I do this with my students quarter in and quarter out. Last time I taught English 101, I began by showing them a video of Hector Hernandez Cruz reading "Problems With Hurricanes," a poem that ends "beware of flying mangoes / And all such beautiful sweet things."
I think we also read a Simic poem (the one about being stolen by the gypsies), and I showed a clip of Clifton reading that poem that ends "here lies, here lies. Here. Lies."
For some reason choosing which poems to begin the poetry unit with is the most daunting task of all. Why is this? Maybe b/c I'm so afraid of turning them off. Maybe b/c it's so hard to decide which handful of poems would best introduce a skeptic to the language of poetry. Maybe it's that I so love so many damn poems I'm incapable of figuring out just which few might turn on a light bulb for someone born when I was--like--thirty years old.
Okay, so no two students will react the same to whatever I choose. So, odds are if I pick four poems, most of them will like maybe one of them, but the one poem they like will be liked by 25% of them.
I don't want to play God. I don't want to think too hard about what my criteria are.
Okay, but assuming I'm playing God, I would aim for:
A poem with lots of musicality;
A poem with a little muscle, a little weight (not "gotten" on the first try);
A poem that does it job quietly and gracefully without much show of strength;
A poem that veers away from the mainstream--is experimental;
At least one poem outside of mainstream (white) culture;
A very loud and boisterous poem;
A very quiet poem (I would like to put a loud and quiet one together so they could talk about what makes them so);
A poem very dependent on allusion and or a certain historical fact;
A poem that is not tethered at all to a canon or any historical place and time;
A surrealist poem;
An obscure Emily Dickinson poem;
John Berryman's "The Ball Poem,"
A Sexton, a Plath, a Stafford, a Ginsberg, an Espada, a Berry (as in Wendell) . . .
And why not Keats? And why not Yeats? And why not a little Shakespeare? That sweet John Clare?
And they really need to read some Harryette Mullen! And how about Adrian Louis?
But really, that's what happens. If I let one guy in, I gotta let in the whole damn circus.
So this is what I'm asking: if you had to choose four poems to show a group of non-poetry-people what poetry is (or begin to give them a sense of what's possible, what's been done), which would you choose?