‘Have you ever seen your own cervix? You’re like a natural matzoh ball maker’
What makes a line of poetry truly great? Well, it’s hard to say. Some lines of poetry stick in your head because they just posses some deeply memorable rhythmic quality – the whole of “Juicy”, for example, or Robert Burns’ “A Red, Red Rose”. Some put together great vistas of imagery with a few deft strokes. Some rhyme. Whatever the reason, a genuinely excellent line of poetry is a strange thing: it is beautiful alone, but only really beautiful because of the poem that contains it. Hacked out of context, however, the genuinely excellent line of poetry rattles in your head like a marble. It gets stuck there, just going round and round (“used to eat sardines for dinner…..used to eat sardines for dinner…..used to eat sardines for dinner (repeat)”). The line has lost its original meaning, but gained a new one. In tribute to the special power of the genuinely excellent line of poetry, we've asembled ten of our favourites for your reading pleasure.
“MAYBE BYE BABY BYE BABY BY AND BY,” DOUGLAS KEARNEY
Douglas Kearney’s poem “Tallahatchie Lullabye, Baby” is about Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy murdered for supposedly flirting with a white woman in 1955. The poem lilts, cradles, and soothes: but underneath the rocking rhythm of repetitive sounds are terrible facts, ones about dead kids. I can’t get “maybe bye baby bye baby by and by” out of my head.
“DENIAL IS THE BURNING SMELL OF TOAST,” DOROTHEA SMARTT
You know, for a poem about the hypocrisy of the global north in denying climate change, Dorothea Smartt’s “A Sense of Denial” is pretty funny. It’s not all that good – there are a ton of other not-so-great lines in there, like “Denial is tasteless, with a dash of MSG making all falsified.” But “denial is the burning smell of toast” just leaps at you, fully formed – a confirmed case of a genuinely excellent line of poetry.
“LADY, THREE WHITE LEOPARDS SAT UNDER A JUNIPER-TREE,” T.S. ELIOT
T.S. Eliot gets a whole lot of credit for a whole lot of stuff and fine, yes, I’ll admit that it's warranted. But “Ash Wednesday” is an underrated poem, it really is. I don’t really have a feel for its meaning overall: instead, I think of it as a huge edifice constructed out of perfect, gem-like lines. “Not one leopard, not two – three! Under a juniper-tree.” Very satisfying.
“IT IS AN UNREALISED WISH OF MINE TO KICK YOU IN THE SHIN,” ARIELLE GAVIN
I recently saw Arielle Gavin read and when I heard this line I thought huh, that really is in the top ten greatest lines of poetry I have ever heard. I guess it’s on her tumblr here. Gavin is good at poetry readings because she speaks slowly and doesn’t laugh at her own jokes. So imagine this line spoken slowly and without anybody laughing at the end.
“BRIGHT SPOKES OF PINCUSHION PROTEAS PUNCTURE A ROCKERY,” GABEBA BADEROON
Gabeba Baderoon’s poem “My Tongue Softens on The Other Name” isn’t terribly exciting. It’s mostly about South African plants (lovely though those are). It is a gentle poem, about domesticity and gardening and the simple strangeness of occupying more than one world of language at once. Who cares! Pincushion proteas.
“HAVE YOU EVER SEEN YOUR OWN CERVIX? YOU'RE LIKE A NATURAL MATZOH BALL MAKER,” FARRAH FIELD
This is from “Blue is Beautiful Amy But the Story Is So the ‘90s,” by Farrah Field. The poem is a response to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s movie Blue, the first in the Three Colours trilogy. It’s the one with Juliette Binoche and Benoît Régent in it, the one about composing music. If you can come up with a better sequence of words than Field’s, I’d like to read it.
“YOU ARE A BOAT I HAVE RENTED BY THE HOUR,” ANNE SEXTON
Oh, Anne Sexton! How I wish I hated you. Everyone else likes you so much that it gets boring. But “Buying the Whore” is filled with golden phrases. This line narrowly beat out “I stuff you with my very own onion’” for its evocation of bad sailing. I can’t sail, either.
“THIS HALLOWEEN CROWN, HAT RACK, WORRY CONTRAPTION, RIMBAUD'S DRUNKEN BOAT AFLOAT IN THE WINE DARK BELLY OF MY PERSONAL MONSTRUO,” NATALIE DIAZ
Boats, again! They’re a sure-fire winner, especially when they’re Rimbaud’s. Former professional basketball player Natalie Diaz scoops a spot on the list with her poem “Dome Riddle” for for pointing out the fractious beauty of the term hat rack. I picture her pointing at a hat rack and saying “look! hat rack.”
“HER SCHOOLHOUSE MIND HAS WINDOWS NOW,” JOHN CALE
Perhaps it isn’t fair to include song lyrics in this round-up. However, I have done so. John Cale’s “Antarctica Starts Here” not only has one of the best titles in song history, it is also about the most interesting poetic subject possible: crazy old ex-beauty queens. What’s a schoolhouse mind, you ask? I wonder every day. Let me know if you figure it out.
“WHAT AN ABSOLUTE CREEP
SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN,” DENNIS O'DRISCOLL
When I read this bit of Dennis O’Driscoll’s poem “Last Words”, I laughed out loud on the subway. It’s so close to Larkin’s own perfect lines (they fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do) that it accesses that other poet’s sardonic power – but to use for the evil purposes of making fun of him. Anyway, it’s true. Only a creep would write that much about toads.