Sad to say I’m no poet, seeing as I’m half Irish. Ireland–where bards were held in the highest esteem. Wandering bards were always given a place to stay, the best food, the best bed, and, occasionally, the lady of the house. All they had to do was take out their harps and recite their poems, great and fanciful tales of Irish kings and warriors. It’s a wonderful heritage.
Though I was no poet in high school (still aren’t), I loved memorizing poetry and reciting poems like a bard. Poe, Longfellow, Byron, Burns, Browning, and later, as an adult, Eliot, Heaney, Angelou, ah me, what wonderful words. I think the Irish part of me liked hearing poetry as opposed to reading it. I can read poetry now and have to re-read it several times to “get” it. But, if I hear it or read it aloud, it opens to me instantly.
I consider Poe to be like a utility player in baseball–he wrote prose, he wrote poetry, he founded a couple of literary genres–but his poetry was lyric and visual and emotional. And that, to me, is what good poetry does–you feel, you experience, as if you were in the poem.
“But our love it was stronger by far than the love
“Of those who were older than we-
“Of many far wiser than we-
“And neither the angels in heaven above,
“Nor the demons down under the sea,
“Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
“Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.”
(From “Annabel Lee,” by Edgar Allan Poe
Presidential inaugurations have served to be an opportunity for millions to appreciate the country’s greatest poets. I remember the pictures of a young and vital John F. Kennedy shielding the eyes of Robert Frost from the sun as he read. Frost had composed a poem for the event, but his aging eyes and the poem’s length made him change his mind. Instead, he recited the brief “The Gift Outright.”
“The land was ours before we were the land’s.
“She was our land more than a hundred years
“Before we were her people. She was ours
“In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
“But we were England’s, Still colonials,
“Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
“Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
“Something we were withholding from our land of living,
“And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
“Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
“(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
“To the land vaguely; realizing westward,
“But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
“Such as she was, such as she would become.”
And in 1993, the magnificent Maya Angelou spoke to all of us but especially to those of us who believed in Clinton’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” campaign theme.
(From “On the Pulse of Morning,” by Maya Angelou)
Today, you can take any song, remove the music, and you have poetry.Read Dylan (Bob, that is.). Read Cobain. Rap emerged from an African-American tradition of exchanging rhyming insults called “doing the dozens.” Put aside any prejudice you may have about Eminem and watch the movie “8 Mile.” There’s a wonderful scene where the mostly black workers at a metal stamping plant are outside on their lunch break. Two of them start back-and-forth rhymes about the quality of the food from the food truck, which then evolve into statements about the lack of opportunity and equality in 1990’s Detroit.
Haiku with its Zen-ness can summarize in those three short lines thousands of thoughts and ideas. Writing haiku is an amazing talent, and I love how visual they are. So to prove I’m no poet, here’s something I wrote when I was having prose writer’s block.
Seamus Heaney came to me in my 40’s, and I wondered, “Oh, you incredible man, where were you all my life?” He took The Troubles on first-hand and sacrificed his popularity in parts of Ireland and England, but his words resonated. He wrote poetry about prehistoric times and modern times, did an amazing translation of Beowulf, and won the Nobel for Literature. Of him, the NY Times Book Review said, “Anyone who reads poetry has reason to rejoice at living in the age when Seamus Heaney is writing.” His poem, “Digging,” about watching his father work at hoeing the garden and reflecting on his own work of writing is something I think about every day:
“Between my finger and my thumb
“The squat pen rests.
“I’ll dig with it.”
(If you’re in Staunton, VA, on April 20, join those of us in SWAG–Staunton, Waynesboro, Augusta Group of Writers–for our Poetry Fest in celebration of National Poetry Month. At the Darjeeling Cafe, 7 p.m.)