What are the poems one returns to, always taking pleasure?
Or to put it slightly differently, what poems would enjoy the
place of honor in one's Absolute Anthology (no fair including
warhorses, chestnuts, and poems one is supposed to like)?
I'd start with Frost's "Fire and Ice," for its astounding compression
and bite--a coiled spring of mostly monosyllables--snapping those
two dimeter lines in place while avoiding the risk of chiming
(too-close rhyming). The rhymes "fit" perfectly yet catch one
And the thought? I'm perfectly willing to entertain readings
hinting at apocalypse and at corrosive, mysterious human
emotions, and no doubt other readings in between. The sense of
dread and mystery is there, but so is the strong, forthright-
My ninth-grade Speech teacher (all honor to Ellen Harvey)
first spoke this poem in class. She had it by heart, and
it had my heart ever after.
A. E. Housman
Still in the Touchstone mode (and blogging up to speed at a glacial pace):
A. E. Housman is a personal obsession, a poet who finds his way
into my work (and life) often enough that I should be asking rent
of the old fellow.
One of the many pieces (and how closely it comports with
Frost's "Fire and Ice") that have long held my utmost
admiration is his "Eight O'Clock":
He stood, and heard the steeple
Sprinkle the quarters on the morning town.
One, two, three, four, to market place and people
It tossed them down.
Strapped, noosed, nighing his hour,
He stood and counted them and cursed his luck;
And then the clock collected in the tower
Its strength, and struck.
A cabinet of marvels, not the least of which is the subtlety that perhaps escapes
even a close New Critical reading. The poem starts off modestly with the allieration
of "stood" and "steeple," but immediately, barely perceptibly, wrong-foots us (as if
Housman could ever get any feet wrong, metrically or otherwise) with the sprinkling
of the quarters on the morning town. We quickly see that the quarters are the quarter-hours
of the clock (from 7:15 to 7:45, I suppose), though Housman gets a bonus out of the fact that
American readers will hear the slight hint of coins being scattered to not the people,
but the town--a "morning" town that makes an unlikely candidate for a mourning entity.
Even so, these quarters are "tossed" as if some politician or wealthy figure were sharing
his largesse with the population. The clock, a municipal figure of the collective
authority of this place--hamlet? village? market town?--emphasizes the judgment
the people are exercising on a capital-crime criminal.
How abruptly are we disabused of any of these misgivings when we come to
"Strapped, noosed." The gallows humor Housman plays with is always softened
by the careful thematic structuring, as the unlucky man nighs "his hour"--reminding
us of the poem's title and the skillful use of time and numbers throughout.
But then . . . the amazing payoff, in which the meter plays with and against the alliteration
and consonance of "clock" and "collected" and "strength" and "struck." The abruptness
of the last few words seems almost the very mechanism of a striking clock,
and I believe when speaking this poem aloud (whether reciting to oneself or delighting
an audience) one should come down hard on this abruptness, call it clacking if you will.
Yes, I know Pound made fun of Housman, something (roughly) along the lines of
mocking his work by saying, "Oh, look. I'm young, I killed someone, Now I'm hanged,"
but I'll take this poem and two dozen others before the entire Pound corpus.