When I was younger, I wanted to be a poet. In high school, I wrote poetry all the time. Some of it was actually okay — in a sophomoric kind of way. Most of the time, it was about what you’d expect from a nerdy high-school boy. Still, I managed to get some poems published, and even saw a few paychecks because of it.
I haven’t written much poetry since college, though. The impulse vanished. About once every couple of years, I’ll dash something off, but mostly I’m non-poetic. Here’s a little bit that I wrote on September 11, 2001. I like it.
In the twilight
the colors bleed and fade —
what once was red, or blue, or green,
is now black. Or white.
The approaching darkness
casts long shadows, cloaking
all that once danced in light,
consuming warmth, producing fright.
Though I don’t write much myself anymore, I appreciate good poetry. Here are a few of my favorites:
When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measles-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
by Dana Gioia
We stood on the rented patio
While the party went on inside.
You knew the groom from college.
I was a friend of the bride.
We hugged the brownstone wall behind us
To keep our dress clothes dry
And watched the sudden summer storm
Floodlit against the sky.
The rain was like a waterfall
Of brilliant beaded light,
Cool and silent as the stars
The storm hid from the night.
To my surprise, you took my arm —
A gesture you didn’t explain —
And we spoke in whispers, as if we two
Might imitate the rain.
Then suddenly the storm receded
As swiftly as it came.
The doors behind us opened up.
The hostess called your name.
I watched you merge into the group,
Aloof and yet polite.
We didn’t speak another word
Except to say goodnight.
Why does that evening’s memory
Return with this night’s storm —
A party twenty years ago,
Its disappointments warm?
There are so many might have beens,
What ifs that won’t stay buried,
Other cities, other jobs,
Strangers we might have married.
And memory insists on pining
For places it never went,
As if life would be happier
Just by being different.
The Sunlight on the Garden
by Louis MacNeice
The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold;
When all is told,
We cannot beg for pardon.
Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth comples, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.
The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying
And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.
I’m particularly impressed by folks who make good use of meter, rhythm, and rhyme. It’s harder to work within these contraints than outside of them. Besides, I don’t find much difference between modern free verse and flowery essays. (I’ll readily admit this could be a shortcoming on my part.)
When Kim and I started dating fifteen months ago, I mentioned my fondness for poetry. “I’m not sure I like poetry,” she said. “A lot of times, I just don’t get it. Plus, I don’t like being told what things mean.”
“Some of it’s good,” I told her.
“You should share it with me,” she said. But I never did.
Last weekend, I found some time to read her a handful of poems. She liked a few, but others simply reinforced her opinion. “I don’t get it,” she said after a couple of opaque poems. From her perspective, it was as if the poets didn’t want to be understood, an observation I find interesting (and, quite possibly, accurate).
So, I’m coming to you for advice. Can you recommend some poems for people who don’t like poetry? Did you used to be a poetry hater? Are you still? What poems changed your mind? What poets do you appreciate? How does somebody who finds poetry frustrating learn to love it?