This post is about poetry…now just hold on, there.
You’re not going anywhere, Dear Reader.
(By the way, if you can give me the reference for my title, without reading any further, leave me a comment and tell me so. And I will be duly impressed.)
April is National Poetry Month in the United States. Here is a great website giving details about this event – please note the endearing invitation to “Join thousands of individuals across the U.S. by carrying a poem in your pocket on April 14, 2011.” (Whole thousands?)
Anyway, I want to celebrate poetry this month because, in many respects, the craft just “don’t get no respect” these days. And no attention, either.
For a long time, I didn’t care that much for poetry – which is odd, for someone who loves words and language as much as I do. But it was partly because a significant percentage of published poetry makes no sense.
At least to me.
Every time I pick up one of the literary magazines (Tin House, I’m looking at you) and flip through it, I crash into a poem that makes me want to rip my own hair out. Because it Has. No. Meaning.
The jackdaw raises his crested head
And calls forth
From the necklace of bone around my neck
Is this what I have wrought?
Okay, I just made that up. But you get my point.
I realize the fault must be mine. My oldest brother lives for these kinds of poems. When I stand in the bookstore and read them aloud to him, fuming about their nonsensical-ness, he always says, “Oh, no, that makes total sense. I get it.”
I think the other reason I bypassed poetry for a long time is this: it requires far more attention than a novel, or even a non-fiction book. When reading a poem, you have to set everything else aside and give it your full concentration, and you have to read it through a few times, and give it a chance to sink in.
Only then do you realize how breathtakingly good it is.
Poets have to make every single word count; they have to slay you with truth and emotion in only a few lines.
In fact, the best poems contain some of the finest writing in the world.
In his brilliant sci-fi novel Hyperion, Dan Simmons has one of his characters say this: “Words are the only bullets in truth’s bandolier. And poets are the snipers.”
And that’s as good a description of it as I’ve ever read. A great poem can slam you in the gut, take your emotional breath away as no novel can.
A few weeks ago, I picked up the April issue of the Oprah Magazine, which is dedicated to poetry. It contains all sorts of articles, interviews, and essays on poetry – and of course, there are lots of poems.
So to start off Poetry’s special month, here are a few random things I loved in that issue of the magazine.
In a rare interview with the famous, elderly poet Mary Oliver, she is asked: “How do you know when something is a calling?”
She replies: “When you can’t help but go there.”
There is an article on the current U.S. poet laureate, W.S. Merwin, who lives in Hawaii and is deeply passionate about the earth. Here’s one of his gems:
On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree
not for the fruit
the tree that bears the fruit
is not the one that was planted
I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time
with the sun already
and the water
touching its roots
in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing
one by one
over its leaves
After his mother’s death in 2009, Timothy Shriver found comfort in Emily Dickinson’s poem “Exultation Is the Going.”
Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses – past the headlands –
Into deep Eternity –
Bred as we, among the mountains
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land?
Holy. Crap. (And by the way, writers of the world, unless you can do it that brilliantly, please don’t try to make your poetry rhyme. It’s not pretty.)
Okay, I have to leave you with one final, exquisite poem, by Naomi Shihab Nye. This might be my favorite thing in the issue.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.