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What are some poems that everyone must know?
Posted by: Negultive (---.washdc3.elnk.dsl.genuity.)
Date: January 15, 2004 09:44PM

What are the most well-known, famous, and celebrated poems in the world? Is the Top Poems list on this site pretty accurate, or are there others that scholars love, but aren't listed? I am a poetry newbie, and just want to learn about some of the greats. Are there any good history of poetry, analysis, or good introductions into the subject anywhere online?

Also, how does one go about knowing a poem? I am not talking interpretation-wise, but just remembering a poem. Like if you read a long book, even if you forget specifics, you still remember the general idea of it a long time afterwards. The reason is because you live within the world of the book for such a long time. With poems it's different though, since a first-read is so quick and short. Not only that, but it's much less concrete, and so harder to remember. Is memorization the only method? Or do you have to spend a large amount of time just thinking about and re-reading the one poem? What methods do you use, if any? Or what is your approach to poetry?

Re: What are some poems that everyone must know?
Posted by: -Les- (
Date: January 15, 2004 10:23PM

Negultive, I'd like to address a few of the points that you have raised here. First of all, the top poems list on this site is calculated by the number of hits by readers. What that means is that if there are a lot of our current readers who have assignments to read Edgar Allen Poe, his poems will be at the top of the list. Next week that would change according to the requests (hits) of the readers.

As to which poets to include on a best of poetry list, I think Hugh and Chesil are more qualified than I to answer that question. Much depends though on what your preferences are toward different types of poetry and the eras in which the poems were written. Many scholars would include Chaucer on the list, others might include more modern poets instead.

How do you come to know a poem? Probably the only lasting ways are to either memorize it by rote or, to internalize the poem by having a meaningful phrase or passage draw you into the poem. It is much easier to learn a poem which means something to you than to learn by rote. But for some people, learning by countless repetitions is the only way they will ever learn any poem. It just depends on your learning style. Whichever way makes you learn faster is the one to use. No matter what method you choose, you will undoubtedly have to break the poem into its separate parts to learn it completely.

Attack the process as a math problem like this: What is the organization?
How many stanzas? What is the rhyme scheme? Is there a metrical cadence? What is it? Is there a theme? Does the poem paint a picture? If so what is it? What is the message of the poem? How do you relate to the
poem? Does it remind you of a personal experience? If so, what is that experience?

After answering these questions for yourself, begin to write down as much as you can from memory. Keep doing this until you have memorized a stanza or 5 line passage from the poem. Keep repeating the process until you have mastered the entire poem. Good luck.

Bear in mind that is not necessary to memorize poetry to enjoy it. As a matter of fact, it's probably more enjoyable if you aren't forced to memorize it.


Re: What are some poems that everyone must know?
Posted by: katarina (
Date: January 15, 2004 11:26PM

Dear Negultive!....a method of "knowing" a poem which has worked well for me is to record absolute favourites in a personal poetry diary which, when frequently consulted, will naturally result in absorption of some of the said favourites...kat

Re: What are some poems that everyone must know?
Posted by: marian2 (
Date: January 16, 2004 04:58AM

I find copying out a poem - either by hand or typing it - helps me to look at it closely and appreciate it more - I read very fast and tend to skip-read, sometimes inadvertently so writing it out forces me to concentrate. Reading the poem out loud is also very useful, as you can get a very different take listening to yourself. Both also prolong the acquaintanceship, esp for a short poem - reading it several times would have a similar effect. Looking up words I'm unfamiliar with, or references in the poem, finding out when it was written, what was going on in the world then and about the author, can also help a lot. Finding similar poems on the same theme by other people and deciding which work best for you will also help. (finding parodies is a great joy to me, too) Like anything else, spending time with something helps you understand it better, and make it more likely you'll remember it.

Some people, and I'm lucky enough to have been one, find poetry easy to memorise because of the rhythm. Others find numbers easier, or certain types of prose. Unfortunately, like many other things, this ability wanes with age and I find it much harder now, perhaps partly because I know a lot of poetry anyway and the new stuff doens't seem to stick as well. Practice helps, but not enough!!!

Re: What are some poems that everyone must know?
Posted by: Hugh Clary (
Date: January 16, 2004 11:48AM

Also, how does one go about knowing a poem?

I personally wouldn't worry about it. If it strikes a note with you, you will remember it later. Yes, you may very well remember only a key portion of it, or worse yet, only the general idea, and not be able to discover what it was that triggered the memory.

In that case, post the question here and ilza (or many others) will somehow magically read your mind and find it.

Re: What are some poems that everyone must know?
Posted by: Pam Adams (
Date: January 16, 2004 12:59PM

Knowing poems comes from reading them- coming back, reading them again, perhaps out loud, etc. I don't work to memorize poetry, but a lot stays with me anyhow.

On the anthologies, try a local bookstore or library- browse through a few, and see what seems to have poems you enjoy.

A couple of relatively recent ones are Good Poems, edited by Garrison Keillor, & Poem A Day, Vols. I & II. You can also sign up for the Writer's Almanac, [], which will send you a daily poem.


Not to mention clicking on the Random Poem link here at eMule.

Re: What are some poems that everyone must know?
Posted by: Marian-NYC (
Date: January 16, 2004 01:13PM

This is an EXCELLENT question. Opinion has changed a lot over time. A century ago, a lot of teachers had a very clear idea of which poems (in English and in Latin) a well-read person HAD TO KNOW. Less so, now.

And there was a core of poems that were referred to so much in literature and in general conversation that not knowing them was a real disability. That is less true of contemporary writing and conversation, but not UNtrue. You still have to know HAMLET very well to pick up the references that crop up everywhere ... but you don't have to know Robert Frost in order to read Brett Easton Ellis (though it can't hurt).

Here is what Robert ("Robin") MacNeil has to say about WHY MEMORIZE POEMS. I liked it so much that I typed it out to share with people. (Copyright focus group: I told him I did that. He didn't mind a bit.)


by Robert MacNeil

Nothing makes a poem yours, and so prepares you to absorb it seriously, as commiting it to memory. Then you can live with the lines intimately, saying those you wish to dwell on to yourself again and again. As you do so, all the subtler poetic devices reveal themselves: the deeper music, and the less obvious layers of meaning. If you memorize a poem—even coldly, without enthusiasm—the chances are your regard for it will grow. Something learned that well—“learning by heart” is a good expression, “taken to heart”—becomes part of your mind’s ear, another part of the mechanism that lets you weigh words.

In the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, the mother of all the muses who governed creativity was the goddess of memory, Mnemosyne. Obviously, they thought that if you can’t remember, you can’t create.

Take the famous “Elegy written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray. I had to memorize about four stanzas when I was 13 or 14. The well-worn phrases have come into my head hundreds of times over the years:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
. . . .

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

Interesting things happen when you own a poem like that. It evolves with you as you gain more experience, like a strongly tannic wine gradually oxidizing. However obvious, the felicity of expression mingles with your later experiences, which resonate with the aptness of the poet’s vision.

The horror-dulled 20th-century spirit may thirst for musings more existential than

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

But what modern poet could condescend to a line like

And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds

A learned poem becomes a lens through which you see the world, like the different lenses an oculist drops one at a time when testing your vision. A lens for all the senses—a lens for the soul’s eyes. The over-familiar, the too brightly painted, the too-innocent phrase, may become an ironic lens, an antique/antic focus on today’s reality. It may become part of your personal cliché-avoidance system, the bat-like verbal radar, operating semi-consciously, that keeps you from blundering into the obvious and overused (unless you mean it facetiously).

Re: What are some poems that everyone must know?
Posted by: joseph torelli (
Date: January 16, 2004 03:31PM


Good advice from all who have responded to your question, so far. I'm with marian2 when it comes to writing something out by hand that I want, or need, to remember. I also read aloud to reinforce in my feeble brain that which I've just written down. Both exercises seem to work for me.

One other tip....local libraries usually have recordings of famous poems; recorded either by their authors (if they're 20th century or later) or by actors and narrators in the case of some of the more noteworthy earlier works. A lot of libraries even have equipment that you can use on site. You might want to try that as well.


Re: What are some poems that everyone must know?
Posted by: Jean-Paul (
Date: January 16, 2004 11:28PM

I fully agree with Marian2 and joseph Torelli regarding writing down the poem you want to remember.
You are a lot more likely to remember something you read when you write it down. When you do so, you not only are merely using recognition memory, but also are actively filing that information into your short-term memory.

"I "Love Summer more than I hate Winter"

Re: What are some poems that everyone must know?
Posted by: Hugh Clary (
Date: January 17, 2004 01:00AM

And who can resist the urge to parody the masters' words?

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
I'm headed home, with drinks along the way ...
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow,
My throbbing head again the status quo.

Re: What are some poems that everyone must know?
Posted by: Pam Adams (
Date: January 20, 2004 10:02PM

That bell's tolling for thee, all right!


Re: What are some poems that everyone must know?
Posted by: IanB (
Date: January 23, 2004 09:15AM

Shouldn't that be 'party day', Hugh?

Re: What are some poems that everyone must know?
Posted by: -Les- (
Date: January 25, 2004 05:58AM

Negultive, this book might be what you're looking for:

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