On Poetry

Okay, so the title right there probably turned some of you off–but wait. Hang in there.

This is gonna be good.

You see, I have this sick love of poetry. Not writing it–I mostly got that out of my system in high school, thank God. Lo, what angst through yonder window breaks? It is the teen years, and Kristy is the emo. But in all truthfulness, I can’t possibly write good poetry. It’s a strange art, requiring both precision and soul. Meter, internal and external rhyme, assonance and alliteration,* all of that–plus trying to condense an idea or feeling into just a few words–plus the insight required to even find an idea or feeling that merits such expression–just no. I don’t have it in me.

I do, however, recommend that writers take at least one poetry class–be it reading or writing poetry–in their career. Even if you can’t master all of the above elements, understanding and appreciating them helps your writing so much.

And because I appreciate all of those things, and I’m always looking to get high on words, I love reading poetry. I could while away hours and hours just searching for lines that uplift, illuminate, sting, charm, or destroy. Such is the English major way.

When I find those lines, I save them. I have three separate documents on my laptop, all containing poetry I love and nothing but. And because poetry is a love that’s meant to be shared, I’m going to throw some of the best stuff I’ve found right at you today.

From one of the American masters, Mr. Frost:

Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air

-from “To Earthward”

That last line intimates so many things, and can be interpreted in so many different ways if standing alone. But reading the rest of the poem, you discover that he’s talking about the pain that comes with joy. Be it the pain of knowing it’s transitory, or the pain of love itself, even when it’s good, or the sweet sting of beauty…and Frost prefers (needs, even), after getting his fix of joy/pain, to come back to earth and be grounded.

Derek Walcott thinks being grounded is the only way to survive.

When have I ever not loved
the pain of love? But this has moved

past love to mania. This has the strong
clench of the madman, this is
gripping the ledge of unreason, before
plunging howling into the abyss.

Hold hard then, heart. This way at least you live.

-from “The Fist”

“Hold hard then, heart.” I could say that all day and not get tired of it. Of course, then I’d look like the crazy person I am, and we can’t have that.

But the question that arises is, to be grounded or live on air? To give in to the fist, or to harden oneself against it? Which is preferable?

Wallace Stevens knows all about questioning one’s preferences.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

-from “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

I can say with all certainty that lines two and three of that snippet are a vital part of my love for poetry. But within that snippet, within those choices he offers–which do you prefer?

But I guess no matter what we prefer, nothing is permanent. So do as Wordsworth suggests and use what is left…

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind
-from “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”

What’s that? We’re getting too serious? Oh, all right. A quick Dorothy Parker break:

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania.

Back to it, then.

But wait, what’s this? A poem that celebrates life instead of examining its pain? Oh yes, Gregory Orr–give it to us!

To be alive: not just the carcass
But the spark.
That’s crudely put, but…

If we’re not supposed to dance,
Why all this music?
-from “To Be Alive”

That’s how I feel about poetry, and a number of other things. Be the spark, and dance.

And we’ll close with a bit from Charles Baudelaire on the necessity of poetry (and other things):

You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

So go ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock what time it is. And get drunk on some poetry.

*You see what I did there.

2 thoughts on “On Poetry

  1. Ah, poetry. Nothing quite like it. Like you, I rarely write it myself, but I do enjoy reading it from time to time. Samuel Taylor Coleridge has always been a favorite of mine. Might have to thumb through my collection when I get home now!

  2. What I love and hate most is how subjective poetry is. Nice job on this post, though. Great snippets you chose!


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