A Maximalist Poetry Month Pick: Four Favourites


By Virginia Cooke

English blog 405 Virginia

My Poetry Month Choices: “The Bishop Orders his Tomb from St. Praxed’s Church,” “Of Modern Poetry,” “Gesture,” and “Postscript”

This assignment is very difficult because I have so many “favourites” for so many reasons. Here are four of them.

1) “The Bishop Orders his Tomb from St. Praxed’s Church” by Robert Browning

Because drama is my first love, I really delight in dramatic monologues, and especially those that feature strong characters. “Fra Lippo Lippi” and “My Last Duchess” are other Browning poems which fall into this category. I take such pleasure in hearing the voice, figuring out the circumstances, envisioning the scene. In this case, the bishop, from his death bed, is so deliciously corrupt and filled with petty jealousy. Ironically, I think Browning must have been thinking of all the seven deadly sins when he conjured up this character. Browning’s consummate skill in handling the blank verse while giving his character such a “natural” voice is remarkable.

2) “Of Modern Poetry” by Wallace Stevens and 3) “Gesture” by Donald Finkel

I am fascinated by poems about poetry. I have a whole set of them that I re-read (and often assign to students, hoping they will be equally attracted). I offer two here because one (Finkel’s) is so playful, whereas the other (Wallace Stevens’s) is more theoretical. But both involve the reader in reflection about what it means to be a reader of poetry: “an invisible audience listens, /Not to the play, but to itself.”

Of Modern Poetry

The poem of the mind in the act of finding

What will suffice. It has not always had

To find: the scene was set; it repeated what

Was in the script.

Then the theatre was changed

To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.

It has to face the men of the time and to meet

The women of the time. It has to think about war

And it has to find what will suffice. It has

To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,

And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and

With meditation, speak words that in the ear,

In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,

Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound

Of which, an invisible audience listens,

Not to the play, but to itself, expressed

In an emotion as of two people, as of two

Emotions becoming one. The actor is

A metaphysician in the dark, twanging

An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives

Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly

Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,

Beyond which it has no will to rise.

It must

Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may

Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman

Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.

~ Wallace Stevens



My arm sweeps down

a pliant arc

whatever I am

streams through my

negligent wrist:

the poem


like a

whip, and


softly an inch from your enchanted face.

~ Donald Finkel

4) I’ve recently been teaching poetry both by W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney, and there would be no end to favourites here. In fact, I’m not even sure where to start. But here is a brief poem which Heaney places right at the end of Opened Ground. I love the way it not only captures landscape, but brings that landscape inside—so much so that I actually tear up every time I read the ending.


And some time make the time to drive out west

Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,

In September or October, when the wind

And the light are working off each other

So that the ocean on one side is wild

With foam and glitter, and inland among stones

The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit

By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,

Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,

Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads

Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.

Useless to think you’ll park or capture it

More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,

A hurry through which known and strange things pass

As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways

And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

~ Seamus Heaney


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