My First Poem

A great deal of how I learned to view the world came through books. I will, I am sure, be writing many versions of this post, many many many versions, because how I think about god, and courage, and truth, and the world in general is often connected quite directly to a youg adult novel.

But today let’s talk about the first poem I  remember reading.

We were in London. I must have been about 10. I was reading Patricia MacLachlan‘s masterpiece of YA fiction, Baby, which is among my favorite novels ever. It’s basically about this girl, Larkin, who lives with her parents and her grandmother on this island. We don’t know where the island is, only that there are summer people and winter people. Her mother had a baby that died. Her best friend is Lalo, and he comes by a lot. Like all of MacLachlan’s YA lit, it is sparse and evocative. And beautiful.

They come home one day, Larkin and Lalo and her family, and there is a baby on the porch, with a note: This is Sophie.

They take Sophie in, raise her, until her mother returns. That scene, by the way, is a complete heartbreaker.

Larkin and Lalo have a teacher, Ms. Minifred, who believes in the power of words. She talks a lot about “wondrous words” and I suspect that part of my love for reading, my love for words in all their glory, is due to Ms. Minifred.

At any rate, it turns out that Ms Minifred had a brother who died, and before he died, he bookmarked a poem in a book of his. That poem, which is reprinted fully in the novel, is Edna St. Vincent Millay‘s Dirge Without Music. (this is also the book where I first learned of William Carlos Williams, whose poem about the red wheelbarrow is also printed in full: I remember walking through a London garden, the house of my parents’ friends, reciting it, the words crisp and cool).

I was so excited to read this poem. It was like lightening hitting me, suddenly. It was as if someone finally understood what I, with my Paralyzing Fear of Death, had been trying to explain. I read it, the way I remember, in a London taxicab, and I wanted to tell everyone about it, I wanted to tell my parents LOOK! here is what I’ve been trying to say!

Later I would find other poems helpful, Kahil Gibran’s “On Death” and of course all of that about not going gently into that great night and rage, rage against the dying of the light–and others–but this was the first.

In the book, Ms. Minifred tells the story of her brothers death and then she reads the poem, and there is a “terrible silence” in the room before the janitor, Rebel (he and Ms. Minifred are in love) stands in front of her, says “class is over. go home.”

I loved that poem. I still love that poem. It still hits me the same way. The bits about knowing but not being resigned. the bit about the light in your eyes being more precious then all the roses in the world. The opening line, it still slays me: “I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving/ hearts in the hard ground…” and that last bit just tears me open, every time:

“Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave/gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;/Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave./I know. But I do not approve. And I am not/resigned.”

There is a bit in the book when Larkin, confused and scared and sad by all the loss around her,not sure how poetry is going to help,  looks at Lalo, her best friend, and says “poetry is just words.”

and Lalo says “that’s all we’ve got.”

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