fly with the high fields
    And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
    Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
    Time held me green and dying
    Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

  • Reply Anne Myles March 9, 2023 at 9:37 am

    Sorry to come late on this … I’ve been thinking about various sonically-oriented contemporary poems, but since Mary Jane posted something from a much earlier period, I realize I want to share this one, that I so loved to read aloud and teach, talking about the power of couplet craft and voice within it. It has never ceased to slay me emotionally, especially given certain factors of social and theological context.

    Before the Birth of One of Her Children

    All things within this fading world hath end,
    Adversity doth still our joyes attend;
    No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,
    But with death’s parting blow is sure to meet.
    The sentence past is most irrevocable,
    A common thing, yet oh inevitable.
    How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,
    How soon’t may be thy Lot to lose thy friend,
    We are both ignorant, yet love bids me
    These farewell lines to recommend to thee,
    That when that knot’s untied that made us one,
    I may seem thine, who in effect am none.
    And if I see not half my dayes that’s due,
    What nature would, God grant to yours and you;
    The many faults that well you know I have
    Let be interr’d in my oblivious grave;
    If any worth or virtue were in me,
    Let that live freshly in thy memory
    And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,
    Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms.
    And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains
    Look to my little babes, my dear remains.
    And if thou love thyself, or loved’st me,
    These o protect from step Dames injury.
    And if chance to thine eyes shall bring this verse,
    With some sad sighs honour my absent Herse;
    And kiss this paper for thy loves dear sake,
    Who with salt tears this last Farewel did take.

  • Reply Chris Dahl March 9, 2023 at 11:09 am

    I’m coming way, way up in time and give you my favorite poem du jour. I’m very clear on why this is a favorite right now–and that is because it suits the mood of the times. I feel the frustration. I want to peek out of the pocket of some goddess of middle-aged women who gets so angry at the everyday struggles we’re going through that she flings her purse with us in it across the mall (and, oh, the irony of Forever 21) and yet we are protected by the purse, the walls, the company of each other, the whole flock of us. So this is Magpies Recognize Themselves in the Mirror from Kelly Russell Agodon’s Dialogues with Rising Tides.

    Magpies Recognize Themselves in the Mirror

    The evening sounds like a murder
    of magpies and we’re replacing our cabinet knobs
    because we can’t change the world be we can
    change our hardware. America breaks my heart
    some days and some days it breaks itself in two.
    I watched a woman having a breakdown
    in the mall today, and when the security guard
    tried to help her, what I felt was all of us
    peeking from her purse as she threw it
    across the floor into Forever 21. and yes,
    the wall felt like another way to hold us
    and when she finally stopped crying
    I heard her say to the fluorescent lighting
    Some days the sky is too bright. And like that
    we were her flock in our black coats
    and white sweaters, some of us reaching
    our wings to her and some of us flying away.

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