It’s the final day of National Poetry Month. In honor of the illustrious month — and because the world was clamoring for a sports/poetry mash-up — I bring you Poetry Madness.
(Really, the only part I ganked from sports is the bracket and the name. But bear with me!)
I’ve chosen 16 poems and since we couldn’t figure out a way to make them physically fight each other, it’s up to you to vote your favorite into the top spot. I’ve stuck with poems written in English in the last hundred years, and you can read all of them below before you decide. I’ve set down my own winning reasons below. Weigh in on whether I chose right or wrong in the comments.
Read the poems here:
Marriage by Gregory Corso
Morning by Frank O’Hara
Talking in Bed by Philip Larkin
The More Loving One by W.H. Auden
i carry your heart by E.E. Cummings
Meditations at Lagunitas by Robert Hass:
To My Twenties by Kenneth Koch:
The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes
Siren Song by Margaret Atwood
Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish
Bluebird by Charles Bukowski
One Art by Elizabeth Bishop
the lesson of the moth by Don Marquis
Exit by Rita Dove
I Have News for You by Tony Hoagland
Sonnet XLIII by Edna St. Vincent Millay
And here are my first-round picks:
“Marriage” by Gregory Corso vs. Sonnet XLIII by Edna St. Vincent Millay
It’s a difficult comparison to make — facing off a sonnet with Beat poetry is like comparing Beethoven to Coltrane. But both face a similar problem: endings are tough to write. Millay’s tight, deeply miserable 14 lines are a beautiful snapshot of a sadness peculiar to the years following World War I, but the poem’s final couplet, “I only know that summer sang in me/A little while, that sings in me no more” leaves the reader a little too lovelorn. By contrast, Corso’s sprawling wail of fear of the future is filled with hilarious imagery (the idea of Corso running around a Niagara Falls hotel screaming, ‘I deny honeymoon!’ is so great it makes you want to honeymoon at Niagara Falls just to do a recreation) but ends on a weird transmigratory note that’s unworthy of the rest of the poem. Still, Corso wins out here, if for perfectly capturing the anxiety of his generation (and ours).
“The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes vs. “Siren Song” by Margaret Atwood
Hughes’s poem feels like a nursery song, with simple, round rhymes depicting an old man singing the blues. Atwood’s poem is a pointed commentary on gender roles reflected through a mythological lens. The sirens are considered evil beings, but Atwood’s point is that women are expected to keep singing that same song, even now, and that the one thing men find irresistible is being told they’re the only one who understands or can help. “It is a boring song/but it works every time.” Hughes’s song is soothing, but Atwood’s twists around on us and makes us feel less alone. This round to Atwood.
“The More Loving One” by W.H. Auden vs. “the lesson of the moth” by Don Marquis
Marquis is obviously the underdog here, but reading the poems side by side, Auden’s rhyming cadence feels sing-song and childish. His thought experiment about stars and human love is beautifully worded, but there is a ridiculous charm to Marquis’s ode to having goals. The philosophy is perhaps a bit heavy handed but Marquis’s quirky brilliance wins this match.
“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop vs. “i carry your heart” by E.E. Cummings
Two love poems in this round. “i carry your heart” wears itself on its sleeve and “One Art” is a little more oblique. Normally we’re all for labyrinthine emotions but “i carry your heart” does what E.E. Cummings does best — take a really big emotion and give it a voice that feels absolutely genuine. “i carry your heart” is one of the most beautiful expressions of romantic joy there is. Bishop’s poem is an excellent expression of a complex emotional track, but it feels a little mannered next to Cummings’s happy shout.
“Morning” by Frank O’Hara vs. “I Have News for You” by Tony Hoagland
Two poems about someone making everything into a story. Hoagland’s is explicitly saying that people who don’t see everything as a metaphor or a sign are probably happier, that they experience the world in a purer way. (Foreshadowing: No writer wants to hear that.) O’Hara’s poem is simpler, sadder — even the cheesy, awkwardly phrased section in the middle about the sand being wet with tears can’t ruin something so heartbreaking. On the other hand, after reading so many poems we’re getting sick of stanzas with no punctuation. On the third hand: “do you know how it is/when you are the only/passenger if there is a/place further from me/I beg you do not go.” Match: O’Hara.
“Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish vs. “To My Twenties” by Kenneth Koch
Whenever people in their 30s talk about how the 20s are the worst decade, full of discomfort and angst and figuring oneself out, disillusioned 25-year-olds can turn to Kenneth Koch. Without glorifying the decade unnecessarily, he captures the expansive joy of it — “How lucky that I ran into you/When everything was possible.” By contrast, “Ars Poetica” is a lovely metaphorical manual detailing what a poem should be and accomplish. But when set head to head against a poem that actually accomplishes that, MacLeish can’t compete. Round goes to Koch.
“Talking in Bed” by Philip Larkin vs. “Exit” by Rita Dove
To paraphrase Wislawa Szymborska (who isn’t included here because she didn’t write in English, not because we’re philistines), poetry is meant to distill specific, ordinary moments and find the extraordinary in them. “Talking in Bed” does exactly that, taking the awkward, quotidian feeling of not knowing what to say to the person you share everything with (because have you shared all there is? is there anything more to talk about?) and putting it into a rhyme scheme so skillful that if you hear it read aloud you might not notice it was written in rhyme. Dove’s is more abstract, less specific — still recognizable, but less pointed and thus less effective. Larkin’s got this one.
“Meditations at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass vs. “Bluebird” by Charles Bukowski
“Meditations” starts with a bang: “All the new thinking is about loss./In this it resembles all the old thinking.” It’s a one-two punch, but the rest of the poem is calmer, weirder, a twisty contemplation of the power of words to evoke memories and feelings. The Bukowski is clever and relatable, with a sweetness that separates it from most of his other work and helps lift the stigma of Bukowski (which, if you’re wondering, is that you can tell a guy’s a jerk if he claims to love Bukowski.) It’s the kind of poem that a million well-meaning grad students get tattooed on their lower backs, possibly with a tiny picture of a birdcage. The Hass is more demanding, stranger -- but ultimately has more in it. This match to “Meditations.”
“Marriage” by Gregory Corso vs. “Siren Song” by Margaret Atwood
Mmm, I love the smell of gender politics in the morning. On the one hand: a Beat poet explains the way men get all turned around by mid-century ideas about marriage and commitment. On the other, a short, sharp poem opining that the way to be irresistible to a man is to tell him he’s the only one who can help you. To Corso, the women he imagines himself marrying aren’t people but archetypes. To Atwood’s speaker, interactions between men and women are hackneyed and predictable. God, this is depressing. Endings are important, as everyone knows, and this is where Atwood gains the upper hand — her final stanza is darkly funny perfection, whereas Corso’s is mumbly and impenetrable. Atwood wins here.
“the lesson of the moth” by Don Marquis vs.” i carry your heart” by E.E. Cummings
We’ve just abandoned capitalization, haven’t we? Other than the lack of uppercase, these two are totally different poems. Marquis tells a slightly sardonic story with an appealing heart, and Cummings is just shouting with wild abandon about all the love in his heart. The two poems balance each other — read the Cummings and “the lesson of the moth” seems cynical and morbid, but go the opposite direction and “i carry your heart” comes off as adolescent and goofy. Good thing for E.E. Cummings that we’re down with goofy. The love poem stays in the picture!
“Morning” by Frank O’Hara vs. “To My Twenties” by Kenneth Koch
Unfortunately, a head to head between these two poems is always going to depend on the arbiter’s mood at the moment. They’re both superb evocations of feeling, but if the judge of the two is feeling sad, she’s going to connect more deeply with O’Hara’s lovelorn lament, and if she’s feeling happy then Koch’s joyful ode to youth is going to resonate more. Sorry, Frank O’Hara — she woke up on the right side of bed today. Koch takes it.
“Talking in Bed” by Philip Larkin vs. “Meditations at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass
Robert Hass stood up against angry cops when he helped Occupy Berkeley, but he can’t stand up against Philip Larkin. Hass’ work is intellectual, probing and gorgeous, but nobody does inevitable yet fresh like Larkin. “Talking in Bed” has a complexity that’s astounding considering how short it is, and while Larkin’s trademark cynicism and sadness are on display, it’s not a depressing poem. He’s perfectly captured the ennui inherent in long-term love. Larkin all the way.
“Siren Song” by Margaret Atwood vs. “i carry your heart” by E.E. Cummings
The tough thing about poetry is that a lot of modern poetry is like a Rothko painting — you put yourself in it as much as you take it in. For example, would “Siren Song” seem so relatable if I weren’t cynical? Is the E.E. Cummings poem tapping into my own experience of being in love? This is where a poetry judge (can I get that on a business card?) starts to worry that she’s bringing too much of her own experience to bear in her judgments. A match-up like this forces a person to understand their own proclivities and to ask: “Do I stand for cynicism or for love?” It turns out I stand for cynicism. Atwood wins.
“To My Twenties” by Kenneth Koch vs. “Talking in Bed” by Philip Larkin
I could use the exact same schpiel for this head-to-head, but this is different. Larkin’s not making a gender distinction; he’s talking about the universal angst of running out of things to talk about, of boredom, of the tiny resentments that infest our most central relationships like termites. Koch’s poem is a love song, sure, but a love song to youth and optimism rather than some idealized partner. Larkin goes after small sadnesses and Koch after big joys. These dudes are both heavyweights, and I never thought anyone would knock Larkin out of a poetry bracket, but it turns out optimism is my jam too. Kenneth Koch wins this one.
Fourth and final round:
“Siren Song” by Margaret Atwood vs. “To My Twenties” by Kenneth Koch
On the one hand we have a basic conviction that people are simple animals and can be manipulated through judicious application of a few basic principles and on the other we have the knowledge that life is amazing, despite its occasional sadnesses, and that while youth is a time of introspection and a lot of feelings, it is also an era in our lives for which we should be grateful.
They’re both right, so let’s not judge this contest on who is right. The poems are vaguely similar in structure: both trip along just a touch out of rhythm, neither bothers with rhymes. Atwood’s is mythical in subject whereas Koch’s uses diction to make classical allusions (”O woman! O my twentieth year!”).
Tiny versions of Atwood and Koch are standing on my shoulders shouting conflicting messages into my ears, and I realize that Margaret Atwood loves Twitter. Will she see this? Will she be mad at me? I hope not....
But Kenneth Koch is my poetry champion of the world! “To My Twenties” is quite aware that his twenties are gone and not coming back, much as he might want them to. It’s that pause of sadness at the end of the poem that clinches this win.
Take that, Nobel Committee! Take that, Poet Laureate selection criteria! Publishers, feel free to put “Official Champion of Poetry” on all not-yet-published collections of Koch’s work.