This was a Poet —

Many readers grow stone cold when they see lines arranged on the page in the form of a poem. This might be because so few of us have had the experience of reading poetry with pleasure. And that is why Cam’s recent questions about poetry, questions answered just a day or so ago by litlove, make me think about what creates a poetry lover rather than a person who breaks out in hives at the first line break. I do like poetry, and as you’ll see from these questions, I think it’s because I was pretty much kept in ignorance of it for so long that, by the time I got to it, I felt like it belonged to me and wasn’t brussells sprouts I was forced to eat by some earnest parental person who just knew they’d be good for me.

1. The first poem I remember reading/hearing/reacting to was :

Before college, I had almost no exposure to poetry beyond nursery rhymes. Which isn’t as bad as it sounds, because no one ruined it for me by telling me it was good for me. Oh, there is something. Just this moment I realized that when I was about thirteen, I sat through six and a half showings of Romeo and Juliet (the Zefferelli movie). And then I went out and bought the play, and pored endlessly over the balcony scene where Juliet (who was actually Olivia Hussey, which is a nice name for a Juliet) says to Romeo (who was unfortunately named Leonard Whiting) “my bounty is as boundless as the sea…” At thirteen, I found that pretty racy, but it had to come with costumes and nice looking boys and a little bit of soft focus making out to really work.

The first poem that really reached me both intellectually and emotionally was Wallace Stevens’s Tea at the Palaz of Hoon, which ends: “I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw/Or heard or felt came not but from myself;/And there I found myself more truly and more strange.” 

At the time, and still, this seems like as good a description of the poet as you could want.

2. I was forced to memorize (name of poem) in school and…….. The schools I went to as a child didn’t force you to do anything, which might be why I was woefully unprepared when I arrived at college and blissfully unaware that I wasn’t actually the smartest person on the planet. In college, I was required to memorize the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, which I loved, and part of Milton’s Lycidas, which I also loved. I don’t think I ever minded being asked to memorize anything poetic. But then I never had to memorize anything really stupid.

3. I read poetry because…. its power is different from anything else created with words. A good poem can get to you in a very short amount of time. Put another way, poetry is to prose as vodka is to wine.

4. A poem I’m likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem is ……. Wallace Stevens’s Sunday Morning.

5. I write/don’t write poetry, but………….. I haven’t written a poem in about two years. But when I was writing poetry, for a few years, I wrote a poem about polar exploration that I’m pretty fond of and one about cigars, which I also rather like. One thing I liked about writing poems was getting down a sensation, or an idea, or a moment using poetry as the medium.

6. My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature….. poetry is both easier and more difficult to read than other types of literature. It is easier only because a good poem reaches you more quickly than a novel. It is harder because I often can’t read more than a few poems at a time. Poetry is relentless in a way prose is not in much the same way that vodka kicks you in the gut a lot sooner than wine does.

7. I find poetry….. in Poetry magazine, in my writing workshop, in all the books I saved from college and graduate school, and the many more I’ve acquired since then, in the New Yorker, on advertising panels on the bus, and sometimes in my head.

8. The last time I heard poetry…. was at my Thursday writing workshop where there are several really talented poets.

9. I think poetry is like…. well, the alcohol thing has been made quite clear, I think. But here’s another good description, which also relies on the distillation metaphor, but perfume (not booze) is the end product of all that distilling. That’s because the metaphor belongs to Emily Dickinson, who probably wouldn’t have been drinking vodka. With anybody. Ever.

This was a Poet–It is That
Distills amazing sense
From ordinary Meanings–
And Attar so immense

From the familiar species
That perished by the Door–
We wonder it was not Ourselves
Arrested it–before–

Of Pictures, the Discloser–
The Poet–it is He–
Entitles Us–by Contrast–
To ceaseless Poverty–

Of Portion –so unconscious–
The Robbing–could not harm–
Himself–to Him–a Fortune–
Exterior–to Time–

One last thing:  I think these are very interesting questions, and ones that are helpful in thinking about how an understanding of poetry evolves (or doesn’t).  If you are listed over to the right —— or you are reading this post (you know who you are!) and want to post about it, or leave a comment about your own experience, it would be lovely to hear your thoughts.


23 thoughts on “This was a Poet —

  1. Beautiful Q&A. I liked “(poetry) wasn’t brussel sprouts (parentally forced on me)”; “blissfully unaware that I wasn’t actually the smartest person on the planet”; and my favorite, “Poetry is relentless in a way prose is not in much the same way that vodka kicks you in the gut a lot sooner than wine does.”
    I like the way you say that poetry is gestaltish, greater than the sum or all of its words.

  2. Hi Courtney — I hope your T-Day break went well! When I did the canterbury tales, I pretended like I was Ingrid Bergman, which I thought made the whole thing go down pretty well.

    Dear Ms. S — Well, thank you. For a moment I thought you’d said “poetry is gefiltefish” which puzzled me, but then I saw you’d invented a new word, which is fine by me (and works a lot better than the fish) as something to compare poetry to.

  3. I do love the poetry quotations mentioned above, and I also have very fond memories of Zepherelli’s Romeo and Juliet, which I saw at about the same age in school. Your post also makes me think I really, really must read some Wallace Stevens. He sounds my kind of guy.

  4. Ahhh.. I saw that movie when we were in Germany. I actually bought the soundtrack for it to play at home.

    Leonard Whiting wasn’t that great of an actor, but he had a few nice scenes.

    I remember having to memorize Barefoot Boy in 4th or 5th grade.

    I also memorized some of Rod McKuen’s poetry. 🙂


  5. I spent most of my elementary school days in a two room school in Quick, BC, Canada. I think in Grade 6 (grades 5,6,7 in one room) that I was required to memorize Casey At The Bat. This was actually quite a good choice for a boy my age. I used to enjoy (and still do, for that matter) declaiming, “For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.”

    However, one of my younger brothers, who was reading Moby Dick when he was about 8, started off with Casey, I think, and went on in great enthusiasm to memorize the whole of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. We both got a kick out of yelling at each other, “Unhand me, grey-beard loon!”


  6. If poetry is like vodka, no wonder it is so difficult to read more than a few at a time — and why the feeling remains long after!

    I too had to memorize the Prologue to Canturbury Tales. I had forgotten about that very long Thanksgiving weekend spent memorizing those few lines and realizing how easily impressed I had been a in high school that my Advanced Lit teacher could recite it. Wasn’t so difficult after all, but limited in ways in which I could use it to show off how smart I was. Good thing that I wasn’t too far into my 20’s before I realized that I didn’t need to show off & could just enjoy that I knew it.

    I have never read much of Wallace Stevens. I should.

    Thanks for doing the meme.

  7. That’s something I’m going to save for when I get home and blog properly. For now, there’s always a book of poetry by the side of the bed (or two, or three) and the current one is still the headspinning Anna Akhmatova.

  8. Every once in a while someone sends me poems by a friend of theirs, wanting to know what I think of them. They obviously want me to say that they are wonderful and worthy of publication, and invariably they are dreadful. This happened yesterday. The poems were by a person so special that she had just received an award for her community charity. What to say to her friend? This exercise of saying something kind but true does clarify for me what makes a good poem.

  9. Thanks for this wonderful post BL– My Mom casually encouraged an interest in poetry by buying second hand books of poems and leaving them around. She didn’t push it, and I don’t remember her reading them out loud to us, although I’m sure she did. When We are Six, A Child’s Garden of Verses, and a used high school text book which had The Highwayman, Annabel Lee, The Tree, the Purple Cow, and all sorts of other poems and short stories. I was probably 7 or 8 when I read The Highwayman, and I read it over and over, puzzling out how Meg (the landlord’s daughter, the landlord’s black-haired daughter)let the gunshot shatter her breast to warn her lover away. Why did she do it? Now that I think of it, that probably isn’t the best poem for young girls forming their first ideas of romance. Hmmm.
    And I have always loved Emily Dickinson, but someone told me to try singing her poetry to the tune of Yellow Rose in Texas– and you can, every single poem. Try it– Because I would not stop for death– he kindly stopped for meeee!
    I remember that I memorized The Highwayman in around the fourth or fifth grade- I had read it so much, I practically had it memorized already, but my teacher was deeply impressed. And I recited the Owl and the Pussycat in class in 8th grade– I did it in a high, funny voice, because I was nervous about saying pussy in front of everyone– I knew there were some kids waiting to make trouble over it, so I used a high, funny voice and cracked them all up from the very beginning. Kids were literally on the floor, laughing and crying and kicking their legs. I have read that poem to my two since they were babies, now, from a book with beautiful pictures. But I still remember that 8th grade experience, and how afraid I was to say pussy out loud, because of certain inscriptions on the bathroom walls.
    Wallace Stevens, I loved in college, but have not read for years. You have inspired me to go back read him again. I also love T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath. And Elinor Kandel, if I have her name right, for some rollicking good porno poems. And the Thurday night group is inspiring me to try my hand at poetry again, although that’s a part of myself I have buried so deeply it may take an archaeologist to dig it out.

  10. Litlove, One reason I like Wallace Stevens is that he was guided in his writing and in his enjoyment of other writers by what gave pleasure. And, he was a lawyer. Plus, he liked chocolate.
    Hi Sue — I remember Rod McKuen. He was a very sixties/seventies poet, huh?
    Dear Fencer, Quick is such a wonderful name for a frontier town. And as things to yell at one’s brother go, “unhand me, grey-beard loon” strikes me as a huge improvement over the things I hear around my house.
    My dear Scott, I was aware of your considerable culinary talents, but now see I must add lyrical master to the list!
    Dorothy — Your answers to these questions were wonderful and I was glad to see that I’m not the only person who can’t do more than a few poems at a time. I wonder if maybe that’s one reason people don’t like poetry: they take on too much at a time.
    Thank you for asking those questions, Cam. It really got me thinking about reading and the differences between prose and poetry and why I like some things and not others.
    Dear U-R Dad — I’ve only read one Akhmatova poem, the one about standing in line and not forgetting. (I wish I had a better memory.) I like your description of her as headspinning.
    Oh Nancy Ruth, kind but true can be hard and they’re both important when reading and reacting to someone’s work. It would be interesting sometime to have someone write about common (I want to say mistakes, but that’s not quite right) ways people can go wrong in writing poetry.
    Mary, Your mother sounds really amazing and wonderful. What a great thing to do for your children. And your story about the Owl and the Pussycat made my day absolutely complete — and it’s only 9:20 a.m. If you bring poetry on Thursday nights, I will too! How about that for a bargain? (I just wish everyone else who comments here could come along and drink tea (or vodka) and add to the fun of it.)

  11. Pingback: Meme from Bloglily… « Relaxed Parents

  12. BL – Rod McKuen has a site these days.

    One of his random thoughts:

    None of us is so wealthy or influential that we cannot be further enriched by love.

    Sorrow isn’t sorrow when it’s shared, only when it’s done in the dark alone.

  13. BL: You must, must, must read Akhmatova’s poem “Lot’s Wife”. Google it — I’m sure it’s online somewhere, although I don’t know about the copywrite so I didn’t look up a link. (Guess you wouldn’t have guessed it’s one of my favorites, huh?)

  14. OK, BL. It’s a pact. I will bring a poem! Maybe. And as soon as I logged off yesterday, I realized the landlord’s daughter was Bess, not Meg– but no one wrote to correct and ridicule, which is nice. Some years ago, a poet named Stephen Berg wrote a book of poems called “With Akhmatova at the Black Gates”, which had some poems so haunting and beautiful, I carried around a copy of one until it fell apart in my wallet and I threw it away. That was before Al Gore had discovered the internet. I will look for Lot’s Wife also– Thanks again for all the good thoughts-mary

  15. I’m not on your blogroll, but I would like to steal this meme for my blogpost later today (11/30). Hope that’s all right. -catherine

  16. Hello Catherine — Of course you should — and I’d love to check it out (which I’ll do after I go get some lunch.)I’ve so enjoyed hearing these “how I came to poetry” biographical sketches.

    Mary — No poems, no poems, no poems! I can’t do it. Only prose for me these days.

  17. Over here on the other side of the world I was obliged to memorise the Gettysburg Address, by a relieving teacher of English who was American. I still occasionally astound my friends with a recitation. Despite the sexism, it’s stirring stuff! After “Hair”, my recitations tended to have extra bits added, e.g. “…conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the one I love.”

  18. “It is easier only because a good poem reaches you more quickly than a novel. It is harder because I often can’t read more than a few poems at a time. Poetry is relentless in a way prose is not in much the same way that vodka kicks you in the gut a lot sooner than wine does.”

    I love this observation and concur wholeheartedly.

    I haven’t the time to answer the questions right now. I wish I had time to keep up with all my blogroll friends like I should. It is always pleasant when time allows. xo, Q

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