Appreciating poetry: The impact a book of “Famous Poems” had on me
By Patti Baer
One of my prized possessions as a child was a book of poetry my mom said she found at a garage sale. It was an anthology of “Famous Poems” printed in 1929 and still had the original, sepia-colored, paper book cover. My mom knew nothing about poetry but thought I would like it because I was always reading. I was not that into poetry myself, but with my love of both history and books, I thought this was the neatest thing ever.
It really is a book of all classic poems. From Tennyson to Shelley, Longfellow to Poe, it is filled with stanzas that made the young reader that I was say, “Oh, so that’s where that phrase comes from.” There are also a few sections from select Shakespeare plays, which seem like the publisher was stretching a bit to reach his claimed total of 101 pieces, along with a copy of the Gettysburg Address, Magna Carta, and Declaration of Independence for whatever reason.
At the time I was a student within a district that named its schools after authors and poets. This added another layer of appreciation for my mom’s driveway find. I now owned a copy of the work that made those men and a woman—sadly, I think Louisa May Alcott was the only female writer acknowledged by the district—worthy of being honored by having their names displayed on a building where formative minds gained knowledge each day. After reading these pieces, I agreed some deserved the acknowledgement, and I questioned why others were considered great enough to have an elementary school named for them.
At some point I went through a phase where I considered poetry a lesser form of literature. It seemed lazy. It took more words to create a novel, so that must be the more challenging art form, I reasoned. My treasured anthology sat on its shelf unopened and ignored for years. Now that I am older and often faced with writing under the constraints of word count limits, I better appreciate the ability of poets to convey imagery and emotions concisely in a handful of words.
I recently read about an interesting art phenomenon. Vendors in a city—I do not remember which one—decided to place short poems in customers’ lunchtime takeout bags for a day to celebrate the art form. It seemed like a fun twist on the idea of a lunch bag note from your parent, and I was a little jealous that I was not a recipient, but then I remembered my aging, brown-papered book sitting on the shelf and realized I had received 101 such notes years ago.