Books & Reading · Commentary

My Top 10 Favorite Poets

I feel like poetry is an easily shelved art these days, pushed aside in favor of flashy, fad-driven novels. But as much as I love to read books (as there’s certainly nothing wrong with prose!), I still love to sit down with a good book of poetry every now and then. So for this post, I’m going to highlight my top ten favorite poets.

10. Phyllis McGinley (Bio)
Favorite Poem: “Lament of the Normal Child” (1935) – This was the first poem of hers I ever read and I immediately fell in love with it because it rings so true of the modern American education system (which is funny considering this was published in the 1930s – I guess some things never change):

I was strolling past a schoolhouse when I spied a sobbing lad.
His little face was sorrowful and pale.
“Come, tell me why you weep,” I said, “and why you seem so sad.”
And thus the urchin lisped his tragic tale:

The school where I go is a modern school
With numerous modern graces.
And there they cling to the modern rule
Of “Cherish the Problem Cases!”
From nine to three I develop Me.
I dance when I’m feeling dancy,
Or everywhere lay on With creaking crayon
The colors that suit my fancy.
But when the commoner tasks are done,
Desereted, ignored, I stand.
For the rest have complexes, everyone;
Or a hyperactive gland.
Oh, how can I ever be reconciled
To my hatefully normal station?
Why couldn’t I be a Problem Child
Endowed with a small fixation?
Why wasn’t I trained for a Problem Child
With an Interesting Fixation?

I dread the sound of the morning bell.
The iron has entered my soul.
I’m a square little peg who fits too well
In a square little normal hole.
For seven years In Mortimer Sears
Has the Oedipus angle flourished;
And Jessamine Gray, she cheats at play
Because she is undernourished.
The teachers beam on Frederick Knipe
With scientific gratitude,
For Fred, they claim, is a perfect type
Of the Antisocial Attitude.
And Cuthbert Jones has his temper riled
In a way professors mention.
But I am a Perfectly Normal Child,
So I don’t get any attention.
I’m nothing at all but a Normal Child,
So I don’t get the least attention.

The others jeer as they pass me by.
They titter without forbearance.
“He’s Perfectly Normal,” they shrilly cry,
“With Perfectly Normal parents.”
For I learn to read with a normal speed.
I answer when I’m commanded.
Infected antrums don’t give me tantrums.
I don’t even write left-handed.
I build with blocks when they give me blocks.
When it’s busy hour, I labor.
And seldom delight in landing socks
On the ear of my little neighbor.

So here, by luckier lads reviled,
I sit on the steps alone.
Why couldn’t I be a Problem Child
With a case to call my own?
Why wasn’t I born a Problem Child
With a Complex of my own?

9. William Carlos Williams (Bio)
Favorite Poem: “By the Road to the Contagious Hospital” (1923) – I took an American Poetry course back in college and Williams became an easy favorite of mine. I love his attention to detail, especially in the natural world, which makes the scenery in his poems come to life.

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines-

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches-

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind-

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined-
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance-Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken.

8. e. e. cummings (Bio)
Favorite Poem: “when serpents bargain for the right to squirm”   (1944) – No, these aren’t typos – this is how cummings spelled his name and penned his works. As you can probably guess, he was rather avant-garde, something I typically don’t care for but I think he does it well. This poem was the first work of cummings I read and I thought the concept of aspects of nature riling against “unfair” treatment was very funny:

when serpents bargain for the right to squirm
and the sun strikes to gain a living wage –
when thorns regard their roses with alarm
and rainbows are insured against old age

when every thrush may sing no new moon in
if all screech-owls have not okayed his voice
– and any wave signs on the dotted line
or else an ocean is compelled to close

when the oak begs permission of the birch
to make an acorn-valleys accuse their
mountains of having altitude-and march
denounces april as a saboteur

then we’ll believe in that incredible
unanimal mankind (and not until)

7. Marianne Moore
Favorite Poem: “The Fish” (1921) – I was introduced to Marianne Moore in a college creative writing course and this was one of the poems in an anthology we were assigned to read. I was immediately struck by the poem’s use of imagery, color, and flow as, when read on paper, the poem’s physical form looks like it’s darting back and forth like a fish.

The Fish

through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like

injured fan.
The barnacles which encrust the side
of the wave, cannot hide
there for the submerged shafts of the

split like spun
glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
into the crevices—
in and out, illuminating

turquoise sea
of bodies. The water drives a wedge
of iron through the iron edge
of the cliff; whereupon the stars,

rice-grains, ink-
bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green
lilies, and submarine
toadstools, slide each on the other.

marks of abuse are present on this
defiant edifice—
all the physical features of

of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
hatchet strokes, these things stand
out on it; the chasm-side is

evidence has proved that it can live
on what can not revive
its youth. The sea grows old in it.

6. Emily Dickinson
Favorite Poem: “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” (published posthumously 1890) – It’s hard for me to pick just one Dickinson poem because I love so many of her works. But this one touched me for its gentle view of Death, depicting it more like life’s final companion as opposed to a dreadful entity.

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

5. Robert Frost
Favorite Poem: “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” (1922) – Much like Dickinson, there are many of Frost’s poems that I love, but this is the one I adore the most. Being a winter lover, I’m drawn to writings that utilize snowy or arctic imagery. Not to mention I can easily imagine the scene described here as I live near a woods and it’s a delight to literally sit and watch it “fill up with snow.”

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

4. Sara Teasdale
Favorite Poem: “Winter Stars” (1920) – Shadow and Flame contains so many wonderful poems, but this is among my favorites. Again, it’s a winter-themed poem but I also love how Teasdale compares the unevenness of life to the faithful trajectory of the stars.

I went out at night alone;
 The young blood flowing beyond the sea
Seemed to have drenched my spirit’s wings—
 I bore my sorrow heavily.
But when I lifted up my head
 From shadows shaken on the snow,
I saw Orion in the east
 Burn steadily as long ago.
From windows in my father’s house,
 Dreaming my dreams on winter nights,
I watched Orion as a girl
 Above another city’s lights.
Years go, dreams go, and youth goes too,
 The world’s heart breaks beneath its wars,
All things are changed, save in the east
 The faithful beauty of the stars.

3. Edgar Allan Poe
Favorite Poem: “The Bells” (1850) – Poe is another poet from whom I could mention several favorites as I think he finds beauty in dark places. This particular poem is my all-time favorite of Poe’s for its expert use of onomatopoeia. You can almost hear the bells, all unique and intended to convey different emotions. I also love the transitions here, from scenes of merriment and innocence to dire images of war and death.

Hear the sledges with the bells-
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

Hear the mellow wedding bells,
Golden bells!
What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!
Through the balmy air of night
How they ring out their delight!
From the molten-golden notes,
And an in tune,
What a liquid ditty floats
To the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats
On the moon!
Oh, from out the sounding cells,
What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
How it swells!
How it dwells
On the Future! how it tells
Of the rapture that impels
To the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells,bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!

Hear the loud alarum bells-
Brazen bells!
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
Leaping higher, higher, higher,
With a desperate desire,
And a resolute endeavor,
Now- now to sit or never,
By the side of the pale-faced moon.
Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
What a tale their terror tells
Of Despair!
How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear it fully knows,
By the twanging,
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows:
Yet the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling,
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells-
Of the bells-
Of the bells, bells, bells,bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!

Hear the tolling of the bells-
Iron Bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy menace of their tone!
For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.
And the people- ah, the people-
They that dwell up in the steeple,
All Alone
And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone-
They are neither man nor woman-
They are neither brute nor human-
They are Ghouls:
And their king it is who tolls;
And he rolls, rolls, rolls,
A paean from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the paean of the bells!
And he dances, and he yells;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the paean of the bells-
Of the bells:
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the throbbing of the bells-
Of the bells, bells, bells-
To the sobbing of the bells;
Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,
In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells-
Of the bells, bells, bells:
To the tolling of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells-
Bells, bells, bells-
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.

2. John Haines
Favorite Poem: “Fairbanks Under the Solstice” (1993) – In the same college creative writing class, I remember our professor assigned each of us a poet to do a miniature study of his or her work. The professor gave me John Haines, whom, at the time, I had never heard of. But I’ve always loved checking out new writers, so I found a copy of Winter News in the campus library and I fell in love! Haines – Poet Laureate of Alaska – focused a lot on wintry scenes, so his works were the perfect reading cup of tea for me!

Slowly, without sun, the day sinks
toward the close of December.
It is minus sixty degrees.

Over the sleeping houses a dense
fog rises—smoke from banked fires,
and the snowy breath of an abyss
through which the cold town
is perceptibly falling.

As if Death were a voice made visible,
with the power of illumination…

Now, in the white shadow
of those streets, ghostly newsboys
make their rounds, delivering
to the homes of those
who have died of the frost
word of the resurrection of Silence.

1. T.S. Eliot (Bio)
Favorite Poem: “The Hollow Men” (1925) – Eliot was yet another poet I discovered in high school and this poem  happened to be the one featured in my American Literature anthology. I loved it upon my first reading and it encouraged me to peruse Eliot’s work. I love his poetry for its richness and depth, and I think this piece expertly represents that. Not to mention that, interestingly enough, Eliot became a Christian later in life, so nihilistic poems such as “The Hollow Men” assumed a new meaning after his conversion as, rather than revising his work, such poems stand as depictions of the state of sinful man without the hope of Christ.

Mistah Kurtz—he dead.
A penny for the Old Guy

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer—

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom

This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.


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