Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Poems for the Newcomer

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

This week’s prompt is “Top Ten Books That Would Be On Your Syllabus If You Taught X 101 (examples: YA fantasy 101, feminist literature 101, magic in YA 101, classic YA lit 101, world-building 101).”

Well, I’m not interested in YA, I’ve never read anything approximating “feminist literature,” and I just barely know what “world-building” is. Really, poetry is one of the few literary topics on which I feel semi-confident. So here we are.

Of course, I’ve never really tried to teach poetry to anyone else, so all I can go by is which poems helped me to understand poetry the best.

1: “Methought I saw my late espoused saint” by John Milton

I think I can safely say that this poem, Milton’s 23rd sonnet, is what got me to start caring about poetry in the first place. For once, I was able to get a sense of what the poet was feeling as he wrote, something I had thought largely impossible in a form as strict and arbitrary as the sonnet. The paradox Milton poses in the last line also amazed me quite a bit, to the point where I began to wonder if there was something to this poetry business after all. I know there are better sonnets out there, but none have affected me as much as this one.

2: “The Unknown Citizen” by W. H. Auden

If Milton was my introduction to traditional verse, it was Auden who gave me an appreciation for more modern forms of verse. This poem is written in a very informal free verse style, but when you pay attention what Auden is saying and how he says it, it’s actually pretty clever, despite its lack of formal structure.

3: “The Donkey” by G. K. Chesterton

Like Milton’s poem, this one showed me what poetry can do. Something about the way Chesterton waits until the last line to reveal his main subject–and until then, builds a whimsical-sounding riddle around it–made me eager to read more from him and from all of the other poets I had been neglecting.

4: “The Destruction of Sennacherib” by Lord Byron

This poem has it all: rollicking anapestic tetrameter, rousing themes of battle and triumph, and alliteration to the rafters. Even before I really “got” poetry, I still loved this one.

5: “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe

The Raven - Nevermore - Gustave Dore
Illustration by Gustave Doré

No one less than a poetic god could write something like this. Since the rhythm of the poem adds so much to the spooky atmosphere, this one is perfect for demonstrating what a careful meter can do. Plus, it’s tremendously fun to read.

6: “Desdichado” by Dorothy L. Sayers

These days, Dorothy Sayers is known best as a mystery writer, and sometimes as an essayist, but nevertheless, her poems are breathtaking. Like “The Destruction of Sennacherib” and “The Raven,” this poem has a fun, musical sort of rhythm to it, one that showcases the beauty and artistry that goes into writing old-style poems.

7: “When You Are Old” by William Butler Yeats

Sketch of Yeats by John Singer Sargent
Sketch of Yeats by John Singer Sargent

Simple, true, and beautiful, just as a poem should be. Since half the power of poetry is its ability to say much in a few words, I think this one is perfect for bringing the evocative nature of poetry to the fore.

8: “On Being Asked for a War Poem” by William Butler Yeats

Since this is a poem about poetry, I found it very useful for understanding the rationale behind writing poems, as well as the way poets find the balance between the hubris of Percy Shelley (who said that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”) on one side and the pessimism of W. H. Auden (who said that “Poetry makes nothing happen”) on the other.

9: “In the Old Age of the Soul” by Ezra Pound

Once, after being assigned to write a free verse poem in school, it occurred to me that I had read almost no free verse poetry in my life. I then followed my teacher’s advice and looked up some free verse poems to give me an idea of what I was working toward. I downloaded Pound’s first published book Personae from Project Gutenberg and not only did it make free verse click for me, but I also found this little gem which I have loved ever since. The metaphors, the imagery, and the brief but beautiful language of this poem make it a wonderful introduction to free verse.

10: “A Little Lightning” by Aaron Belz

Here’s the thing about this poem: unlike most of the ones on this list, it’s terribly modern. Meaning, it was first published this year. Normally, I have little interest in such poems, but this one is actually wonderful. Since a poetry class would have to cover the latest trends in poetry as well, I would hold up this poem as an example of what ought to be done in modern poetry.

8 thoughts on “Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Poems for the Newcomer

  1. I love poetry but somehow it reading it always makes me so sad that I tend to read something else. I read Paradise Lost by Milton many years ago, haven’t read his poems though. Yeats writes in a beautiful way


  2. I have not read a lot of poetry, though I’ve been trying to make a conscious effort to try more. I do love Edgar Allan Poe though; his sense of rhythm makes even the darkest poems sound magical. I love especially love the sound of “Annabelle Lee” when read aloud.


    1. I really ought to read more Dickinson. I always forget how much I like her until I start reading her poems again. 🙂
      Frost is great too. So far, I think “Fire and Ice” is my favorite from him.

      Liked by 1 person

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