“We don’t read and write POETRY because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with PASSION. Medicine, Law, Business, Engineering; these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But Poetry, Beauty, Romance, Love; these are what we stay ALIVE for!”
– Dead Poets Society –
Poetry is one of the greatest and most powerful things that has ever been created in the world of literature. It has the power to absolutely shake your soul from the core. It inspires, it builds, it can destroy and at the same time give life to a dying heart and soul, it is a fresh breath of air in all the best forms. It gives you a deeper perspective on things in a way you could never imagine. Now, if you are a poetry lover as we are, this list is absolutely perfect for you.
Here are 20 of our greatest classical poetry of all time, just waiting to be dived in by you!
Starting us off at Number 20, we have The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost; published in 1916.
This poem deals with that big noble question of “How to make a difference in the world?” On first reading, it tells us that the choice one makes really does matter, ending: “I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” A closer reading reveals that the lonely choice that was made earlier by our traveling narrator maybe wasn’t all that significant since both roads were pretty much the same anyway (“Had warn them really about the same”) and it is only in the remembering and retelling that it made a difference. We are left to ponder if the narrator had instead traveled down “The Road Not Taken” might it have also made a difference as well. In a sense, “The Road Not Taken” tears apart the traditional view of individualism, which hinges on the importance of choice, as in the case of democracy in general (choosing a candidate), as well as various constitutional freedoms: choice of religion, choice of words (freedom of speech), choice of group (freedom of assembly), and choice of source of information (freedom of press).
Following that wonderful artistry, at Number 19, Dart, by Alice Oswald published in 2002. Over the past three years Alice Oswald has been recording conversations with people who live and work on the River Dart in Devon. Using these records and voices as a sort of poetic census, she creates a narrative of the river, tracking its life from source to sea. The voices are wonderfully varied and idiomatic – they include a poacher, a ferryman, a sewage worker and milk worker, a forester, swimmers and canoeists – and are interlinked with historic and mythic voices: drowned voices, dreaming voices and marginal notes which act as markers along the way.
At Number 18, we have The Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry, by Jonathan and Jessica Wordsworth published in the year 2005. The Romanticism that emerged after the American and French revolutions of 1776 and 1789 represented a new flowering of the imagination and the spirit, and a celebration of the soul of humanity with its capacity for love. This extraordinary collection sets the acknowledged genius of poems such as Blake’s ‘Tyger’, Coleridge’s ‘Khubla Khan’ and Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ alongside verse from less familiar figures and women poets such as Charlotte Smith and Mary Robinson. We also see familiar poets in an unaccustomed light, as Blake, Wordsworth and Shelley demonstrate their comic skills, while Coleridge, Keats and Clare explore the Gothic and surreal.
Number 17, is Where the Sidewalk Ends: Poems and Drawings, by Shel Silverstein. Where the sidewalk ends, Shel Silverstein’s world begins. There you’ll meet a boy who turns into a TV set and a girl who eats a whale. The Unicorn and the Bloath live there, and so does Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout who will not take the garbage out. It is a place where you wash your shadow and plant diamond gardens, a place where shoes fly, sisters are auctioned off, and crocodiles go to the dentist. Shel Silverstein’s masterful collection of poems and drawings is one of Parent & Child magazine’s 100 Greatest Books for Kids. School Library Journal said, “Silverstein has an excellent sense of rhythm and rhyme and a good ear for alliteration and assonance that make these poems a pleasure to read aloud.”
Number 16, is The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot published in the year 2000. For ease of reading, this Norton Critical Edition presents The Waste Land as it first appeared in the American edition (Boni & Liveright), with Eliot’s notes at the end. “Contexts” provides readers with invaluable materials on The Waste Land’s sources, composition, and publication history. “Criticism” traces the poem’s reception with twenty-five reviews and essays, from first reactions through the end of the twentieth century. Included are reviews published in the Times Literary Supplement, along with selections by Virginia Woolf, Gilbert Seldes, Edmund Wilson, Elinor Wylie, Conrad Aiken, Charles Powell, Gorham Munson, Malcolm Cowley, Ralph Ellison, John Crowe Ransom, I. A. Richards, F. R. Leavis, Cleanth Brooks, Delmore Schwartz, Denis Donoghue, Robert Langbaum, Marianne Thormählen, A. D. Moody, Ronald Bush, Maud Ellman, and Tim Armstrong. A Chronology and Selected Bibliography are included.
At Number 15, we have 100 Poems, by Seamus Heaney, which was published in the year 2018. In 2013, Seamus Heaney met with Faber poetry editor Matthew Hollis in Dublin. He said that one project he would very much like to complete would be to prepare a personal selection from across the entire arc of his poetry, small yet comprehensive enough to serve as an introduction for all comers. He never managed to make the selection in his lifetime, and after his passing, the project was initially set aside. But now, at last, it has been returned to once more, and the result is an intimate gathering of poems chosen and introduced by the Heaney family. Coinciding with the opening by the National Library of Ireland of a permanent exhibition dedicated to the life and work of Seamus Heaney, this is a singular, accessible selection for new and younger readers that has the opportunity to reach far and wide, now and ahead.
Number 14, is Milk and Honey, by Rupi Kaur which was published in 2014. Milk and honey’ is a collection of poetry and prose about survival. About the experience of violence, abuse, love, loss, and femininity. It is split into four chapters, and each chapter serves a different purpose. Deals with a different pain. Heals a different heartache. ‘milk and honey’ takes readers through a journey of the most bitter moments in life and finds sweetness in them because there is sweetness everywhere if you are just willing to look.
Number 13, is A Psalm of Life, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow which was first published in 1892. According to the poem, the force of science seems to restrain one’s spirit or soul (“for the soul is dead that slumbers”), lead to inaction and complacency from which we must break free (“Act,—act in the living Present! / Heart within, and God o’erhead!”) for lofty purposes such as Art, Heart, and God before time runs out (“Art is long, and Time is fleeting”). The last three stanzas—which, having broken free from science by this point in the poem, read more smoothly—suggest that this acting for lofty purposes can lead to greatness and can help our fellow man.
We might think of the entire poem as a clarion call to do great things, however insignificant they may seem in the present and on the empirically observable surface. That may mean writing a poem and entering it into a poetry contest, when you know the chances of your poem winning are very small; risking your life for something you believe in when you know it is not popular or it is misunderstood; or volunteering for a cause that, although it may seem hopeless, you feel is truly important. Thus, the greatness of this poem lies in its ability to so clearly prescribe a method for greatness in our modern world.
Number 12, is The Poetry Pharmacy: Tried-and-True Prescriptions for the Mind, Heart and Soul, by William Sieghart. In the years since he first had the idea of prescribing short, powerful poems for all manner of spiritual ailments, William Sieghart has taken his Poetry Pharmacy around the length and breadth of Britain, into the pages of the Guardian, onto BBC Radio 4 and onto the television, honing his prescriptions all the time. This pocket-sized book presents the most essential poems in his dispensary: those which, again and again, have really shown themselves to work. Whether you are suffering from loneliness, lack of courage, heartbreak, hopelessness, or even from an excess of ego, there is something here to ease your pain. “The book is delightful; it rightly resituates poetry in relation to its biggest and most serious task: helping us to live and die well” Alain de Botton
Number 11, is View with a Grain of Sand, by Wislawa Szymborska, and translated by Clare Cavanagh. This book was published in 1995, and the translated version in 1996. In these one-hundred poems Wisława Szymborska portrays a world of astonishing diversity and richness, in which nature is wise and prodigal and fate unpredictable, if not mischevious. With acute irony tempered by a generous curiousity, she documents life’s improbability as well as its transient beauty.
Number 10, is She is Fierce, by Ana Sampson which was published in 2018. A stunning gift book containing 150 bold, brave and beautiful poems by women – from classic, well loved poets to innovative and bold modern voices. From suffragettes to school girls, from spoken word superstars to civil rights activists, from aristocratic ladies to kitchen maids, these are voices that deserve to be heard. Collected by anthologist Ana Sampson She is Fierce: Brave, Bold and Beautiful Poems by Women contains an inclusive array of voices, from modern and contemporary poets. Immerse yourself in poems from Maya Angelou, Nikita Gill, Wendy Cope, Ysra Daley-Ward, Emily Bronte, Carol Ann Duffy, Fleur Adcock, Liz Berry, Jackie Kay, Hollie McNish, Imtiaz Dharker, Helen Dunmore, Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, Christina Rossetti, Margaret Atwood and Dorothy Parker, to name but a few! Featuring short biographies of each poet, She is Fierce is a stunning collection and an essential addition to any bookshelf.
Number 9, is Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, by John Ashbery which was first published in 1990. John Ashberry won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Ashberry reaffirms the poetic powers that have made him such an outstanding figure in contemporary literature. This new book continues his astonishing explorations of places where no one has ever been.
Number 8, is Poems, by Elizabeth Bishop which was published in 2011. A Boston Globe Best Poetry Book of 2011 This is the definitive edition of the work of one of America’s greatest poets, increasingly recognized as one of the greatest English-language poets of the twentieth century, loved by readers and poets alike. Bishop’s poems combine humor and sadness, pain and acceptance, and observe nature and lives in perfect miniaturist close-up. The themes central to her poetry are geography and landscape—from New England, where she grew up, to Brazil and Florida, where she later lived—human connection with the natural world, questions of knowledge and perception, and the ability or inability of form to control chaos. This new edition offers readers the opportunity to take in, entire, one of the great careers in twentieth century poetry.
At Number 7, we have The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson, by Emily Dickinson, published in 2003. Dickinson’s poetry is remarkable for its tightly controlled emotional and intellectual energy. The longest poem covers less than two pages. Yet in theme and tone her writing reaches for the sublime as it charts the landscape of the human soul. A true innovator, Dickinson experimented freely with conventional rhythm and meter, and often used dashes, off rhymes, and unusual metaphors—techniques that strongly influenced modern poetry. Dickinson’s idiosyncratic style, along with her deep resonance of thought and her observations about life and death, love and nature, and solitude and society, have firmly established her as one of America’s true poetic geniuses.
Number 6, is Metamorphoses, by Ovid, translated by David Raeburn, which was published in 2004. Prized through the ages for its splendor and its savage, sophisticated wit, The Metamorphoses is a masterpiece of Western culture–the first attempt to link all the Greek myths, before and after Homer, in a cohesive whole, to the Roman myths of Ovid’s day. Horace Gregory, in this modern translation, turns his poetic gifts toward a deft reconstruction of Ovid’s ancient themes, using contemporary idiom to bring today’s reader all the ageless drama and psychological truths vividly intact.
Our Number 5, is Ode on a Grecian Urn, by John Keats, published in 1999. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a poem written by the English Romantic poet John Keats in May 1819 and published anonymously in the January 1820, Number 15 issue of the magazine Annals of the Fine Arts (see 1820 in poetry). The poem is one of several “Great Odes of 1819”, which include “Ode on Indolence”, “Ode on Melancholy”, “Ode to a Nightingale”, and “Ode to Psyche”. Keats found earlier forms of poetry unsatisfactory for his purpose, and the collection represented a new development of the ode form. He was inspired to write the poem after reading two articles by English artist and writer Benjamin Haydon. Keats was aware of other works on classical Greek art, and had first-hand exposure to the Elgin Marbles, all of which reinforced his belief that classical Greek art was idealistic and captured Greek virtues, which forms the basis of the poem.
At Number 4, we have The Rain in Portugal, by Billy Collins which was published in 2016. The Rain in Portugal, a title that admits he’s not much of a rhymer, sheds Collins’s ironic light on such subjects as travel and art, cats and dogs, loneliness and love, beauty and death. His tones range from the whimsical “the dogs of Minneapolis . . . / have no idea they’re in Minneapolis” to the elegiac in a reaction to the death of Seamus Heaney. A student of the everyday, here Collins contemplates a weather vane, a still life painting, the calendar, and a child lost at a beach. His imaginative fabrications have Shakespeare flying comfortably in first class and Keith Richards supporting the globe on his head. By turns entertaining, engaging, and enlightening, The Rain in Portugal amounts to another chorus of poems from one of the most respected and familiar voices in the world of American poetry.
At Number 3, we got Mountain Interval, by Robert Frost first published in 1916.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
These deceptively simple lines from the title poem of this collection suggest Robert Frost at his most representative: the language is simple, clear and colloquial, yet dense with meaning and wider significance. Drawing upon everyday incidents, common situations and rural imagery, Frost fashioned poetry of great lyrical beauty and potent symbolism.
Reach our final countdown, at Number 2, we have Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman first published in 1855. As Malcolm Cowley says in his Introduction, the first edition of Leaves of Grass “might be called the buried masterpiece of American writing,” for it exhibits “Whitman at his best, Whitman at his freshest in vision and boldest in language, Whitman transformed by a new experience.” Cowley has taken the first edition from its narrow circulation among scholars, faithfully edited it, added his own Introduction and Whitman’s original Introduction (which never appeared in any other edition during Whitman’s life), and returned it to the common readership for whom the great poet intended it. “One of the most important literary events in twentieth-century poetry and criticism.” -Karl Shapiro
And Finally, our Number 1 poetry book is, Poems to Live Your Life By, by Chris Riddell, published in 2018. In Poems to Live Your Life By, Chris Riddell, political cartoonist for the Observer, has selected his very favorite classic and modern poems about life, death and everything in between. This gorgeously illustrated collection includes forty-six poems and is divided into sections covering: musings, youth, family, love, imaginings, nature, war and endings. Chris Riddell brings them to life with his exquisite, intricate artwork in this beautiful anthology. This book features famous poems, old and new, and a few surprises. Classic verses from William Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, W. B. Yeats and Christina Rossetti sit alongside poems from Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Carol Ann Duffy, Neil Gaiman and Roger McGough to create the ultimate collection.
ENJOY!September 26, 2019