I love making lists. Lists make me feel organized and accomplished—at least until they get so long that I’m overwhelmed. And I also like list poems—they’re so full, so abundant. Except when they’re not—there are times, after all, when a list is just a list no matter how dogmatically we insist it’s literature. The first poet who comes to my mind when I want to provide an example of an effective catalog is Walt Whitman (some of whose catalogs can also be, let’s face it, tedious).
I taught several poems by Whitman in my Introduction to Poetry course a couple of weeks ago. My students responded to his work with some enthusiasm and a whole lot of resistance. My own responses to his work are similar—the sections I love I really love, but there are other sections when I want to say, ok, got it. When I think of Whitman, the first line that comes to mind is “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Like many readers, I find section six of Song of Myself absolutely stunning.
Whitman puts the question that prompts the poem into the mouth of a child: “What is the grass?” Then he answers the question with progressively moving possibilities. Aside from “the beautiful uncut hair of graves,” my favorite lines are
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and
You can read the whole thing here.
Part of the reason I so admire this poem is that I know I would never have come up with such memorable answers. But I can try. Here are some other questions that might call forth a long catalog of answers:
If your child asks for a fish, will you give a snake instead? Or if your child asks for an egg, will you give a scorpion?
Where have you come from, and where are you going?
What’s love got to do with it?
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?
What's in a name?
If you’re a poet, you can answer in all the ways we’d least expect.