Three Criteria for Favorite Poems

As children, we enjoyed poems that rolled off our tongues like songs. Then, in high school and college, we beat the syllables out of poems, working super hard to find hidden meaning in every word. It’s no surprise that many adults feel porcupine prickly about poetry.

During my freshman writing seminar at Occidental College, I had to analyze “Auto Wreck” by Karl Shapiro. I spent hours pouring over that poem, thinking that I was a loser if I didn’t identify tons of symbols and/or decipher implied meaning. When I arrived in class, I was ready. Classes were small at Oxy, without anywhere to hide. I decided to jump right in with my analysis.

I rattled on for a wee bit too long. Dr. Eric Newhall stopped me and said, “Lorrie, you’re a symbol hunter. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!”

It was one of many great lessons I learned in that class, especially since Newhall was a Faulkner scholar and if you’ve ever attempted to read The Sound and the Fury, you know that requires some serious symbol hunting finesse.

I needed to learn how to receive a poem and not read too much into it.

Decades later, one of my favorite poets had to remind me of the same lesson once again.

While I was a Fellow of the South Coast Writing Project, I had the honor of sharing a meal with Naomi Shihab Nye. She is the author of “Valentine for Ernest Mann.” It is one of my top ten favorite poems. On the surface, it’s about a man who gave his wife a porcupine for Valentine’s Day, but it’s also about seeing beauty in unexpected places, and finding poems wherever they hide.

Of course, I had to tell Naomi my thoughts about her masterpiece. “I just love how you made the name reflect the personality of the man. You know - an ernest man. That’s so clever.”

Naomi leaned in, smiled gently. and said, “Lorrie, I didn’t make up that name. There really was a man named Ernest Mann.”

Oops. Once a symbol hunter always a symbol hunter. I was thankful for free-flowing wine, and the company of kind friends and a gracious poet.

Maybe that’s why, in my middle age, I’m drawn to poetry that doesn’t draw out my inner symbol hunter.

Yes, I have deep appreciation for challenging poetry, filled with an orgy of symbols, but for my day in and day out reading, I want poems that don’t hide behind obtuse structures and images. I want poems that feel like my favorite sweatshirt, and don’t require an advanced degree to understand.

For a poem to make it to my favorites list, it needs to meet three criteria:

  • I want to understand what the poem is about within a few readings. It takes a magnificent mind to write a poem that’s both profound and accessible to most readers. Plus, life is short.

  • I want flow and rhythm. Rhyming not required.

  • I need to be moved by ideas or images in the poem.

Of course, since I’m all about spreading writing love, I hope you’ll download my list of favorite poems. All you need to do is Google the title + author, and you’ll find them online, or you can be really wild and buy books to add to the poetry section in your personal library. Here’s mine.

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I never tire of my favorite poems. I read them over and over again like prayers. They help me slow down, and practice noticing the essential things in this sweet life.

Please let me know the poems you love, too. No symbol hunting required, but I am constantly on the prowl for new favorites to add to my collection.

Always writing and reading poetry,

Lorrie

P.S. Here’s a writing recipe that’s a companion to this post. It’s called first line last line poetry. So fun!

P.S.S. Here’s a LINK to How To Live Your Poem created by Irene Latham. Basically, she makes a life advice list, using golden lines from some of her favorite poems. I love that some of our favorites are the same. Enjoy.


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