Pre-Disaster Educational Planning, Patriotic Documents, and America's 100 Most Memorable Public-Domain Poems
By Robert Oliphant*
February 17, 2006
Like a big black bear grunting its way through the back yard, Hurricane Katrina continues to prowl through our minds; and our pre-disaster educational planners continue to stay in business. Right now many of them have good reason to be grateful to the National Anthem Project and to the Poetry Out Loud National Recitation Contest, both of which have made the M-word ("memorization") a respectable part of the cutting-edge vocabulary of educational planning today.
Memorization, measurability, legality, and cost effectiveness . . . . Memorization is a made-to-order resource for educational planners, especially those trying to deal with the possibility of a community-wide school shutdown via natural or social catastrophe (strikes, riots, etc.). As a student activity, after all, memorizing the Star Spangled Banner (all four verses) is measurable via both wordage (320 words) and time-on-task: most high school drama coaches will certainly agree that at least an hour of memorization effort for every 25 words is needed for performance-ready mastery of a target.
As a measurable for-credit activity that can be scored and graded, memorization is also educationally legal and recognizably productive. Our Carnegie unit accreditation system, after all, is explicitly based upon honest study-hour accountability, via which 45 hours of C-level work can legitimately earn a basic unit of credit on both the college level (15 hours in class, 30 outside) and on the 6-12 level (30 hours in class, 15 outside).
In addition, as pointed out by NEA chairman Dana Gioia in his introduction to the Poetry Out Loud Program ( www.poetryoutloud.org ), the memorizing and recitation of poetry can improve public speaking skill and confidence - both increasingly necessary in a face-to-face, cell phone to cell phone society.
Best of all, from an educational planner's point of view, student memorization is immensely cost effective. As we've seen, it's the students who do the work, off site or on, which can then be evaluated via objective testing (not just time-consuming recitation performance). An educational planner's main challenge is therefore simply that of deciding which memory targets students should be encouraged to learn in return for earning academic credit and letter grades.
The Star Spangled Banner, for example (all four verses), is a logical independent-learning memory target for grades 6-12. So are other patriotic documents like the Bill of Rights (420 words), the Gettysburg Address (255 words) and a 225-word introduction-conclusion version of the Declaration of Independence (these have all been presented recently in Education News). More ambitiously, paralleling Poetry Out Loud, students (grades 6 to 12) can also be given the appended 100-poem list as a mainstream resource to use in designing their personal best for-credit emergency learning programs.
A hundred poems for American students to take seriously . . . . American students, most planners will agree, should learn poems that are demonstrably relevant to their own lives. Factually considered, this relevance is a matter of public record via The Columbia Granger's® Index to Poetry, Ninth Edition (1990), a standard reference work in most community libraries. Most of the time it's used for locating anthologies in which specific poems appear, indexed by title and first lines. But it can also be used to determine and rank the frequency with which a specific poem appears in the roughly 400 anthologies which Granger's® covers (William Blake's "The Tiger" is currently at the top of the list).
William Harmon's "The Top 500 Poems" (Columbia, 1992) is explicitly based upon the Granger's® rankings, thereby doing a great deal to eliminate personal opinion from the memory-target selection process. Certainly this ranking technique tells us that the sonnets of William Shakespeare are still alive and living in the pages of currently published American poetry anthologies.
It also tells us, via omission, that many American winners of the Pulitzer prize in poetry are now gathering dust on library shelves, e.g., Marya Zaturenska (1938), John Gould (1939), Leonard Bacon (1941), Alan Dugan (1962), Anthony Heckt (1968), George Oppen (1969), Donald Justice (1980), Louise Gluck (1993), Yusef Komunyaka (1994), Ted Kooser (2005), etc.
By way of a factual cross check, the Granger's® top-100 poems can be matched against their current number of Internet hits or against the number of Info-Trac articles published about them during the past year. Such a check will certainly convince students and their teachers, as it has me, that as far as poetry goes the United States is still a coherent mainstream civilization - far more so than is officially admitted in the popular press. If disasters are color blind, so is, and must be, the civilization which rebuilds the breached dykes and reinstates its interrupted social services - including education.
Memorability . . . . Good poetry, Paul Valery tells us, should be "memorable" both in quality and learner access. My experience with clients has convinced me that any poem of more than 40 lines is proportionately far more difficult (and discouraging) than one of 20 lines. So I have limited our 100 mainstream memory targets to poems of less than 240 words (surprisingly enough, 80% of the top 100 poems on the Granger's® list meet this requirement).
Public Domain . . . . I have also excluded all poems under 240 words, which are currently under copyright. My precedent here is Harold Bloom's "The Best Poems of the English Language" (2004), which takes up an encyclopedic 992 pages and includes copyright permission for only five poets: D.H. Lawrence, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, John Wheelwright, and Hart Crane.
This feature gives Bloom's anthology a very strong traditional mainstream flavor. But even more important, it also gives pre-disaster educational planners and their students IMMEDIATE LOW-COST ACCESS via downloading, photocopying, and duplication to every poem on our 100-poem list. As far as duplication goes, incidentally, poems of 33 lines and under (all of these are) fit beautifully on a single page: 8.5 x 11 or even pocketsize half-sheets (4.5 x 5.5).
I should emphasize that what's here NOT a conventional list of personal favorites (it turns out, though, that I've already learned over half of them by heart during the last few years). Rather, this list is the result of a factually verifiable process, to the degree that any sixth grader could right now duplicate the process and achieve substantially the same results. By the same token, then, we would expect this list itself to be revised as the facts themselves change: which is to say that changes in anthology frequency, like changes in our market economy, could have an impact upon it as time flows onward: Milton, next year Maturya Zaturenska perhaps; this year John Donne, next year John Gould, etc. In a celebrity-centered culture we should certainly expect a constant turnover in the poems we choose to read and memorize.
Poetry memorization and civilizational literacy . . . . But the United States of America is much more of a civilization than a celebrity-centered culture. It was built to last, not to bend with the whims of those temporarily in power. A "culture," to put it tendentiously, is relatively small and largely a matter of spicy food, colorful dance costumes, in-group politics, and religious antagonisms. A civilization, on the other, is much more of a giant world in itself geographically and linguistically. Whatever American Civilization is, its giant vocabulary of 600,000 words (twice the size of Germany's) ensures that English will be continue to function more and more used as a world language, and that much of our mainstream literature will continue to function as a World Literature.
Though defined by their appearance in American anthologies, the poems on this ranked list can fairly be called World English poems. Along the same lines we can today fairly call William Blake's "The Tyger " the "top" World English poem, as opposed to a hothouse university creature nurtured by government grants and private-sector foundations.
As I see it, then, learning some of these World English poems by heart is an important first step toward acquiring some of the " civilizational literacy" (a far more accurate term than Cultural Literacy, I think) that we and our children need to comprehend and shape whatever kind of World Future will be slamming down upon us twenty or thirty years from now.
TO CONCLUDE . . . .
All disasters are personal and local, as the late Tip O'Neill might have put it. As residents of the future they lie in wait for us, in our nightmares at least, and they urge upon us individually some kind of personal-best pre-disaster planning. For most students today - 80% as I read the evidence - their future encounters with our formal educational system are in effect personal disasters waiting to happen in what is fundamentally a winners-losers zero-sum game.
So I hope those who read this piece will urge their young friends in the direction of personal-choice poetry memorization as a time-tested kind of protective -mind-body armor against whatever confidence-killing slings and arrows come at them next year and the year after that in our present competitive jungle of grades, test scores, recommendations, and college admissions.
I did not begin this project with the goal of linking memorization to self-esteem; the original drive came from Hurricane Katrina and what I feel is a need for more explicit pre-disaster planning by professional educators. But as I revisit these poems in my mind's ear and eye, I feel more and more that what's here may be useful as it stands to many Americans, especially those who are beginning to participate vigorously in our emerging personal-best movement: rock climbing, jogging, working out in gyms - even mind-body competitive events like the combination of chess-with-boxing contests described recently in the Los Angeles Times.
I believe what's here may encourage a few young people to memorize some memory-friendly poems on their own. If so, this list will have traveled far beyond the destination I had planned for it. But that's the way plans often work out. . . . happily so, I feel.
AMERICA 'S 100 MOST MEMORABLE PUBLIC DOMAIN POEMS: A FACTUALLY-BASED RANKING
This ranked list (P1, P2, P3, etc.) is based on the most frequently anthologized short poems (under 240 words) in the Columbia Granger's® Index to Poetry, Ninth Edition, 1992. The Granger's rankings (G1, G2, G3 ) appear in parentheses. The entry for each poem closes with its number of lines and words, also in parentheses. As of 12-2-05 these rankings parallel their internet status, e.g., 37,000 "hits," for Blake's "The Tyger " (R1), as opposed to 3,500 for "When I Am Dead," by Christina Rossetti (R81). Public domain status is based upon data in recent anthologies, e.g., The Best Poems in English, by Harold Bloom (2004) . Errors, if any, will be corrected in subsequent editions.
P1 (G1): The Tiger, William Blake (28/120) ; P2 (G3):To Autumn, John Keats (33/234); P3 (G4): That Time of Life Thou Mayst in Me Behold, William Shakespeare (14/105); P4 (G5): Pied Beauty, Gerard Manley Hopkins (11/82); P5 (G10) To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time, Robert Herrick (16/112);
P6 (G12): The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, Christopher Marlowe (24/156); P7 (G13): Death, Be Not Proud, John Donne (14/130); P8 (G14): Upon Julia's Clothes, Robert Herrick (6/37); P9 (G15): To Lucasta, Going to the Wars, Richard Lovelace (12/72); P10 (G16): The World Is Too Much with Us, William Wordsworth (14/126).
P11 (G17): On First Looking into Chapman's Homer, John Keats (14/112); P12 (G18): Jabberwocky, Lewis Carroll (28/161); P13 (G19): The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats (22/153); P14 (G21): Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley (14/115) ; P15 (G22): Sailing to Byzantium, William Butler Yeats (32/250);
P16 (G23): Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day? William Shakespeare (14/119) ; P17 (G24): Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds, William Shakespeare (14/107); P18 (G25): Fear No More the Heat of the Sun, William Shakespeare (24/152); P19 (G28): To Helen, Edgar Allan Poe (15/77); P20 (G29): Because I Could Not Stop for Death, Emily Dickinson (24/120).
P21 (G30): The Windhover, Gerard Manley Hopkins (14/138); P22 (G21): Anthem for Doomed Youth, Wilfrid Owen (14/112); P23 (G32): When Icicles Hang by the Wall, William Shakespeare (18/108); P24 (G33): Batter My Heart, Three- Person'd God, John Donne (14/122); P25 (G34): Love Bade Me Welcome, George Herbert (18/14);
P26 (36): God's Grandeur, Gerard Manley Hopkins (14/113); P27 (G38): Western Wind, Anonymous (4/26) ; P28 (G39): They Flee from Me That Sometime Me Did Seek, Sir Thomas Wyatt (21/157); P29 (G40): The Good-Morrow, John Donne (21/182); P30 (G41): Delight in Disorder, Robert Herrick (14/77).
P31 (G42): I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, William Wordsworth (24/156); P32 (G44): Spring and Fall, Gerard Manley Hopkins (15/82) ; P33 (G45): Leda and the Swan, William Butler Yeats (14/106); P34 (G47): Go, Lovely Rose, Edmund Waller (15/87); P35 (G48): The Retreat, Henry Vaughn (32/168);
P36 (G50): London, William Blake (16/104) ; P37 (51): And Did Those Feet in Ancient Times, William Blake (16/96); P38 (G52): Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802, William Wordsworth (14/111); P39 (53): The Splendor Falls, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (18/67); P40 (54): The Darkling Thrush, Thomas Hardy (32/156).
P41 (G55): Loveliest of Trees, A.E. Housman (12/69); P42 (G59): Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes, Ben Jonson ( 16/96); P43 (G61): Why So Pale and Wan, Fond Lover? Sir John Suckling (15/75) ; P44 (G63): The Solitary Reaper, William Wordsworth (32/162); P45 (G64): Break, Break, Break, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (16/96);
P46 (G65): Crossing the Bar, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (16/100); P47 (G69): Full Fathom Five Thy Father Lies, William Shakespeare (9/51); P48 (G70): When to the Sessions of Sweet Silent Thought, William Shakespeare (14/108); P49 (G71): Piping down the Valleys Wild, William Blake (20/115); P50 (G72): So We'll Go No More a-Roving, George Gordon, Lord Byron (12/75).
P51 (73): I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died, Emily Dickinson (16/101); P52 (G74): Miniver Cheevy, Edward Arlington Robinson (32/184); P53 (G77): Since There's No Hope, Come Let Us Kiss and Part, Michael Drayton (14/111); P54 (G78): O Mistress Mine, William Shakespeare (12/75); P55 (79): At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners, John Donne (14/12);
P56 (G80): On My First Son, Ben Jonson (12/102) ; P57 (G81): Virtue, George Herbert (16/200); P58 (G82): Ask Me No More Where Jove Bestows, Thomas Carew (20/135); P59 (G85): Concord Hymn, Ralph Waldo Emerson (16/112); P60 (G86): The Lake Isle of Innisfree, William Butler Yeats (12/120).
P61 (G87): Non Sum Qualis, Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae, Ernest Dowson (18/198); P62 (G89): The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd, Sir Walter Ralegh (24/148); P63 (G90): Go and Catch a Falling Star, John Donne (27/138) P64 (G91): The Sun Rising, John Donne (30/180); P65 (G93): To Althea, from Prison, Richard Lovelace (24/126);
P66 (G94): The Sick Rose, William Blake (8/39); P67 (G96): The Eagle, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (6/39); P68 (G97): Home Thoughts from Abroad, Robert Browning (20/129); P69 (G98): A Narrow Fellow in the Grass, Emily Dickinson (24/120); P70 (G101): Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter, John Crowe Ransom (16/108);
P71 (G104): With How Sad Steps, O Moon, Thou Climb'st the Skies! Sir Philip Sidney (14/119) ; P72 (G105): The Expense of Spirit in a Waste of Shame, William Shakespeare (14/110); P73 (G107): Hymn to Diana, Ben Jonson (18/90); P74 (G108): The Pulley, George Herbert (20/140); P75 (G109) The Lamb, William Blake (20/112);
P76 (G111): She Walks in Beauty, George Gordon, Lord Byron (18/117); P77 (G113): Tears, Idle Tears, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (20/160); P78 (114): When I am Dead, Christina Rossetti (16/96); P79 (G119): The Burning Babe, Robert Southwell (16/176); P80 (G120): When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men's Eyes, William Shakespeare (14/111).
P81 (G121): To Daffodils, Robert Herrick (20/46) ; P82 (G122): A Red, Red Rose, Robert Burns (16/92); P83 (G123): To a Waterfowl, William Cullen Bryant (24/200); P84 (G124): Annabel Lee, Edgar Allan Poe (26/169); P85 (G125) P88 (G125) Felix Randall, Gerard Manley Hopkins (14/154);
P86 (G126): No Worst, There Is None, Gerard Manley Hopkins (14/119); P87 (G127): To an Athlete Dying Young, A.E. Housman (28/196) ; P88 (G133): When Daisies Pied, William Shakespeare (18/99); P89 (G134): A Hymn to God the Father, John Donne (18/129); P90 (G137): On His Deceased Wife, John Milton (14/117).
P91 (G141): When I Have Fears, John Keats (14/119); P92 (G142): Meeting at Night, Robert Browning (12/74); P93 (G142): Remembrance, Emily Bronté (32/240); P94 (G144): There's a certain Slant of light, Emily Dickinson (16/96); P95 (G145): Up-Hill, Christina Rossetti (16/104);
P96 (G147): An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, William Butler Yeats (16/104); P97 (G148): Richard Cory, Edgar Arlington Robinson (16/114); P98 (G157): The Flea, John Donne (27/216); P99 (G158): Still to Be Neat, Ben Jonson (12/64); P100 (G159): The Triumph of Charis, Ben Jonson (30/156)
* Robert Oliphant’s best-known book is “A Piano for Mrs. Cimino” (Prentice Hall), which was made into an award-winning EMI film (Monte Carlo, US Directors) starring Bette Davis. His best known work for musical theater (music, lyrics, and libretto) is “Oscar Wilde’s Earnest: A Chamber Opera for Eight Voices and Chorus.” He has a PhD from Stanford, where he studied medieval lexicography under Herbert Dean Meritt, and taught there as a visiting professor of English and Linguistics. He currently serves as executive director of The Alliance for High Speed Recreational Reading, and formerly served as executive director of Californians for Community College Equity. A resident of Thousand Oaks, CA, and an overseas Air Force veteran, he is an emeritus professor of English at Cal State Northridge.