One of the little known facts of a good seminary education is that you learn to read poetry. It is one of the predominant genres of literature in the Bible, although often in books no one reads (e.g. most of the prophets).
While there are some rather obvious differences between Hebrew and English poetry, some of the principles of reading the former transfer to the latter. And, I would add that it can work in the reverse as well.
In that light, what Susan Wise Bauer offers in The Well-Educated Mind may help you read the Bible better. This is actually one of the longer chapters in the book, and begins with some insights on the way language is used in poetry before proceeding like the others with a history of the genre. After covering, novels, autobiographies, histories, and dramas, this is the second to last chapter (and last in the original edition).
Bauer divides the history this way (324-343):
- The Age of Epics
- The First Lyrics
- Roman Odes
- Medieval Poetics
- Renaissance Voices
- American “Romanticism”
She then offers the questions you need to ask when making sense of poetry.
Grammar-Stage Reading (343-347)
- Read 10-30 pages of poetry
- Read the title, cover, and table of contents
- Read the preface
- Finish reading
Logic-Stage Reading (347-351)
- Look back at the poem; identify its basic narrative strategy
- Identify the poem’s basic form:
- Exam the poem’s syntax
- Try to identify the poem’s meter (or meters)
- Examine the lines and stanzas
- Examine the rhyme pattern
- Examine diction and vocabulary
- Look for monologue or dialogue
- Is there a moment of choice or of change in the poem?
- Is there cause and effect?
- What is the tension between the physical and the psychological, the earthly and the spiritual, the mind and the body?
- What is the poem’s subject?
- Where is the self?
- Do you feel sympathy?
- How does the poet relate to those who came before?
Armed with these questions, you’re now ready for Bauer’s annotated poem and poets list. These lists are good reason enough to buy the book for yourself, but if you just want the list, I got you. I’m mostly linking to the editions she suggests. As a general rule, she guides readers to editions that are cheap and affordable, free of extraneous notes (i.e. critical editions) so you can focus on reading well on your own. It is however helpful in some cases to have some insights into what the author might be up to you that you’d otherwise miss.
With that in mind, here’s the list:
- The Iliad and The Odyssey
- Greek Lyricists
- Horace: Odes
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
- The Canterbury Tales
- Shakespeare’s Sonnets
- John Donne
- King James Bible: Psalms
- Paradise Lost
- Songs of Innocence and of Experience
- William Wordsworth
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- John Keats
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson
- Walt Whitman
- Emily Dickinson
- Christina Rossetti
- Gerard Manley Hopkins
- William Butler Yeats
- Paul Laurence Dunbar
- Robert Frost
- Carl Sandburg
- William Carlos Williams
- Ezra Pound
- T. S. Eliot
- Langston Hughes
- W. H. Auden
Bauer then lists a few more “must read” poets that are writing after the modernists (and in some cases still writing). But, she notes that history has not sorted out the good from the great quite yet, and so I’m leaving them off this list.