…you too scrolled through the list of favorite poems cited by various notables the other day (12/23) on the NY Times site.


Given some modest holiday travel, some seasonal spirit and the general retrospection of this time of year, I thought it might be fun to offer the same chance here.

Henry Thoreau began his writings as a poet, and, while he made his name as a prose writer, it’s also clear that poetry never left his heart or mind – so much of his work has the stir of poetry in it.

Here then, is a short, predictive poem Henry Thoreau published in The Dial (1840-44). I’ve always loved its reminder:

My life has been the poem I would have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.

And here is a favorite of mine with a sweet, little backstory.

In my early 40s, I received a slim, wrapped present for my birthday from my father. Though he read little poetry himself, he knew I loved and read many poets and poems. He knew also that Mary Oliver was my favorite. I unwrapped the gift, a copy of The Night Traveller, a hard-to-find early chapbook of Oliver’s poetry. The gift deepened when I opened the chapbook: There, on the formerly blank backside of the cover was a handwritten version of the poem you’ll find below. The handwriting belonged to Mary Oliver, and I found also a little birthday note from her. My father had, with a kind determination he showed all his life, found Mary Oliver and, clearly, touched her with his request for his son.

That gift became a recurring one for me: Mary Oliver became a regular contributor to the journal I edited, and, during that decade, her letters also included various asides about dogs and woodlands, affections we shared.

Some Questions You Might Ask

by Mary Oliver

Is the soul solid, like iron?
Or is it tender and breakable, like
the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?
Who has it, and who doesn’t?
I keep looking around me.
The face of the moose is as sad
as the face of Jesus.
The swan opens her white wings slowly.
In the fall, the black bear carries leaves into the darkness.
One question leads to another.
Does it have a shape? Like an iceberg?
Like the eye of a hummingbird?
Does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?
Why should I have it, and not the anteater
who loves her children?
Why should I have it, and not the camel?
Come to think of it, what about the maple trees?
What about the blue iris?
What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?
What about roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
What about the grass?

And here is another link to Robert Pinsky’s brilliant Favorite Poem Project, begun while he was U.S Poet Laureate. For the project all sorts of people choose and recite a favorite poem; it is simply inspiring, as well as being great fun:

And you? We welcome your thoughts, favorite poems, links.


Filed under Arts, Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Living Deliberately, Nature, The Roost, Thoreau Quote

3 Responses to Perhaps…Poems

  1. Scott

    That’s a wonderful story about Fred and Mary Oliver. Once that chapbook passes from your capable hands, hopefully it will make its way to a good archive! My affection for Oliver comes mostly from her early poetry (easily overlooked by those of us born in the 90s) and her Appalachia pieces — she does better, I think, when writing about dogs and woodlands than about St. Augustine.

    That NYT article completely hooked me with the cross-generational resonance of Robert Lowell and Lena Dunham, two artist-figures you might think were rather different (if not antithetical). But even better are the comments. Two people of the last five mentioned Stevens! A resonance, I think, with Henry Thoreau is that all of these public figures use beloved poems are ur-texts for how they write (and live). HDT had Ovid and Homer in their original languages; now we have our own national poetry (much as Mr. Ralph Waldo famously wished). And this descends to individuals too — when the commenter Carl Hoff calls Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” the “number one American poem,” he echoes HDT’s wish for “the epic of Concord.” And American poetry sure has its epics — Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Williams’ Paterson, Ginsberg’s Howl. In the twenty-first century, though, maybe we need vignettes rather than epics to sustain us…

    My own favorites, currently, trend toward the (super-)short: Stevens’ “To the Roaring Wind” and “Certain Phenomena of Sound,” Wendell Berry’s “A Song Sparrow Singing in the Fall,” Emily Dickinson’s “There is a certain slant of light.” I’m embarking on a course on Ovid — in the vulgate translation rather than the original — this January; maybe those august myths will send me on my way to new word-pastures.

  2. Donna Marie

    Yes, Sandy, Thoreau’s short poem is a reminder to us that we must “live” our lives. How we live it in relationship to our world and others becomes the poem we are writing daily. The manner in which Henry fully lived his short life certainly left us a beautiful poem to inspire so many.

    One of the most beautiful poems I believe ever written is “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. Simply hearing the musical quality of the lines would be enough in itself to be cherished as a great poem, but combined with its meaning, the poem stands alone in my mind as a treasure. Dylan’s reflection of the innocence of childhood experienced in the beauty of the natural world is a reminder for each of us to appreciate this special period in our lives. Even though our innocence is lost through the process of aging, time is not the enemy. It holds us gently in its arms so tenderly that we are not aware of its passage. The key is to saturate ourselves with every element of our lives and fully experience all aspects of it from childhood to adulthood to eventual aging and death. If we can manage to retain some of our childhood innocence along the way, it makes for a more fulfilling life.

    I love discussing “Fern Hill” with my eighth grade class because they are right on the cusp of losing their childhood as they look eagerly towards high school and becoming young adults. Dylan Thomas helps them realize that childhood is fleeting and they must hold on to it as long as they can because they will be grown ups longer than they are children. I couple this poem with the tender lyrics of “Return to Pooh Corner” by Kenny Loggins, which relates well with “Fern Hill.” Once you get “lost” in the wood, you can’t return. But that is another story.