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Before a poem’s history or quality or place in literary movements, I want to know How do these words make me feel? What about you?
BY MAGAZINE COLUMNIST RUTH FARMER
Years ago, at the urging of a teacher, I wrote a poem a day. My understanding of the practice was that the poem didn’t have to be good; it just had to be written. That was a freeing and productive practice for someone who agonized then and now over every word I write. It was freeing to write a lot of lineated prose that sometimes turned into poems.
At some point I not only stopped writing a poem a day, I went off poetry altogether. Much as one “goes off” ice cream or alcohol. It was something nice but not needed. I stopped writing poems and, more to the point, I stopped reading poems.
Abandoning a practice
At around the same time, I began teaching students who wanted to write poetry and needed me to respond to their attempts in meaningful ways. I do not blame these students for my abandonment of poetry. It is just curious that this all happened at the same time. Enough said about that except that I now have infinite sympathy and empathy for teachers who read my fledgling poems.
I encountered an amazing number of students who write poetry but who do not actually read it. Or at least they claimed not to read it. Maybe letting people know that you read poems was not cool. I don’t know. However, I struggled through reading their poems and “professional” poets’ poems, even trying to glean deep meaning from these words. I am straying far from my point.
I adhered to a practice of writing a poem a day that I abandoned. Then I stopped writing poems and, ultimately, I stopped reading them.
One morning, I felt like reading a poem, so I scanned my bookshelf.
Touchstone wanted, not too touchy
It was a sunny June Monday. I thought about reading something by Bishop but I might want to begin writing poetry again some day and reading Bishop would prove a disincentive. She wrote the kinds of poems I wished I could write. She was a Poet. I write poems. On this day, I was feeling upbeat about poetry, as opposed to beat up by it; reading Bishop would have reminded me of craft when I really just wanted to enjoy the art.
I pulled from the shelf the complete poems of Keats, thinking I would randomly read one of his poems. I figured: Keats’ poems are pretty harmless, at least most of them. And I don’t aspire to emulating his style. Then I saw this old text that I bought at some book sale: English Masterpieces: Modern Poetry. I pulled that off the shelf because it is an anthology and because I just wanted to touch the object. The book has a navy blue hard cover and not too many mildew stains. It was published in 1950 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.
When I read the table of contents I realized that the volume included Gerard Manley Hopkins and Auden, two of my favorite poets. I was not about to read either of these for the same reasons that I was not about to read Bishop. This practice, I determined, would be the reading not the writing of poems, to enjoy the art of the craft; not to study the craft of the art.
The text also includes Yeats. Now here is a poet I can read. I do not aspire to writing poems a la Yeats. So I had no fear of an inferiority complex.
Time goes by, a cup of coffee, the call of poems
So I sat down to read some poems after I let the chickens out but before I fed the dogs. While I was eating my gluten free corn flakes but before I’d finished my coffee.
Some masochistic urge led me first to “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing.” Then on this beautiful sunny June morning with cardinals, grackles, catbirds, chickadees, and other unknown birds singing songs, I read “The Second Coming.”
Because you are readers of this journal, I am betting that you are familiar with “The Second Coming.” Many of you probably can recite the poem by heart. Go ahead. Turn to the person next to you and recite it. Or recite it to your pet or the air. We’ll wait.
If you don’t know it by heart, I’m betting you know some of the phrases. Refresh your memory. Read the poem (it’s online). Really. We’ll wait.
Isn’t “The Second Coming” the creepiest poem you have ever read? If you’ve read something scarier, I’d like to know. And it can’t have blood and gore in it. That is too obvious.
The path that knows you and the surprise of recognition
So … it was a lovely, sunny Monday morning on the heels of a blue-sky-lit Sunday during which I sat in the sun reading O’Brian’s H.M.S. Surprise, and during which I didn’t read email at all. It is the day after a delightful mini-vacation, one of the few sunny days in June in Vermont, and I read “The Second Coming.”
Even if you haven’t read any explications or literary criticisms of this poem, maybe even especially if you haven’t, the poem is striking in its ability to frighten. Phrases taken out of context are dizzyingly disconcerting:
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre”
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”
“…the worst / Are full of passionate intensity”
“A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”
“moving its slow thighs” (Here I always want to scream. Don’t ask me why.)
“Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born” (Don’t those words absolutely give you the shivers? They do me.)
Some of you might resort to the “lit crit” engagement with this poem. You may have written about Yeats or his aesthetics. That path creates necessary distance. I’m talking about the feeling of the words.
For me, before I want to know anything about a poem’s history (or quality or place in literary movements), before I want to understand the biography of the poem’s writer, I want to come close.
I want to know “How do these words make me feel?” What about you?
As I read Yeats’ poems I felt the surprise of recognition. That is what poetry has always done for me: It has reminded me that humanity lives one long day of dreams, nightmares, failures, and aspirations.
A long emotional day that stretches over centuries of longing.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.