The poetry in my head

April is National Poetry Month.

This Sunday's Book World in the Washington Post celebrates poetry and the 10th anniversary of "Poet's Choice," a column and "ongoing tribute to verse and versifiers" currently edited by U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. (Pinsky recently chose to highlight an evocative love poem by Sappho, a poet from centuries ago, reminding us of the timelessness of the art form.)

Reading this Poetry Issue has made me think about the way poetry has touched my every day life–in small and significant ways–even though I've never thought of myself of being overly preoccupied with poetry. A verse, or title, or metaphor just seems to surface and illuminate that moment for me.

It's because I was exposed as a young student to poetry–not that at the time I particularly paid much attention–but I'm thankful now that my public school education included Homer and Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Browning, Hart Crane and many more.

Later, in college, I explored other poets, including the Romantics, and independently I discovered Gary Snyder, the one Beat Poet who spoke to me (Allen Ginsburg left me cold), with his fierce love of the land and his fascination with minimalist forms of Asian poetry.

The stuff stays in your head. I’ve been thinking about first loves recently (with three sons in college and high school), and I suddenly remembered the sentiments captured in Gary Snyder’s "Four Poems for Robin," especially the close of "December at Yase," and the poignancy of looking back, perhaps with regrets:

Only in dream, like this dawn,
Does the grave, awed intensity
Of our young love
Return to my mind, to my flesh.

We had what the others
All crave and seek for;
We left it behind at nineteen.

I feel ancient, as though I had
Lived many lives.
And may never now know
If I am a fool
Or have done what my
karma demands.

Snatches of poems have come to mind over the years (more often as I grow older). When I was in my 20s, moonlighting as a sportswriter, covering high school football, I remember attending a savage game between two small working-class towns on a muddy, nasty day and suddenly having a line from James Wright ("Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio") pop, unbidden, into my head:

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.

For some reason it is those fragments that come to me. A few years back I wrote a short story, “The Extraordinary Patience of Things,” inspired in part by the opening line of Robinson Jeffers’ poem “Carmel Point,” that had stuck in my head for 20 years. The story is about a young woman going through a tough stretch who finds some solace in that “extraordinary patience” of the winter landscape around her. (It appears in my short story collection Café Carolina and Other Stories.)

Then there was the shock of recognition when I read one of Li Po's poems just a few years ago and stumbled across these lines:

Since the world can in no way answer our craving,
I will loosen my hair tomorrow and take to a fishing boat.

I marvelled that a Chinese poet from the T'ang Dynasty so perfectly express how I felt whenever I would steal away to Charlotte Harbor for back-bay fishing? (By the way, imagine the leap of imagination made by English orientalist Arthur Waley to translate Li Po and the Japanese classic "The Tale of Genji" so beautifully and yet never to have visited Asia!)

I don't think I am alone in this. I'm not the only one walking around with poetry in their head. It's one reason I agree with Donald Hall that we never have to worry about the "death of poetry," there's something in the words that draws us to them. That's why I hope the public schools keep teaching poetry (and a broad range of poetry, including some of the raw verse found in contemporary music, as well as the classics) even when it seems the kids don't get it. They will, some day.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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