I’m having a hard time starting my answer to this one. Yes, there are a couple of obvious responses, which I’ll get to in a minute, but part of my issue is do I include song lyrics or not? I mean, sure, they qualify as poems, but do I count them amongst my favorites? Do they hold up when you remove them from their accompanying music (no semantic arguments about songs like “Tom’s Diner” because the music is inherent in the presentation)?
It reminds me of one of my favorite David Bowie quotes: “All of my songs have three messages: The message of the music, the message of the lyrics, and the message of the music and lyrics combined – and all of them become meaningless when you listen to the song.” Which is to say there needs to be a message within the lyrics which can stand on its own. When I took a poetry class during my MFA studies, I brought in “Poet’s Moon,” a song by Fish, to analyze. It’s one of my favorites to be sure, and I think it works on its own, but it is certainly enhanced by the accompanying instrumentalization. That said, the lines
And the only sign of life is the ticking of the pen
introducing characters to memories like old friends
That all said, I think I’ll go with the option that song lyrics, for this experiment, are not poetry in the larger sense. And with few exceptions, the lyricists are not themselves poets.
Which finally brings us back to the question at hand, which is do I have a favorite poem and what is it if I do.
The answer, of course, is yes. And anyone who knows me knows that top of that particular list would be “The Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll from Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. There are so many things to love about this piece, from the quasi nonsense of the opening and closing stanzas (the rest all tell a rather coherent story) to the made-up words (like “chortle”) which have entered our modern-day lexicon*.
I mean really, how do you not love these words?
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
I love this one so much I even have it tattooed on my leg.
So that certainly holds the number one slot, but after that, my tastes, while still pretty mundane, do get a bit further afield. I like Poe, to be sure, but my favorite isn’t The Raven, as one might expect, but instead Annabel Lee. When it comes to the Romantics, I like Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” and Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” resonates with me, more so than “The Waste Land.” I also have a great fondness for Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” which I use in classes to explain logical reasoning.
Beyond those classics, I love me some Shel Silverstein and Dr. Suess. Where the Sidewalk Ends was very formative for me, as was The Cat in the Hat, but I don’t know if these hit the deep emotional core poetry is supposed to hit.
And there’s my problem with poetry – I’m not exposed to enough to really form any type of valid opinion. I spend my analytic time with the form, second-guessing and hedging my thoughts and ideas. This is certainly my choice. I get that. I have books of poetry on my shelf, written by friends**, and while I’ve read them all, and found some of them really wonderful, they just don’t stick with me the way a good piece of science fiction does.
I’m too much of a narrative person, I think, to fully get the imagery of a good poem. But I also think that we all bring something to the table when we experience a piece of poetry so there may be hope for me yet.
** And you should all subscribe to Reports from the Phantastikon, poet Gregory Crosby’s semi-regular newsletter, which shows up when you need it with poems commenting on the status of the world we’re living in at the moment.