Saturday, September 20, 2008

Poetry and Your Whole Life

Growing up, I didn’t expect to be a reader of poetry all my life. It was not a role I saw either of my parents or any of my Louisiana aunts or uncles or grandparents take on and model. If any adult I knew might be an inveterate reader of verse, it would have been a teacher; in that case, however, the habit of reading poetry seemed likely a mode of professional development rather than a vocation or a facet of identity.

Through the years of my early education, poetry was a unit in English class or a section in a literature textbook. There were italicized introductions to each poem, biographical sketches of the poets, footnotes on foreign or particularly elusive expressions, numbers in the margin next to every fifth line, and sometimes reading comprehension questions. All of the instructional paraphernalia gave poems some of the same feel as word problems in a math text, and what adult made a life of tackling word problems? So, poems were practice; they were exercises; they were unlike anything that a normal hour in your parents’ kitchen or living room made seem essential over the long haul.

With the first paycheck from a summer job, however, I walked into a bookstore down the block from my temp office and bought a book of the poems of Emily Dickinson and another of the poems of John Keats. I had handled each of these Dell paperbacks several times in the days before buying them, taking them down from the bookstore shelves and leafing through them and reading at random. There was the reassuring recognition of poems that my favorite teachers had covered in English classes; there was the promise of unsuspected joys in the poems with unfamiliar titles.

The joys that arose for me then in the reading and discussing of poetry had to do with hearing what it could sound like for someone to say that he was sad. (I couldn’t say that.) Or that he found something beautiful. (I rarely said that.) Or that he was less lonely when certain people directed their attention to him and listened. (I didn’t dare say that.) Or that he occasionally experienced something that matched what he understood his tradition was calling God. Conversation of an unusual power and promise, conversation beyond the daily requests for information and compliance loomed real and possible in the wake of being steeped in the words of poets.

The experience ahead of me as the owner of books of poetry was uncharted territory in the household to which I was returning at the end of that workday the summer after high school.

And both books that I bought that day are on my shelves still.

In a recent re-organization of my library, I put all the volumes of poetry together on the same long shelf – French poets stacked on top of Latin poets, Elizabeth Bishop standing next to Anne Sexton, Billy Collins next to Rilke and Baudelaire, translations by C. Day Lewis alongside anthologies of sonnets. There seemed unlikely conversations arising from those juxtapositions, a strange literary dinner party, a long corridor of monastic cells about which the Grand Silence threw a creative mantle.

Pride of place on my poetry shelf goes to the volumes by Mary Oliver, and through my interactions with them something has happened in the past few years in the way I regularly read poetry at home. For the first time I don’t simply page through a book to find particular poems or particularly appealing poems. I start with the first poem in a book by Mary Oliver and then move to the second and then the third until I have reached a point where I am content to stop. My next reading resumes where I left off. Just as I presume someone pays careful attention to the varied colors of the endpapers and cover fabrics of her handsome hardcover editions, I trust that the order of the poems in a volume by Mary Oliver is considered. Even if I start with the poem on the final page of the volume and work my way backwards, I think I am having an experience significantly better than if I were picking pages at random.

I count myself fortunate to have among my friends people for whom poetry matters. One friend recently sent me a copy of the eulogy he gave at his father’s funeral in which a Mary Oliver poem plays a prominent part. Someone else sent me a photograph in which he is reading Yeats’ “I Am Ireland” to his favorite uncle at a birthday celebration. One friend keeps her latest literary efforts available to readers of her blog although occasionally she emails me poems for which she wants a more private audience. A former classmate from New Orleans showed me the box in which his first edition of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry is ready to be carried to the car in a future evacuation. I have even had the experience of finding poetry on my voice mail, read without any explanations by a friend who knows I will enjoy just the sound of a poem being well read. When one work colleague, a fellow lover of poetry and a poet herself, left for another city, I wrote my farewell as a poem to her.

Cathy: A Poem

Some people are the kind of poem
that reads smoothly,
truly from the first line.

Some people are the kind of poem
about which you speak
only if you are ready
to speak about your whole life.

Some people are the kind of poem
that just proves
poems are possible –
and likely to arrive
any blessed moment
of your day.


Ur-spo said...

I like a good poem; i try to read one each day.
Mary Oliver wrote some of my favorites, including one that i send out to others often.

Kimberly said...


I have a Ferlenghetti quotation post-it-noted on my computer at work-- " hears the whispers of elephants."

One day a student approached me, pointed at the note, and simply asked, "Do they really whisper?"

I answered-- "Look at all the poetry there is."

Thank you for this beautiful post, friend, in honor of such a wholly contemplative and wholly apostolic way of expressing mysteries of the cosmos and the corazón.

John said...

There are lots of us who want to hear the whispers of elephants. The habit of poetry helps keep our ears open.