What poetry means to me: inside the mind of a young reviewer.
Selected Poems by e.e. cummings was the first poetry book I read in its entirety. It was also the first book of poems I bought for myself, but it was certainly not the last. Today, a good portion of the books I own and love are volumes of poetry. Every time I stand before my bookshelf I am comforted by the names of poets like Czeslaw Milosz, Mary Oliver, Anna Akhmatova, Pablo Neruda, and Wislawa Szymborska, to name a few. Each name conjures a different feeling and memory, but none so strong as those associated with e.e. cummings. Even now, seven years later, I can fully recall what it felt like to flip through Selected Poems for the first time. It was as if I was entering into a whole other world.
As a close friend--who is a poet himself--once said to me, "A really good poem changes you." I like this statement because it captures the simple but important fact that poets tend to view the world from an angle, so their poems have the ability to not only open our eyes to the possibilities of language but the various and infinite ways there are to exist in the world. Perhaps the Irish poet Louis MacNiece says it best in his poem "Snow" when he writes: "World is crazier and more of it than we think, / Incorrigibly plural."
Each month when I'm deciding what poetry books to review for KLIATT, I always look for collections or anthologies that embody this notion. However, I have to ask myself if what I consider a worthy book of poems will have the same appeal to the variety of people perusing the shelves in a library. It is a dilemma that is essentially impossible to resolve, for like any other art form poetry is more or less subjective. Therefore, it is imperative that there be diversity among the books I select.
This month, for instance, I was given an especially hefty stack of books to sift through; and I ended up reviewing two anthologies and one debut book of poetry. (See the poetry section of this issue of KLIATT.) One of the anthologies was compiled by Poetry Magazine and boasts some of the biggest names in the poetry world. The other anthology, however, was compiled by a creative writing professor and her student, and it addresses young people in the midst of depression. In addition to showcasing the work of well-known poets, this collection prides itself on including the poems of teenage writers and up-and-coming poets. While the Poetry anthology will no doubt catch the eye of weathered poetry readers and intellectuals, the other anthology will most certainly resonate with a good number of teenagers who would otherwise not be inclined to read poetry at all.
As a reviewer, I fully believe in this act of striking a balance between recommending the big-name poets--who have certainly earned their success--and the work of less well-known poets. While it is important to pay homage to the masters, it is a crime to ignore the ever-growing pool of new poets with something fresh to say, another take on the world.
I wouldn't have wanted to review poetry a few years ago because my knowledge would have been too limited. Even now, as a young reviewer, I know there is still an incredible wealth of information left to read and learn. Nevertheless, it is interesting to look back and trace the evolution of my relationship with poetry, as my taste has inevitably changed over the course of time. Initially I was drawn to those poems that gave me a sense of instant gratification. I loved the singsong irony of cummings, the lyricism of Carl Sandburg, and the matter-of-fact but poignant observations of Billy Collins. I had no interest in cuddling up with T.S. Eliot or Marianne Moore, but as a teacher of mine once remarked on the topic of difficult literature, "Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is like red wine, you must develop a taste for it." How right he was. As I've matured, I've developed an appreciation for red wine and prefer my poetry to have a more complex aftertaste as well. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that the closer I come to being a full-blown adult, the more I shy away from anything that reminds me of my girlish bluntness and crave that which is subtle and cerebral. It goes to show how personal poetry can be. After all, most of the poems that resonate with us are the ones that seem to echo our own sentiments--which we more or less render banal--in a manner that makes them striking and supremely important. Personally, I consider poetry to be sacred. I've found that I can comfortably read a novel regardless of the sort of mood I'm in; however, I have to be in a particular state of being to read a poem and really absorb it. Such a state of being is as follows: I have to be alone, at peace with myself, and unquestionably patient.
I found myself in such a state on a morning not too long ago. Clear-headed and in the quietness of my own room, I lay on my bed reading from Czeslaw Milosz's Collected Poems. Although I had immersed myself in this book more than a few times since it had been given to me, on that particular morning I happened to open up to the page that held the poem "The Song." It was a poem I hadn't read before, and its power disarmed me. It then occurred to me that I had never taken the time to focus on just one poem in all the times I'd read the book before, having been too anxious to devour the whole collection at once.
As I lingered over "The Song" for the next hour I couldn't help but feel that I was reading Milosz's writing for the first time. The next day I spent some more time lingering over another poem in the collection that I had also overlooked; and there were many more. How easily we fool ourselves into believing we know things. In a society where everyone is always in a rush to get somewhere, it is easy to plow through art that was never meant to be hurried simply because we are hungry for it. Thus in my hunger for knowledge of Milosz I had neglected to give his poems the time and patience they needed and deserved. Take just a moment and meditate on the following lines from "The Song":
Oh, if there were in me one seed without rust, / no more than one grain that could perdure / I could sleep in the cradles leaning by turns / now into darkness, now into the break of day. / I would wait quietly till the slow movement ceases / and the read shows itself naked suddenly, / till a wildflower, a stone in the fields stare up / with the disk of an unknown new face. / Then they who live in the lies / like weeds at the bottom of a bay's wash / would only be what pine needles are / when one looks from above through the clouds at a forest. / But there is nothing in me, just fear, / nothing but the running of dark waves. / I am the wind that blows and dies out in dark waters, / I am the wind going and not returning, / a milkweed pollen on the black meadows of the world.
The more I read these lines the more I am astounded by their haunting beauty, the way they capture fading life and one's sense of becoming isolated from the world. Like any good lines of poetry, these ones move me to the core of my soul. Perhaps this is why I enjoy recommending poetry books to other people; I want them to experience the same wonder that I do in reading a piece of linguistic brilliance. Also, on a more practical level, it is good to both give and receive some direction in choosing what poetry to read. As far as finding my own way goes, of course I like to familiarize myself with the standard great voices of the past; but beyond that I become interested in certain poets by reading reviews, through recommendations by friends, and by keeping up with literary journals and various publications.
It gives me great pleasure to see someone engaged with a poem, regardless of how or why he or she got around to doing it. With the amount of media entertainment available to people in this day and age, it is becoming less and less common for people to spend what free time they have curled up with a book of poems or attending poetry readings. Moreover, poetry is increasingly viewed as an academic endeavor, which automatically makes it unexciting to the majority of people. Even the poet Dana Gioia asserts in his essay "Can Poetry Matter?" that the various conventions our society has established around poetry have come to "imprison" it in an "intellectual ghetto."
There are certainly times when I feel intimidated if someone asks me what I think about a poem. Why do you like it? What makes it so good? The pressure to answer such questions intelligently and accurately is enough to kill any joy that was gained from reading the poem to begin with. It is important to remember that this does not have to be the case. A critic of poetry must be a reader of it, but a reader of poetry does not have to be a critic. The average reader will not commend a poem based on its metaphors and alliteration but on the overall feeling it evokes.
The summer before my senior year in high school I spent a month in a creative writing course at Columbia University. I was in a writing workshop with ten other young writers, and each day we read and critiqued each other's work. There was one girl in the class named Sarah, who was an extraordinary writer and possessed more knowledge of literature than most of us. However, one day after reading a particularly good poem by one of the students in the workshop, Sarah sat back in her chair and simply said: "I don't really know what to say except that poem gave me that feeling when you read something really good." I heard a great deal of constructive criticism over the course of the month, but that comment is the only one that remains with me.
As Sarah's remark shows, sometimes the simplest words are the wisest; so take these simple words of advice: go out and read a poem--any poem, whether it is by Yeats or one of your friends. In the words of Mary Oliver: "Plain as a needle a poem may be, or opulent as the shell of the channeled whelk, or the face of the lily, it matters not." Pick up a book of poetry and see if you experience "that feeling"--a vague notion at first glance, I know, but find a poem you love and suddenly this feeling will become clear and singular, divine.
Beth is a student at Bard College who has helped in the KLIATT office this summer. We asked her to write about her personal experience with poetry so that KLIATT readers will understand how important it is to provide YAs with a wide choice of poetry, hoping to captivate them, just as Beth has been captivated, by words.
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|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2005|
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