Here is an array of poetry that just might fit your needs as you consider presents for any type of graduate…
I have a privileged position. I really do. The graduating class at our small high school has only sixteen seniors this year. Most years we have fewer than thirty. Last year, I chose to add to my normal parting gift of a heartfelt note and gave each senior a pocket-size poetry book.
This year I started even earlier in the semester because I really wanted to give a meaningful volume that spoke to each student. And yes, that is quite the endeavor. Who wants to give something that will lay dust-ridden on a shelf or languish in a box of lost toys? Sorry, that’s the Island of Lost Toys.
I chose these for pure readability and simple pleasure, hoping that the beauty of word choice would shine, even in the event of an obscure line or two. I could share all sixteen book choices, but that might alarm some by its list length. Instead, here is an array that just might fit as you consider presents for any type of graduate.
1) The Essential Emily Dickinson is a pleasant and sweet collection collated by Joyce Carol Oates and published by Harper Collins more than twenty years ago. From “Success is counted sweetest” to “I taste a liquor never brewed,” there’s a bit of Emily that appeals to all of us, and this entrancing volume is both a pleasure to look at and to read.
2) I have purchased many of the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets over the years because their size is so appealing rather than daunting. This year I found one I was unaware of simply because I have several students who are history buffs. War Poems is a fascinating volume because it contains such a variety from Milton to Horace to separate war eras like the Napoleonic, the Civil War, and the World Wars. Courage, nobility, despair, war disgust, reality. It is a tiny but bracing read.
3) Here’s an unexpected one. Smoke from This Altar is Louis L’Amour’s seminal work published in 1939 before his first novel by a small press in Oklahoma. It’s a gentle read that contains simple melodic lines often in sonnet or quatrain form describing travel and landscape—
Weary at last with way-worn wandering
I paused to rest in solemn solitude,
Watching the sinking sun, and pondering
Upon the desert’s melancholy mood.
4) No worthy list can ignore nature, and this is a terrible thing because I love so many nature poets. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Willa Cather, Annie Dillard, Percy Shelley. It is limitless and varied. I would first choose the newest 2017 Sterling Selected Poems of Robert Frost illustrated edition for its keepsake quality. Thomas Nason’s woodcut engravings that have accompanied several Frost volumes in decades past are included in glossy full-page contrast. The pages long to be touched. One hundred poems feature Frost and his New England at their best. A worthy volume for a beginning library.
5) I could easily choose a Wendell Berry collection inches in width, but he has published several smaller volumes too that are more approachable to young readers. I chose A Small Porch, which contains his reflective Sabbath poems from 2014 and 2015 plus an extended essay on nature—“The best of human work defers always to the in-forming beauty of Nature’s work… It is only the Christ-life, the life undying, given, received, again given, that completes our work.”
6) For the student who is still dumbfounded or even dismayed by the word poetry, I recommend Billy Collins’ The Trouble with Poetry. Readable, light-hearted, humorous, and playful, Collins apprehends his mission: poetry can be fun. “By now, it should go without saying / that what the oven is to the baker / and the berry-stained blouse to the drycleaner / so the window is to the poet.”
7) And now for another Emily. For Gothic verse, for sheer empathic skill in one so young, I enjoy the Everyman edition of Emily Bronte. Once again, it’s bite-sized and not as thick a tome as her complete poems. True, Bronte often deals in death and grief because it was the reality of the day, but that should not dissuade. or obscure her brighter moments. Consider “No Coward Soul Is Mine” and “Love and Friendship.”
8) Is any list complete without haiku? Two gift books stand out. Haiku: Japanese Art and Poetry along with Everyman’s Haiku. Representing the Japanese masters, the first is arranged by season and accompanied by woodcuts and paintings from the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Canada. It is pleasing and light in every way, for brevity in itself is a delight. The second is less expensive and yet an intriguing subject collection as editor Peter Washington incorporated both the greats and lines from Tennyson, Keats, William Carlos Williams, and others. Gerard Manley Hopkins writes
As kingfishers catch fire
9) Penguin Pocket Poets also publishes beautiful clothbound editions such as Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Other Poems. Her fable-like narratives and lush descriptions are a rhythmic pleasure to read. Penguin also included one of my favorites, “A Better Resurrection”—
I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb’d too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm’d with grief
No everlasting hillsI see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.
10) And lastly, for the students who love lyrics and pop culture, I surprise even myself by recommending Tupac Shakur’s The Rose That Grew from Concrete. In spite of his tabloid life, prison sentence, and violent death, the only assumption you should make is that Tupac was a rap lyricist and a fledgling poet. Featuring his handwritten versions next to the typeset page, this edition reflects the picture of a beginning artist in the context of a harsh upbringing. The young man I gifted this to was thrilled.
I know that poetry dances across each culture and era, and there are many, many worthy choices. I simply trust that these are helpful, and I would especially love to hear your gift suggestions.
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