"I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I write and I understand." - Chinese proverb

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


My friend Gregg and I (yep, here's that Gregg again) love to say some phrases out loud because they just sound so nice.  "Eastern seaboard" is one of them, and so is "Northeast corridor" (a railroad term).  Since we live pretty much on the eastern seaboard along the northeast corridor, we can count on hearing those phrases fairly often; they're usually connected to bad storms ("a line of heavy rain moving up the eastern seaboard," for example).  It conjures up a mental picture, but of course, it's the alliteration that pleases the ear.  Nor/cor; east/sea.

Consequently, perhaps, we both love poetry.  When Gregg lived nearer to me, I'd often stay the night with him and his young daughter, Sarah, and on Sunday mornings Gregg and I would lie in bed (yes, you can have a horizontal relationship between a man and a woman, even if it's strictly vertical) and look through this old dogeared book he'd gotten somewhere called "Favorite American Poetry." Or some title like that.

There were a few illustrious poets inserted here and there, and some famous works, but there were also obscure entries that ranged from absolutely awful (in our opinion anyway) to evocative and memorable.  The animal poems would always bring tears to our eyes.  We would take turns picking a poem and reading it aloud to each other, always keeping one eye and ear out for Sarah, who was very small and liked to do things such as open the jar with the 100 Sweet & Lo packets and tear each packet open and dump the contents on the floor, or spray deodorant up her nose.

Gregg's favorite poet is Robert Frost.  Gregg was born and bred in the Berkshire foothills, a true New Englander, so that didn't surprise me.  Of Frost's poems, however, he loves "The Silken Tent" most.  He is apt to go around quietly reciting the first few lines, obviously because it means enough to stay with him, and it pleases him. 

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease....

Now I hate to say this, but that first line spoils the poem for me because all I can think of is a big fat woman in the middle of a field with a big tent dress on.  Held down by ropes.  To a pole.  I never did tell Gregg about this.  Maybe I should.  I do love Robert Frost as well, though.  My father swears that when he proposed to my mother he recited “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening.”  I don’t know; he has in fact proven that he knows it by heart, and my mother just kind of rolls her eyes when he says this, so maybe he did.  It is quite beautiful:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep...  

I cannot write poetry.  In high school I fooled around with it along with the other girls.  We read Rod McKuen and Richard Brautigan (can you get much more polar opposite?) and I carried around a copy of Lawrence Ferlingetti, “A Coney Island Of The Mind.”  Yes, I did read it, but I also loved the sound of it: “Lawrence Ferlingetti” – what a gorgeous name.  Rolls off the tongue with a happy shiver.  “A Coney Island Of The Mind.”  You don’t actually have to read more.  That title itself is poetry.

When I was a kid and was sick, and I was always sick with some damn thing, my mom would sit at the foot of the bed and quietly read poetry to me.  I wanted her to; it soothed.   I wanted to hear “Song of Hiawatha” from the textbook my older brother had on Longfellow’s works.  That beautiful rhythm, that lilting capture of words like notes on a musical scale: 

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

Do you know how many verses there are to Hiawatha?  My poor mother.  There was this one and "Evangeline."  I'm not sure which one I liked better.  "Evangeline" has a tickly dark feel to it and encompasses the word "primeval" in the first line.  That word immediately spins me around and back from this world to another, more pure, perhaps, but not so obvious.
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.
My "Best In Childrens' Books" collection I held in very high esteem and could barely wait to tear open the next volume that came in the mail, because it always had a poem, the most remarkable and staying one being “The Fairies,” William Allingham’s eerie chant about a world that could be there.

I of course believed in the wee men and checked my bed for thorns at night.  How thrilling to find, twenty years later, “The Fairies” in a beautifully illustrated children’s book (but Bridget lived to wake up and yawn on the last page).  And perhaps an even more beautifully illustrated picture book of William Blake’s “The Tyger.” 

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

With a poem, with one like "The Tyger," say, or Yeats' "Second Coming" even more so, as you get toward the middle, you begin to be anxious about the end...anxious and captivated, intent, mesmerized, rapt.  It satisfies something – or perhaps just the opposite; it disquiets the world enough to enthrall, to fulfill the suspicion that there is something else going on out there.  Or in here.

In college I took a poetry class.  (If you want to know whose class it was, please see earlier post "To Sir With Love.")  It was tough, and strict: I learned the values of iambic pentameter, I learned there are rules for writing free verse, I learned what a sonnet is, I learned onomatopoeia and alliteration and 18th, 19th, and 20th century assonance, and some of it was hard going, but I was delighted to find help.  You need a person to guide you through Keats, Coleridge, Wordworth, Whitman and Shelly.   You want to know what the hell there is about a Grecian urn that somebody would write an ode to it.  You definitely want to know what Coleridge was smoking when he wrote "Kubla Khan."

I didn’t care for T. S. Eliot’s imagery; I thought Emily Dickinson had the right stuff but I thought her dashes were affected, as was e. e. cummings' insistence on lower case;  Dylan Thomas, though I loved him, left me somber and windblown.  But Shakespeare!  What's a more foreboding two lines than these from Macbeth: "By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes!"   

I remembered Tennyson’s “The Crossing Of The Bar” and recited it to a church full of people years later at a funeral for my friend Jonathan’s father.  (A few years ago, when my  Aunt Mig passed away, I scoured the internet and found a wonderful poem about cats waiting for their owners in Heaven at the "purry" gates, and I read it at her memorial service. )  Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" has the some of the best last lines of any poem I've ever read: 

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 My favorites, though, were the fey, haunting and beautifully constructed rhymes of William Butler Yeats.  
The Second Coming,  
The Lake Isle of Innisfree, 
The Cat and The Moon,  
When You Are Old,  
The Song of Wandering Aengus.  

In his poetry there is much room.  There is room for anguish, for romance, for love, for fear, for myth, for the natural, contrived and evolved worlds around us.  Because of this, this poem “In Memory Of W. B. Yeats,” by Auden, has resonated with me since.  Auden felt it too.          

Poets have a reference; they write about what was happening not only to them, but in general, as many poets do; it is their commentary, it is the nightly news, for us to read a century later when the poet is gone...it faces us in history's direction.

But the poems I used to find in the back of Yankee magazine, when they had a whole page of poems in there, were my bread and honey.  No well known poets – to me, at least – yet they matched everything so well, so uneasily at times.  I had a bulletin board full of them in my bedroom.  They would often cause me to stop and think, what was it about this poem that made me weep or shiver or took my breath away?  Then there are a few from New Yorker magazine.  (Sometimes I think of all the ones I must have missed, having not read every single issue of either Yankee or the New Yorker.  It makes me a trifle glum.)

I've read, and heard, from people who analyze and study and collate poetry, that it was meant to be read out loud.  When you stop to think, think of the first things you read to your children, or what your parents read to you: "Patty-cake, patty-cake; this little piggy; baa-baa black sheep..."   We are all raised on poetry.  What is it about this that so pleases us as children?   Is it the cadence?  The silliness?  The assurance that there is always going to be a word that rhymes?     

I guess so, if it were the 1950's and I was lying in bed with chicken pox...but truth to tell, I have never been interested in attending a poetry reading (and there are always plenty of them dotted here and there throughout where I live).             

I think I want to read poetry in the quiet, stopping at the end of a line if I feel like it, going back over it and experiencing it in private.  My mind can go far astray from reading a poem...and I want the quiet time just afterward that lets me reel back all the lines that have been cast.  To turn my mind into a net.  To pull in the words and splash in them.  To -- thank you William Butler Yeats -- to hopefully, "hear it in my deep heart's core."



  1. Laurie-- I don't know what happened, but I did write a response to this post yesterday or the day before and thought it "took." This is a terrific essay, I noted, and I love your exploration of what is appealing about poetry. I too love Yeats and my ear and heart and view of the world was influenced heavily by nursery rhymes-- I loved The Child's Garden of Verse. It would be wonderful if you would start a discussion on Poets on She Writes and repost this essay there, inviting others in the group to go into depth on their influences. Hope this one comes through. xj

  2. Thanks - loud and clear! I have a 1924 edition of a Child's Garden of Verses with beautiful illustrations but it also has a long story in it, "The Little Lame Prince" by Miss Mulock. I think I must have gotten it at a flea market or rummage sale that my aunt used to bring me to as a child. That's a great idea about bringing this subject forward on SW.