How I Read Poetry
“‘Poetry is just words,’ I said.
‘That’s all we have,’ Lalo said.”
–Patricia MacLaclan, Baby
The first poem I ever fell in love with was Dirge Without Music, by Edna St. Vincent Millay, because it was in a novel was I was reading–the aforementioned Baby. I remember being in a cab in London and being desperate to share what I’d just found in this poem–which was, to me, exactly what I felt about death but could not, at 10 or 12 or however old I was, express.
am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, — but the best is lost.
The answers quick & keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
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.
In school I read other poets, sometimes, and was rarely captivated by them. It takes moments of my own discovery for that to happen.
When my grandfather died, my cousin Sarah read John Mansfield’s Down to the Sea at the burial, and it has stayed in my head since:
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over
When I was in high school, part of Kahil Gibran’s On Pain was taped to water cooler:
your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
This made sense to me.
Later, when my grandmother died, I looked at Gibran again, On Death this time (last 2 bits):
For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.
These days I keep a stack of poetry books by my bed and I flip through them looking for those old standards, beauty and truth. (‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,’ said Keats, a line I first heard in the film version of Harriet the Spy, from Rosie O’ Donnell’s mouth, which increased it’s veracity).
So I thumb through them, looking for something to catch me eye. I love me some Louise Gluck:
The great thing is not having a mind. Feelings: oh, I have those; they govern me. I have a lord in heaven called the sun, and open for him, showing him the fire of my own heart, fire like his presence. What could such glory be if not a heart? Oh my brothers and sisters, were you like me once, long ago, before you were human? Did you permit yourselves to open once, who would never open again? Because in truth I am speaking now the way you do. I speak because I am shattered. I speak because I am shattered. How lovely is that? And:Fish bones walked the waves off Hatteras And there were other signs That Death wooed us, by water, wooed us By land: among the pines An uncurled cottonmouth that rolled on moss Reared in the polluted air. Birth, not death, is the hard loss. I know. I also left a skin thereDeath wooed us. What an idea. And I know. I also left a skin there. Just beautiful. Sometimes it will be just a couplet: Admit that it is terrible to be like them, beyond harm. or: It should be kept secret, that sound. It means she's realized that he never touches her. She is a child: he could touch her if he wanted to. or: Look at me. You think I don't understand? What is the animal if not passage out of this life? Aside from Gluck, Mary Oliver is my other favorite. Just see: Beaver Moon--The Suicide of a Friend When somewhere life breaks like a pane of glass, and from every direction casual voices are bringing you the news, you say: I should have known. You say: I should have been aware. That last Friday he looked so ill, like an old mountain-climber lost on the white trails, listening to the ice breaking upward, under his worn out shoes. You say: I heard rumors of trouble, but after all we all have that. You say: what could I have done? and you go with the rest, to bury him. That night, you turn in your bed to watch the moon rise, and once more see what a small coin it is against the darkness, and how everything else is a mystery, and you know nothing at all except the moonlight is beautiful-- white rivers running together along the bare boughs of the trees- and somewhere, for someone, life is becoming moment by moment unbearable. And oh, Wild Geese, which tells you, so carefully, how to live: You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-- over and over announcing your place in the family of things. Sometimes I bust open the Margaret Atwood, snatches of her work. A truth should exist, it should not be used like this. If I love you is that a fact or a weapon? or: Language, the fist proclaims by squeezing is for the weak only. and, describing my family rather well: We are hard on each other and call it honesty, choosing our jagged truths with care and aiming them across the neutral table. The things we say are true; it is our crooked aims, our choices turn them criminal. More poetry later. I need a break from beauty and truth.