The Top Ten Poems I Love, #10

Did you ever get so busy at the end of National Poetry month that you forgot to post poem #10 of your top ten poems until May? Well, here we are in May and I want to share a collection of creative writing that I go to for insight and inspiration. I’ve never seen it in the Poetry section in a library or bookstore, but these small, personified qualities are poetic in the the most beautiful sense of the word.

– – – – –
The Book of Qualities By J. Ruth Gendler

Here’s the section/poem called


Joy drinks pure water. She has sat with the dying and attended many births. She denies nothing. She is in love with life, all of it, the sun and the rain and the rainbow. She rides horses at Half Moon Bay under the October moon. She climbs mountains. She sings in the hills. She jumps from the hot spring to the cold stream without hestitation.

Although Joy is spontaneous, she is immensely patient. She does not need to rush. She knows that there are obstacles on every path and that every moment is the perfect moment. She is not concerned with success or failure or how to make things permanent.

At times Joy is elusive — she seems to disappear even as we approach her. I see her standing on a ridge covered with oak trees, and suddenly the distance between us feels enormous. I am overwhelmed and wonder if the effort to reach her is worth it. Yet, she waits for us. Her desire to walk with us is as great as our longing to accompany her.

– – – – –
Here’s a list of all the qualities in the book.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #9

Taylor Mali’s poetry makes me smile, shake my head, wonder, question, and feel a whole myriad emotions. Enjoy his reading of his poem “Like Lilly Like Wilson.”

I’m writing the poem that will change the world, and it’s Lilly Wilson at my office door.
Lilly Wilson, the recovering like addict,
the worst I’ve ever seen.
So, like, bad the whole eighth grade
started calling her Like Lilly Like Wilson Like.
‘Until I declared my classroom a Like‐Free Zone,
and she could not speak for days.

But when she finally did, it was to say,
Mr. Mali, this is . . . so hard.
Now I have to think before I . . . say anything.

Imagine that, Lilly.

It’s for your own good.
Even if you don’t like . . .

I’m writing the poem that will change the world,
and it’s Lilly Wilson at my office door.
Lilly is writing a research paper for me
about how homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed
to adopt children.
I’m writing the poem that will change the world,
and it’s Like Lilly Like Wilson at my office door.

She’s having trouble finding sources,
which is to say, ones that back her up.
They all argue in favor of what I thought I was against.

And it took four years of college,
three years of graduate school,
and every incidental teaching experience I have ever had
to let out only,

Well, that’s a real interesting problem, Lilly.
But what do you propose to do about it?

That’s what I want to know.

And the eighth-­‐grade mind is a beautiful thing;
Like a new-­‐born baby’s face, you can often see it
change before your very eyes.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, Mr. Mali,
but I think I’d like to switch sides.

And I want to tell her to do more than just believe it,
but to enjoy it!
That changing your mind is one of the best ways
of finding out whether or not you still have one.
Or even that minds are like parachutes,
that it doesn’t matter what you pack
them with so long as they open
at the right time.
O God, Lilly, I want to say
you make me feel like a teacher,
and who could ask to feel more than that?
I want to say all this but manage only,
Lilly, I am like so impressed with you!

So I finally taught somebody something,
namely, how to change her mind.
And learned in the process that if I ever change the world
it’s going to be one eighth grader at a time.

– – – – –

I wonder what students think about his poem. I know teachers appreciate it. His reading adds quite a bit to it, but even a quick read conveys that ‘thinking person’ mentality that I love in Mali’s work. We can only do so much as teachers and it’s oh so rewarding when a student’s mind is opened, when a light bulb goes off right in front of us.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #8

This one is by Sarah Kay


You jaywalked your way out of the womb.
I would recognize you anywhere
from the hiccup in your swagger. Tell me,
where in the world did you find all that thunder?

There have never been any seat belts on your side of the car
You have always known the better magic tricks.
You told me once that I was just the first draft,
and I’m inclined to believe you but you came
with a lot more pieces to assemble, and
mom​ and dad never got the manual.

Your compass always points north.
But it’s a bit of a crapshoot as to whether or not
you’ll ever really walk in that direction. I like that.
It keeps people on their toes.

On the merry-go-round of your life, the carousel ponies
are all narwhals. Their horns point straight up.
The day they build you a constellation, it will be
the entire F-train, spread across the Milky Way.
You will a satellite that dips in and out of every car
the moment the train comes to a stop, pissing off
everybody on the subway platform and kicking up
stardust in your wake. You can solve the Law and Order
episode before the first commercial break.

Once, when you were seven, you came into the kitchen and asked mum: “Does my name begin with the letter P because P is the 16th letter of the alphabet and I was born on June 16th and is Sarah just Sarah because S is 19th letter and she was born on the 19th day of June?”
And when mom said no, you nodded your head
and left the room mumbling to yourself,
“Okay, just salt and pepper then.”

You are my favorite stick of dynamite.
You are the opposite of a rubber band.
There are so many things I would tell you
if I thought that you would listen
and so many more that you would tell me
if you believed I would understand.

I hope you know that you were never meant to wear this shadow.
In fact, I’m the one who always steals your shoes.
But — is that my sweatshirt you’re wearing? It’s okay, you can keep it. I won’t tell your secret. In fact, it really does look better on you.

– – – – –

So many memorable lines in this one, starting with the first one. Hilarious. After reading this poem a few times, I feel like I know her brother. And the love she has for him is palpable. Why can’t I write like this?

Here’s Sarah performing the poem. And it’s in her book of poems, No Matter the Wreckage, which contains a bunch of other gems.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #7

It’s Earth Day and the Lansing Poetry Club is also sponsoring a reading today called Poem in Your Pocket — it seems like a perfect day to share some haiku. I’ll be reading the following poems at today’s reading. They are taken from Bob Rentschler’s book of haiku called Michigan: Four Seasons. The first three are from the Winter section of the book (though I’ve experienced them this spring) and the last four are from the Spring section. I feel Bob’s presence in each carefully chosen word.
And I apologize to Bob for edublogs’ lack of proper form; Bob wanted an indent at each new line which I can’t seem to make happen in this format (I’ve added a couple dashes, too, due to formating issues).

– – – – –

Overnight snowfall
clean white sheets for a new day
until noon — that’s all.

Cardinal unseen
fir tree whistler — there he is
red on white on green.

Fire in the sky
sun’s inferno smothered with
gray clouds floating by.

Spring celebrated
bees in the blooming plum tree

Twenty after five
cardinal cacaphony
morning comes alive.

Listen to the train
crying in the lonely night
seasonless refrain.

Hunching his behind
caterpillar on my page
leaves tracks on my mind.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #6

Here are two poems by Marianne Moore (1887 – 1972). I couldn’t decide which one I loved more. You can decide for yourself.

– – – – –

The Fish

through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like

injured fan.
The barnacles which encrust the side
of the wave, cannot hide
there for the submerged shafts of the

split like spun
glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
into the crevices—
in and out, illuminating

turquoise sea
of bodies. The water drives a wedge
of iron through the iron edge
of the cliff; whereupon the stars,

rice-grains, ink-
bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green
lilies, and submarine
toadstools, slide each on the other.

marks of abuse are present on this
defiant edifice—
all the physical features of

of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
hatchet strokes, these things stand
out on it; the chasm-side is

evidence has proved that it can live
on what can not revive
its youth. The sea grows old in it.

– – – – –


I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers that there is in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful; when they become so derivative as to become
unintelligible, the
same thing may be said for all of us—that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand. The bat,
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twinkling his skin like a horse
that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician—case after case
could be cited did
one wish it; nor is it valid
to discriminate against “business documents and

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must
make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets,
the result is not poetry,
nor till the autocrats among us can be
“literalists of
the imagination”—above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them,
shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand, in defiance of their opinion—
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness, and
that which is on the other hand,
genuine, then you are interested in poetry.

– – – – –

For me, poetry is partially about form. (Edublogs doesn’t appear to appreciate form, though. Here’s the actual way these poems are supposed to look: The Fish; and Poetry.)I appreciate seeing how the poet decided to arrange the words and lines and stanzas; sometimes these decisions affect the way the poem is read. And the “look” of a poem makes a statement. These poems come across differently when read aloud — not worse, just differently. Moore’s playfulness with line and stanza influenced my playfulness as a poet…and maybe, also, as a person. And I thank her for it.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #5

Ego Tripping
by Nikki Giovanni

I was born in the congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built
the sphinx
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
that only glows every one hundred years falls
into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad

I sat on the throne
drinking nectar with allah
I got hot and sent an ice age to europe
to cool my thirst
My oldest daughter is nefertiti
the tears from my birth pains
created the nile
I am a beautiful woman

I gazed on the forest and burned
out the sahara desert
with a packet of goat’s meat
and a change of clothes
I crossed it in two hours
I am a gazelle so swift
so swift you can’t catch me

For a birthday present when he was three
I gave my son hannibal an elephant
He gave me rome for mother’s day
My strength flows ever on

My son noah built new/ark and
I stood proudly at the helm
as we sailed on a soft summer day
I turned myself into myself and was
men intone my loving name
All praises All praises
I am the one who would save

I sowed diamonds in my back yard
My bowels deliver uranium
the filings from my fingernails are
semi-precious jewels
On a trip north
I caught a cold and blew
My nose giving oil to the arab world
I am so hip even my errors are correct
I sailed west to reach east and had to round off
the earth as I went
The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid
across three continents

I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended except by my permission

I mean…I…can fly
like a bird in the sky…

– – – – –

I enjoy hearing/seeing Nikki read this poem, too.

This is a power poem and it speaks for itself.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #4

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
By E. E. Cummings, 1894 – 1962

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

– – – – –

I’m noticing that many of my favorite poems have something to do with the mystery of love and beauty. This poem reminds me of the first poem in this list, “A Blessing.” Love is so intense and so difficult to define. So if we read words and phrases that capture a bit of that experience (like the beginning and ending of this poem in particular), it’s impressive and memorable.

Cummings always challenges me. His poems are works of art, which partly means they defy explanation. There’s a unique, inexplicable beauty that I want to grasp; however, I also understand that I won’t be able to grasp the entire truth…and that’s okay, that’s art. I like how he’s playful in his poems, too — “in Just” and its balloonman whistling far and wee is just one example. Genius.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #3

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons —
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes —

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us —
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are —

None may teach it — Any —
‘Tis the Seal Despair —
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air —

When it comes, the Landscape listens —
Shadows — hold their breath —
When it goes,’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death —

By Emily Dickinson
1861, earliest known manuscript of the poem;
1890, first published.

– – – –

I’ve tried many times to capture the beauty of nature in words. It’s so difficult to get across. That first stanza, especially — with its oppressive slant of light — spoke to me years ago and still does. I’ve seen it. I admire how Dickinson pulls us in right away and we can relate to her scene.

Last night, I went to Wild Nights with Emily, a feature film shown on the last night of the Capital City Film Festival. It was a side of Dickinson I never knew existed: she had a female lover; many of her poems were written for Sue, her lover, but Sue’s name was erased; Emily tried to get her poems published; she had a sense of humor…. Re-reading her poems, I am reminded once again of how little we know of people’s lives and how rich each person’s life is.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #2

I love most everything Billy Collins writes.

I offer you a Billy Collins Pallooza. I was fortunate to be in the audience when he spoke at the National Writing Project’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia in 2009. This video is his entire talk of 38 minutes. His dry sense of humor is a joy. Here are the poems he reads in the video, in order:

“Portrait of the Reader with a Bowl of Cereal”
“Oh My God”
“The Trouble with Poetry”
“Migraine” or “Hangover”
“Hippos on Holiday”
“The Golden Years”
“On Turning Ten”

Knowing that people are busy and sometimes only have time for one poem, here’s one of my favorite poems by Billy —

Walking Across the Atlantic

I wait for the holiday crowd to clear the beach
before stepping onto the first wave.

Soon I am walking across the Atlantic
thinking about Spain,
checking for whales, waterspouts.
I feel the water holding up my shifting weight.
Tonight I will sleep on its rocking surface.

But for now I try to imagine what
this must look like to the fish below,
the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing.

– – – – –

So simple, so descriptive…and such a novel idea. Powerful in the way he takes me with him across the ocean. So few words, really, but quite the shared experience.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #1

National Poetry Month has begun and I decided that this year I will share 10 poems that have influenced me over time. Check back in a few days for the next one.

Poem #1

A Blessing
By James Wright

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

– – – – –

This poem touched me at a deep level. It was the first time that I recall thinking “that’s what a poem is supposed to do.” It was relatively newly written when I read it in the mid 1990’s. I was not familiar with Wright’s work but I felt like I was there with those ponies just off the highway. The blossom metaphor connected with me; in a short phrase, I suddenly understood both the joy of that moment and the importance of poetry in the world.