These are the best poems in the world ever

Ian Stansel

Mar 22, 2011

With it being National Poetry Month, I thought I'd like to ask a truly unfair question: what are the best poems? Some of our editorial staff indulged my whim and got back to me with a few of their favorite, most influential, and best loved pieces. Sam Amadon, Poetry Editor "Directive," Robert Frost. I come back to "Directive" for the notorious syntax of the first sentence, though this time I notice throughout it's the conflict between the long, looping sentences and the progression of the meter that creates this sense--as much as the actual words--of being ordered into the unknown, of knowing where you are going until you're lost. I love that I can understand every part of this poem, but can't hold the whole thing in my head at once. "Scott on Flight 559," Brenda Hillman. I sometimes think I'll make an anthology (by anthology, here, I mean word document) of individual lines of iambic pentameter. Maybe it's just the compulsive collector in me, but I also think it's worthwhile to value lines for themselves. Brenda Hillman's "Scott on Flight 559" begins with a line I would include: "The Burbank evening hugs the little jet." There is so much movement in the way it rolls from the loose "u" and "a" and "e" sounds of "Burbank evening" to the hard stop of "jet". Don't you feel like you could build something on a strong little line like this one? Like a house? Or a life? Liz Countryman, Poetry Editor "Summer" by John Ashbery. When I first came across this poem, in college, it was like nothing I'd ever heard, and yet something in the poem feels so strangely familiar that it made me nostalgic for someone else's lost experiences. Later I realized that the poem's address seems to move back and forth between self and other, and the lack of transition and orientation brings not only a sense of loss but also a feeling that we are within a mind, watching its movements. The poem gives us access to this private place without betraying that privacy. "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" by Robert Duncan. If I ever need to be reminded about where poetry actually happens, I turn to this poem. Duncan figures the "meadow" of poetry as a place both interior and shared, "a scene made-up by the mind, / that is not mine, but is a made place." The blogosphere has its uses, but for the real communion that poetry affords us, I'll see you in that meadow. Will Donnelly, Online Editor "Bedazzled" by Yusef Komunyakaa, plus "Lifting Illegal Nets by Flashlight" and "In Fear of Harvests" by James Wright. I like how these poems sound, but more than anything, I think I've just always loved poetry that expressed a sense of awe at the natural world. None of these poems are especially long, and yet their odd feelings of wonder mixed with a sort of uneasiness just floor me every time I read them. Christine Ha, Fiction Editor "The Death of Marilyn Monroe" by Sharon Olds and "Coleman" by Mary Karr. They were both poems I'd read in an undergraduate poetry workshop. I was new to poetry and found these poems riveting in their ability to capture such poignant images and memories yet recounting them in a way that doesn't impose sentimentality so intrusively. Otherwise, I can't really say more deeply why the poems moved me--only that they were able to stir some sort of emotions. I think those are the best kinds of poems and, moreover, the best kind of writing: when words move us and yet we are completely mystified as to how it happened. Thea Lim, Nonfiction Editor "Pied Beauty," Gerard Manley Hopkins. As a young writer I really wanted to be able to write description the way Hopkins does; to cram so many images, colours and things of beauty into such a small space. "All I could do was turn and go back to the house," Dionne Brand. This was the first piece of Canadian literature I ever read that contained an experience of Canada I could relate to, especially the line "I did not want to write poems about stacking cords of wood." Ooo! Burn! "since feeling is first" e.e. cummings. I've just always liked what this one had to say. Becca Wadlinger, Managing Editor "The Sheep Child" by James Dickey. "The Flea" by John Donne. "Song" by Brigit Pegeen Kelly. Ian Stansel, Editor "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and Of the Comfort of the Resurrection," by Gerard Manley Hopkins. In college a friend of mine had this poem memorized and occasionally at low-key parties we'd hold talent contests. She'd stand up, recite it, and always win. The pacing and rhythm of this poem is thrilling, and the alliteration is just flat-out bonkers. By the time we get to "Enough! The Resurrection / A heart's-clarion" I am nearly overwhelmed. "Meditation at Lagunitas" by Robert Hass. A meditation indeed. Every few years I get a chance to visit the area of Northern California where I spent part of my childhood, right near a town called Lagunitas, and see the brambles of blackberries that line the roads. This poem is about nostalgia, certainly, but it is also an investigation of that experience, of what happens when we are left with words.