As the story goes, the author fainted when the publisher’s five-digit advance arrived in the mail. Of course, for most of us scribblers this never happens. But it is a sweet thought to think anyone could put such a value on our “work.”
I read an article in The New York Times this morning (15 June) by William Logan, a professor of English at the University of Florida, who was promoting the need for poetry in our lives. Indeed, he even had an ideal elementary-school curriculum requiring all children to learn “poems by heart, say one per week,” as well as the geography of a foreign land, like New Jersey. As Professor Logan points out, “the dirty secret” of poetry “is that it is loved by some, loathed by many, and bought by almost no one.”
Like so many people, I often fail to take the time to read enough poetry, but to “loathe” it seems a bit extreme. After all, it can be a special form of expression that can add a new dimension to the chore we all have of making sense of our lives in an often confusing world. The language can be colorful in ways that our prose is so often dull and uninspiring. Just this morning I also read of a lady who described her torrid love affair with her boss in a memorably metaphorical way:
“On the wall of our life together hung a gun waiting to be fired in the final act.”
This expression might not be poetry to all, but to me it certainly is despite its lack of rhyme and any traditional poetic structure. I find the short sentence poetic in its originality of thought and how it captures the crispness and immediacy of emotion.
Now that we have a new poet laureate — Charles Wright — perhaps there will be some new pronouncements about why and how we can all enrich our lives by reading and even memorizing some poetry on a regular basis. I am also guilty of not purchasing more books of poetry, although I do own the complete works of Emily Dickinson as well as William Butler Yeats. Alongside them on my bookshelf are Heart’s Needle by William Snodgrass, a poet who visited my university years ago for a reading that I attended as a young undergraduate. He obviously made an impression on me, since I have toted his book around with me as I lighted and stayed for periods of time in various steamy places in the world. Next to Mr. Snodgrass is Donald Hall, John Donne, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, T.S. Eliot, Billy Collins, Robert Creeley, Stephen Spender, Robert Pinsky, Stanley Kunitz, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and Rumi. On my nightstand is Tom Hennen’s Darkness Sticks To Everything.
Right now, I’m finishing Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, an account of WWI as seen through the poetry and prose of various British poets who fought and died in the trenches. These are men like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg, and Harold Monro, to name just a few. Throughout the book, Fussell plays on the theme of irony to show how so many of these poets used benign pastoral imagery to mark the distance between the desirable and the actual. As an example, he quotes Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth:
“where the figure of ‘The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells’ both gauges the obscenity of industrialized murder and returns us for a fleeting moment to the pastoral world where the ‘choirs’ consist of benign insects and birds.”
It’s hard to capture and convey such emotions in pure prose.
For additional emphasis on the power of poetry, Fussell also quotes from another of the poets, Stephen H. Hewett, in a letter to his sister in May 1916. He has been pulled out of the trenches for further specialized training when he gets the order to leave his relative “oasis” and return to the killing fields. In the letter, Hewett uses another strong ironic quote, this time from Lycidas, a poem by John Milton, to capture the horrific fate perhaps awaiting him should he be lost to the demons of war:
“Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new.”
In such poetry, the authors have given us something far beyond just an account of an event. These poems are not field reports or records of correspondence. They are moving stories of what it was like to live under circumstances so dire as to focus the minds and powers of expression so intensely.
But poetry does not have to be so gloomy and foreboding. The joyful and whimsical can also be brought to life in magical ways through poetry. I have always thought in terms of sound and cadence whenever I try to capture my thoughts on paper. I grew up on Dylan Thomas and still love to read A Child’s Christmas in Wales when the big day finally arrives. Who cannot but smile when opening the book to read aloud,
“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voice I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”
Although some poetry can be more “learned” and full of allusions that take study and pain to understand and appreciate, the poems that give me the most enjoyment are those that capture a mood or pick out some particular insight. Just this week I read Kay Ryan’s poem Relief, in which she said:
“We know it is close
to something lofty.
Simply getting over being sick
or finding lost property
has in it the leap,
the purge, the quick humility
of witnessing a birth—
how love seeps up
and retakes the earth.
There is a dreamy
wading feeling to your walk
inside the current
of restored riches,
clocks set back,
We’ve all been there, moments when we have wished to return to a better time, a more tranquil place, perhaps to find a way to say something different to one we loved, to salvage that love rather than to push it over the edge. I think that poetry can indeed be “lofty” and can set our clocks back. If we demand that poetry needs a reason to be, then we have lost our grip on what is important. Without a sense of poetry, we write as though we are simply filling in a form or making a request for something buried in a bureaucratic archive.
Poetry continues to teach me that I want to recapture the many joys of life as well as its setbacks and sadnesses. I want the thrill of how I felt the first time I waded into the sea barefoot, the excitement of watching an insect inside a flower petal, the heat of tears on my face when Death came once again to the tent flap. I want to embrace anew the rush when love seemed to seep right up out of the earth to retake my sense of being alive and aware.
I want my life to be fuller because I have taken the time to read a poem written by a person who has found lost property and is sharing it with me. I want this poet to find a check in the mail with a comma in the sum. I want to celebrate with them.