Poetry, a notion

Our essayist's lifelong love of poetry serves as introduction for a new RN&R poetry contest

Jake Highton is a professor emeritus at the University of Nevada, Reno.
For a pdf download of our new poetry contest rules, click here.

The greatest Christmas gift I ever received was an illustrated volume of poetry by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I got it from a friend of my mother in 1947. I was just 16. The book forever hooked me on poetry.

Longfellow is not a profound poet in the sense that Dante, Goethe and Shakespeare are. But that Longfellow book started a lifelong love affair with poetry’s rhyme, beauty, thoughts and wisdom.

Longfellow’s “The Ladder of St. Augustine”: “The heights by great men reached and kept / Were not attained by sudden flight, / But they, while their companions slept, / Were toiling upward in the night.” Inspiring, hopeful lines to a dreamy youth.

Or these lines from “A Psalm of Life”: “Lives of great men all remind us / We can make our lives sublime, / And, departing, leave behind us / Footprints on the sands of time.” Not immortal poetry but magnificent to a boy.

I remember the truth in Longfellow’s “My Lost Youth”: “A boy’s will is the wind’s will, / And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.” I liked Longfellow’s “The Children’s Hour” with “Grave Alice and Laughing Allegra” almost devouring their professor father with kisses. And “The Village Blacksmith” under a spreading chestnut tree with arms as “strong as iron bands.” And “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” a schooner sailing “the wintry sea” amid falling snow “hissing in the brine” and death “on the reef of Norman’s Woe.”

Taste and judgment in literary matters, as in all things, are individual. My taste may not be yours. Indeed, some of the poems I think highly of are sometimes not anthologized.

British and Irish Poetry

Over the years “my taste” seized on some of the following poems.

Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus with these wonderful lines: “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, / And burned the topless towers of Ilium? / Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. / Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies! / Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.”

I like the absurdity in John Donne’s “Song”: “Go, and catch a falling star, / Get with child a mandrake root.” I like the twin Milton poems, “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso.” “L’Allegro”: “Hence loathed melancholy / Of Cerberus and blackest midnight born, / In Stygian cave forlorn / ’Mongst horrid shapes, and shrieks, and sights unholy.” “Il Penseroso”: “Hence vain deluding joys, / The brood of folly without father bred.”

Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” a religious epic, is not one of my favorite poems. But I love the fact that the rebellious devil gets its best line: “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.” I like the thought of Pope’s “Essay on Man”: “Worth makes the man and want of it the fellow; / The rest is all but leather or prunella.”

I like Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”: “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, / The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea.” And then these sad lines from “The Epitaph”: “Here rests his head upon the lap of earth / A youth to fortune and to fame unknown: / Fair science frowned not on his humble birth, / And melancholy marked him for her own.”

More from Gray’s “Elegy”: “the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,” “some heart once pregnant with celestial fire” and “full many a flower is born to blush unseen.” And this stanza: “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power / And all that beauty, all that wealth ever gave, / Awaits alike the inevitable hour, / The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

I had to memorize “The Epitaph” in a high school English class. Most kids hated the assignment, but I loved it. My teacher, Miss Koehler, solidified my passion for literature. She was one of those teachers we remember as long as we live.

The older I get, the more I like this insight from Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium: “An old man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick.” And speaking of intimations of mortality, I cherish those defiant lines of Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

William Blake is often too religious for my taste but his opening stanza of “Auguries of Innocence” is worth memorizing: “To see a world in a grain of sand, / And a heaven in a wild flower, / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand / And eternity in an hour. / A robin redbreast in a cage, / Puts all heaven in a rage.”

The Robert Burns poem “To a Mouse” is well known. His “To a Louse” should be better known because of this great passage: “O wad some power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!”

As an environmentalist, I cherish these lines from Wordsworth: “The world is too much with us: late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: / Little we see in nature that is ours; / We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”

I love the opening lines of Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”: “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk.” There is truth in the Keats poem: “Where but to think is to be full of sorrow.” And what stout soul can resist Tennyson’s line in “Ulysses”: “To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”?

One of my very favorite poems is “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold. Its “moon-blanched land,” its “grating roar of pebbles” and its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.” Then these lines: “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another! For the world, which seems / To lie before us like a land of dreams, / So various, so beautiful, so new, / Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”

Walter Scott was a novelist but will probably be remembered only for this line of poetry: “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!”

Wilfred Owen, British soldier-poet killed in World War I, wrote these great words to anyone sickened by constant U.S. wars: “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.” (“It is a sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.”) Robert Southey makes a more subtle anti-war point in the last stanza of “The Battle of Blenheim”: Little Peterkin was asked what was the good of the battle. “Why, that I cannot tell,” said he, / “But ’twas a famous victory.”

George Moore was an Irish novelist, playwright and poet (1852-1933). Some of his poems were erotic. One is “The Triumph of the Flesh”: “I am filled with carnivorous lust: like a tiger / I crouch and I feed on my beautiful prey: / There is nought in the monstrous world of Astarte / So fair as thy body.” (Astarte is the Babylonian goddess of love.)

The Reno News & Review is hardly the prudish “family newspaper” published by the Establishment press. Yet it is unlikely to print limericks because, to be any good, most limericks must be “indecent.”

Here’s one, written by “anonymous,” printed in many variations but all printable, if insensitive: “A fairy once in Khartoum / Invited a lesbian up to his room / But they spent the whole night / In a helluva fight / As to who should do what to whom.”

Here’s an example of the “other” kind: “There was a young plumber of Leigh / Who was plumbing a girl by the sea. / She said, ’Stop your plumbing, / There’s somebody coming!’ / Said the plumber, still plumbing, ’It’s me.’”

British novelist Arnold Bennett calls “plumbing” the best limerick ever written. Perhaps. But with more than 1,300 in print there is room for disagreement. Two recommended books are out of print but possibly available at Amazon: The Limerick, edited by G. Legman, Portland House, and Poetica Erotica, edited by T.R. Smith, Crown Publisher.

My all-time favorite is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland written by Lewis Carroll with illustrations by John Tenniel. The nonsense fantasy of “Alice” never ceases to delight. I reread it every year or so—and always with pleasure.

“What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” Alice asks with wisdom beyond her years. “Curiouser and curiouser,” Alice cries. Encountering the tea party threesome, the March Hare, the Mad Hatter and the sleepy Dormouse, she says: “It’s the stupidest tea party I ever was at in all my life.” Alice recites this enjoyable nonsense verse: “You are old Father William, the young man said … / And yet you incessantly stand on your head— / Do you think at your age it is right?”

Carroll’s sequel, “Through the Looking Glass,” features Tweedledum and Tweedledee and Humpty Dumpty. And the Walrus and the Carpenter talking of many things like shoes and ships and sealing wax and asking whether pigs have wings. And the nonsense verse of all nonsense verses is “The Jabberwocky”: “’Twas brillig and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; / All mimsy were the borogoves, / And the nome raths outgrabe.”

My No. 2 favorite is “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” translated freely by Edward FitzGerald. It is a wondrous ode to hedonism, to carpe diem, to wine, women and song.

The 12th quatrain expresses its spirit: “A book of verses underneath the bough, / A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou / Beside me singing in the wilderness— / Oh, wilderness were paradise enow!” It closes with an exhortation to Saki, cupbearer to the gods: “And in your joyous errand reach the spot / Where I made One—turn down an empty glass!”

In between it is packed with such marvelous verses as this: “Ah love! Could you and I with Him conspire / To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire, / Would not we shatter it to bits—and then / Remold it nearer to the heart’s desire!”

Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” shows his serious side as opposed to the wit, epigrammatist and esthete. One memorable stanza is printed on the Jacob Epstein sphinx sculpture at Wilde’s grave in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. “And alien tears will fill for him / Pity’s long-broken urn, / For his mourners will be outcast men, / And outcasts always mourn.”

Émile Zola, the great French writer, once complained that English was a barbarous language. Wilde, in perhaps the greatest putdown in literary history, sighed and said: “Yes, I have been condemned to speak the language of Shakespeare.” It was also the perceptive Wilde who wrote in “De Profundis”: “Shakespeare is the most purely human of all great artists.”

H.L Mencken started to compile a book of quotations but quit when he realized he had a preponderance of quotes by Shakespeare. Mencken was right. How can you resist the marvelous poetry of “In such a night” in “The Merchant of Venice”? Or Romeo’s tribute to womanhood: “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east and Juliet is the sun.”

And the sonnets, so many wonderful ones. One of my favorites is XXXV: “No more be grieved at that which thou hast done: / Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud; / Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun, / And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.”

Read Harold Bloom and Isaac Asimov for more erudite and profound insights about Shakespeare. My views are those of an amateur in the sense of an admirer, devotee and lover rather than a professional critic.

To me, the most poetic of Shakespeare’s plays is Macbeth. Hamlet is the most cerebral. King Lear is the bleakest. In it the cruel Regan says of the blinded Gloucester: “let him smell his way to Dover.” And earlier Gloucester remarks: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; / They kill us for their sport.”

Macbeth says his way of life “Is fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf; / And that which should accompany old age, / As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends, / I must not look to have but in their stead / Curses not loud but deep, mouth honour, breath, / Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.”

Then: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day / To the last syllable of recorded time; / And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! / Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”

American Poetry

I’m not wild about Robert Frost, as many American poetry lovers are. But I do like “The Death of the Hired Man.” It reminds us to be kind to someone who “comes home to die,” to abandon our narrow-mindedness, to be more generous about the foibles of people. Nor do I fancy Emily Dickinson, a poet beloved by English teachers. Dickinson is “nice.” (I know: terribly patronizing.)

To me, Walt Whitman is the best American poet. Look at his Leaves of Grass: “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son, / Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding.”

The poet says of animals: “They do not sweat and whine about their condition, / They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, / They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God.” He knows bird lore: “Where the mockingbird sounds his delicious gurgles, cackles, screams, weeps.”

And this marvelous Whitman thought should be dedicated to all great teachers: “I am the teacher of athletes, / He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own, / He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.”

One of my favorites is Edwin Markham’s “The Man with Hoe.” It is a classic cry for socialism. It starts: “Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans / Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground / The emptiness of ages in his face… / Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox … / Through this dread shape humanity betrayed, / Plundered, profaned and disinherited / Cries protest to the powers that made the world.”

I’m mostly indifferent to T.S. Eliot with his fancy words without meaning. To me, his best poem is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” with its amusing nonsense. Does he dare to eat a peach? He measures out his life with coffee spoons. “I grow old … I grow old … / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” And grant Eliot that great line in “The Hollow Men”: “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay is a fine poet. Her “Recuerdo” (memory) is a 16-line poem about a couple spending a happy night on a ferry. But, sensitive to the feelings of others, the couple shares their happiness with a babushka. Here’s the ending:

“We were very tired, we were very merry, / We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry. / We hailed, ’Good morrow, mother!’ to a shawl-covered head… / And she wept, ’God bless you!’ for the apples and pears, / And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.”

I love Poe’s “The Raven” with its hammering, repetitious sounds: “While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, / As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.” Then this wonderful stanza:

“Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter, / In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore. / Not the least obeisance made he, not a minute stopped or stayed he, / But with mien of lord or lady perched above my chamber door— / Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door.”

My granddaughter Kamryn Moloney recalls memorizing a famous poem and reciting it for a Mendive Middle School class project. “I chose ’The Raven’ because I enjoyed the words that Poe used and the story they described,” she said.

She and I recently were talking to the library director of the Nevada Historical Society. For no apparent reason, we began quoting to her lines from “The Raven.” The librarian was delighted by the extempore recital. We were even more delighted.