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America’s Favorite Poems, Or Why Tractors Are Sexy

June 2, 2007

Reading at the kitchen table feels like homework, which is why I dislike the collected works of anyone who lived past thirty-five. If I can’t curl up with it, I don’t want it. Therefore I’m delighted that Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project is still available online, even if sparse compared to the three anthologies it has spawned: Poems to Read, America’s Favorite Poems, and An Invitation to Poetry. All poems contained in these collections (totaling 1,031 pages) and on the website were chosen by U. S. readers. If nothing else, the selections seem like a good barometer of what’s on our minds.

And what’s on our minds? Making do.

As a New York City resident, it’s easy to forget this very American idea of managing, of (as my mom always says) “doing the best you can.” Akin to “be all you can be” minus the expectations of heroism. There are too many Nobel Peace Prize winners and movie stars looking at Picassos with you at the Guggenheim. Too many friends founding magazines, opening music venues, writing novels. The local celebrity from my hometown in Tennessee was Strolling Jim.

Strolling Jim was a horse.

The dreams are more modest in places Woody Allen hasn’t documented.

I say “American idea of managing,” though it may very well be universal. There are the Brits keeping their chins up, after all, and the French muttering, “C’est la vie.” And the poems chosen for the Favorite Poem Project are certainly not all by locals. There’s Anna Akhmatova’s “The Sentence,” which begins,

      And the stone word fell

      On my still-living breast.

      Never mind, I was ready.

      I will manage somehow.

            (tr. Judith Hemschemeyer)

And Eavan Boland’s “The Emigrant Irish,” which concludes,

      Patience. Fortitude. Long-suffering

      in the bruise-colored dusk of the New World.

      And all the old songs. And nothing to lose.

We are often defined by what we like. Cocktail parties are filled with “Who’s your favorite” land mines. And isn’t the point of those social networking questionnaires to illustrate our selves by our favorite books, movies, and cds? Pinsky’s project has provided us with a sample of current American poetry spectatorship. Many commentators on the project have noted the diversity of the pool of participants—from elementary school students to construction workers. This tells us something about the state of poetry in the U.S. However, I’m more interested in what the selections tell us about the state of the U.S. To put it another way, I’m not as interested in who’s seeing Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, as I am in why a movie with such a subtitle would make $127 million during its opening weekend.

Or why W. H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” is a Favorite Poem (though it’s in my top ten, to be sure), with its opening lines,

      About suffering they were never wrong,

      The Old Masters: how well they understood

      Its human position; how it takes place

      While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.

When the boy loses a hand, then dies during surgery in Robert Frost’s “Out, Out—,” the onlookers, “since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” Even Ernest Lawrence Thayer keeps to the theme, ending his “Casey at Bat” with the disappointing ballad stanza,

      Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,

      The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;

      And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,

      But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.

Poetry’s themes do indeed seem to be limited. But this idea of everything going on indifferent to suffering (own or other) is not one of the old standards. As least, it’s not usually listed after “unrequited love” and “getting old and dying.” I’m tempted to blame this trend on the war; however, Pinsky started this project in 1997. (Aside: Of the fifty poems on the project’s website, four are war poems: Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It,” Wilfred Owen’s “Ducle et Decorum Est,” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn,” and W. B. Yeats’s “Politics.”) No, the answer is not so simple. This idea of carrying on is embedded in our culture.

Coincidentally (or not), the song on repeat on my iPod is Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song),” which includes the stanza:

      Sometimes I feel like

      I’ve never been nothing but tired

      And I’ll be walking

      Till the day I expire

      Sometimes I lay down

      No more can I do

      But then I go on again

      Because you ask me to

Griffin refers to Martin Luther King’s final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” which is more optimistic than most of the Favorite Poems. In one of the lesser quoted moments of the speech, King thanks his audience for attending, “in spite of a storm warning. You reveal that you are determined to go on anyhow.” More memorably, he speaks for his audience, saying, “And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.” And they did, even after his assassination the following day.

Poetry is the art of occasion. Weddings, funerals, memorial services. All incomplete without a poem. I just received a birth announcement in the mail with lines by May Swenson. And yet poetry is (can be) the art of surviving, as well.

Another Favorite, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Psalm of Life,” begins with an epigraph from Richard Crashaw: “Life that shall send A challenge to its end, And when it comes, say, ‘Welcome, friend.’” Although Longfellow’s poem is something of a call-to-arms, asking its readers to be heroes, it concludes on a more industrious note:

      Let us then be up and doing,

            With a heart for any fate;

      Still achieving, still pursuing,

            Learn to labor and to wait.

The point is that maybe there’s something valiant in survival. That laboring and waiting are their own sort of lofty goals. It’s country music wisdom at its finest, where housewives are heroes and tractors are sexy. Pinsky has unearthed an American (human?) characteristic to be proud of—an ability to get up or get back up or die trying.

—Erica Wright

Comments? poetry@guernicamag.com

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