Sunday, September 5, 2010

Favorite Lines

I had mentioned in a previous post that one of the things I love about a poem is a line that sticks in my head. I thought I would mention some of my favorites.

Robert Bly does not write the kind of poetry that I typically enjoy, but one line of his struck me so much that when I heard it on the radio (Garrison Keilor’s A Prairie Home Companion) I wrote it down and have not been able to forget it since:

We are perishable, friends. We are salty, impermanent kingdoms.
Something about those words in conjunction says everything. We are salty. We are impermanent. We are kingdoms. “Kingdoms” speaks to our grandeur, even the lowliest of us—we each are a civilization unto ourselves. We are literally “salty”—our blood, our sweat—salt makes it possible for our nerves to conduct impulses. But this detail is so un… un-humanist (?) that it is almost comical, and we are reduced and humbled in the mundane literalness of the observation. And yet the observation of our impermanence being addressed to “friends” belies that lowliness with comforting inclusivity.

I know I have an amazing poem when it actually physically chokes me up. This stanza of Ben Johnson’s, writing on the death of his young son, often does that:

Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.
The phrase “soft peace” touches me, and does the idea that someone might ask the son about himself, wherever he ends up. Touching, too, is the idea that his son is the best thing Johnson ever made.

The third I’ll include here is a classic line, but it has always stuck with me. I think T. S. Eliot’s strength lies not in his complete poems, but in single gems of observation within those poems:
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.
The line in question, that last one, would be banal by itself, but as the culmination of Eliot’s previous verse, that simple line of ten, flat, one-syllable words hits like a lead weight. It needs no big words—it feels so direct and confessional that I can hear the ache and the dread wrapped up in those words.

We need some comments on this blog. I invite readers, whomever and wherever you are, to share your favorite lines and verses.


  1. I think my most favorite poem is "Axe Handles" by Gary Snyder, also about fatherhood. I always choke up at this line:

    "I am an axe
    And my son a handle, soon
    To be shaping again, model
    And tool, craft of culture,
    How we go on."


  2. I have been told that the Robert Bly poem in question is "The Slim Fir-Seeds", from his collection
    Turkish Pears in August.