Wednesday, April 29, 2015

American's Favorite Poems, Robert Pinsky & Maggie Dietz (Eds.)

Americans’ Favorite Poems

Robert Pinsky & Maggie Dietz (Eds.)

Category: Poetry
Synopsis: Classic poems introduced by American citizens.
Pages: 311
Date finished: 26 January 2014

Rating: ****

I wanted to get in one poetry book review before April--National Poetry Month--draws to a close. More are in the hopper.
For awhile now I’ve been concerned about the fact that I either don’t remember or have avoided most of the classic poetry taught in high school and college. I feel I have a pretty good handle on the modern stuff, but the old stuff? No interest. That gap seemed wrong, so I decided to force-feed myself some classic poetry. Which only sounds like a recipe for disaster.

I wasn’t exactly sure where to start. I have several poetry textbooks (anthologies, really) from college that I use to look up a poem from time to time, but I did not want to read that much classic poetry. Then I remembered my set of Robert Pinsky collections. When Pinsky was poet laureate (1997-2000)*, he asked Americans to submit their favorite poems and a statement as to why they loved them. This became two collections, Americans’ Favorite Poems and Poems to Read.

What a fabulous idea, right? I hoped the introductions would be helpful for me in identifying with the poems on a more personal level. It’s often easier to like something that someone else is excited about. I decided to give each poem a chance (i.e., I wasn’t allowed to skip a poem because I didn’t like it) and to give myself a break (i.e., I wasn’t going to worry that I still didn’t understand or like a given poem).

Did my approach work? I’m happy to report: yes! In fact, something happened as I got into the book that sort of transformed the project for me. Instead of being drudgery, it became a sort of communion with fellow poetry lovers. I fell in love with the introductions—these weren’t written by MFAs or fellow poets, just average folks, both educated and not. And I was able to appreciate poems I’d long resented. I’ll be honest and say that I still don’t care much for the poetry of, say, T.S. Eliot or Dylan Thomas or Robert Browning or John Donne, but at least I tried again. (And each time I read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” it does make a tiny bit more sense.) And there were so many poems that I was so familiar with from my college classes, and it was fascinating just how many lines had stuck with me all these years. It really was a fascinating journey for me, full of touchstones from bygone days.

Now, to classify these as classic poems is likely erroneous; there were a number of what I’d call modern poets represented. But all the poets included had a certain degree of notoriety among the poetry literate. Again, not the kind of poetry I gravitate toward, but the ones who paved the way for modern poetry.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
For someone wanting to read, re-read, or re-connect with classic poetry, this is a great collection.

*I once met Pinsky, and I believe it was during his reign as poet laureate. He is gorgeous, but he came off as quite pompous. I try not to hold that against him, but that meeting really taught me something about the importance of making a good first impression. I haven’t sought out his poetry since that first meeting. 

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