There’s a beauty to the economy of poetry. No one can deny that Robert Frost’s ability to convey a soulful message in eight lines:

I have wished a bird would fly away,
And not sing by my house all day;
Have clapped my hands at him from the door
When it seemed as if I could bear no more.
The fault must partly have been in me.
The bird was not to blame for his key.
And of course there must be something wrong
In wanting to silence any song.  

is little short of a miracle.

But there’s no getting around this fact either: some poems leave you wanting more. For me, that list includes:

“I think I should have loved you presently” – Edna St. Vincent Millay

I think I should have loved you presently,
And given in earnest words I flung in jest;
And lifted honest eyes for you to see,
And caught your hand against my cheek and breast;
And all my pretty follies flung aside
That won you to me, and beneath your gaze,
Naked of reticence and shorn of pride,
Spread like a chart my little wicked ways.
I, that had been to you, had you remained,
But one more waking from a recurrent dream,
Cherish no less the certain stakes I gained,
And walk your memory’s halls, austere, supreme,
A ghost in marble of a girl you knew
Who would have loved you in a day or two.

A beautiful poem and a whole story unto itself, but I can’t help wondering: what’s with the “pretty follies” and “little wicked ways” ? I would certainly like to hear more about that!

“The Highwayman” – Alfred Noyes

Here’s one that captured my twelve-year-old heart and never let go. I won’t transcribe the whole thing because it has two parts. Two parts! And it still leaves me with questions.

How did Bess and the Highwayman meet? What did they love about each other–other than the black eyes, “pistol butts a-twinkle,” and general swashbucklingness? Did Tim the Ostler ever regret selling them out?

“Somewhere i have never traveled gladly beyond” – EE Cummings

somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

Why has the narrator closed himself as fingers? What is in the silence of his lady’s eyes? And good god, of what miraculous person can it be said that “nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands” ?

“Invictus” – William Ernst Henley
Out of the night that covers me, 
      Black as the pit from pole to pole, 
I thank whatever gods may be 
      For my unconquerable soul. 

In the fell clutch of circumstance 
      I have not winced nor cried aloud. 
Under the bludgeonings of chance 
      My head is bloody, but unbowed. 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears 
      Looms but the Horror of the shade, 
And yet the menace of the years 
      Finds and shall find me unafraid. 

It matters not how strait the gate, 
      How charged with punishments the scroll, 
I am the master of my fate, 
      I am the captain of my soul. 

Woah! What exactly has happened to this unconquerable soul?

“Desert Places” – Robert Frost

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last. 

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares. 

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express. 

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places. 

Why is this guy so lonely? Why’s he walking around in the snow at night? And why will “that loneliness […] be more lonely ere it will be less” ?

Honorable mentions:

“If you forget me” – Pablo Neruda . . . so did she forget you or what?

“Annabel Lee” – Edgar Allen Poe . . . how do you get to the kingdom by the sea? also, how old was your darling, your darling, your life and your bride?

Which of these poems would you like to see expanded? What would you add to the list? And how old do you think Annabel Lee really was?

One thought on “5 poems that could be full-blown novels

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