I’m a little behind in my rambling. But luckily, I’m also a little obsessive, so the topic I’ve wanted to meander through for the last little bit is still fairly clear and meander-able. That being said, it’s not too late to bail. I won’t hold it against you. Life’s short, brevity is not one of my virtues, and there’re mines to be crafted.
So, if you’re still reading, all I can say is, “Thanks, Mom.”
Anyway, I was sick last week, which let me spend some time in a couple of new books of poetry. New to me, anyway. One of them was Susan Stewart’s Red Rover. I’ve been an admirer of Stewart’s work since I first read The Forest a few years ago. This fierce, untitled poem was the one that hooked me:
We needed fire to make
the tongs and tongs to hold
us from the flame; we needed
ash to clean the cloth
and cloth to clean the ash’s
stain; we needed stars
to find our way, to make
the light that blurred the stars;
we needed death to mark
an end, an end that time
in time could mend.
Born in love, the consequence-
born of love, the need.
Tell me, ravaged singer,
how the cinder bears the seed.
Awesome, isn’t it? I love poems like this, that in just a few lines can leave you in a very different place than you expected to be. And if you read it aloud a couple of times, just as Gloria Estafan warned would happen, the rhythm is gonna get you.
Now, with poems on my mind, I’ll say this about poetry:
It’s not what it once was.
Not that its quality has somehow diminished, although I’m sure plenty o’ folks would argue that it has. It’s just that it’s not what it once was to the world. It’s not as appreciated as it used to be. Maybe because it’s not as approachable; it comes across as esoteric or pretentious. Or maybe it’s voice is just too quiet to register in a world where only the thunder can be heard over the rain.
I think part of the shift is in the way we receive poems, or maybe in the way they are presented to us. Like puzzles with only one correct solution. Either it looks like a basket full of kittens when you’re done, or it doesn’t. Billy Collins (possibly the most popular and commercially successful poet working today) illustrates the problem in his “Introduction to Poetry” better than I can.
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
It’d be so much easier if poetry were objective. But it rarely is, as is the case with so many things in life. Even so, we’re still always trying to define it. To valuate it. The individual examples, as well as the whole twirling, multi-hued umbrella.
A lot of people have said a lot of things about what poetry is, but I’m partial to one of the ways Robert Frost defined it:
The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.
But that’s just, like, his opinion, man.
Regardless of what poetry has become—or has always been—to some other people, it’s still what it’s always been to me. A balm. An explanation. Duct tape. And since last week, an insistent little couplet has been gently but tenaciously stuck to the side of my brain:
Then the traveler in the dark
Thanks you for your tiny spark
It’s from one of the most oft-recited poems in the English-speaking world, but I doubt many people would recognize it by itself. So here it is in context:
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.
When the blazing sun is gone,
When he nothing shines upon,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.
Then the traveler in the dark
Thanks you for your tiny spark,
How could he see where to go,
If you did not twinkle so?
In the dark blue sky you keep,
Often through my curtains peep
For you never shut your eye,
Till the sun is in the sky.
As your bright and tiny spark
Lights the traveler in the dark,
Though I know not what you are,
Twinkle, twinkle, little star.
That elegant tidbit is dense. That’s what has me hooked. I keep wondering and wondering, and wandering and wandering, and no matter how many times I start at the same point, I never reach the same destination. I always end up hearing a different story.
I guess it just amazes me how poignant a few lines of poetry can be. Sometimes it’s a complete poem, like Langston Hughes’ “Poem  (To F.S.),” one of my favorites:
I loved my friend.
He went away from me.
There’s nothing more to say.
The poem ends,
Soft as it began,-
I loved my friend.
And sometimes it’s just a snippet of a larger work, like this:
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
This, again, is a short, but complete, poem:
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
and name it after me
that you may know
I have not abandoned
or forgotten you.
and quiet music, and patient mouths,
and a little pride—before
our age ends.
Give us astonishment
and a flame, high, bright.
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags. I bequeathe myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles. You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood. Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you