Poetry. Where does it fit in your life? You may hear or read lines quoted in various places. I recently came across a wonderful poem titled “No Enemy” by Charles McKay. It was quoted on the Netflix series “The Crown” by Margaret Thatcher, and it is true that Ms. Thatcher loved that poem.
I come across other poems in reading. Scott Christensen quotes a poem titled “This is the True God” in his book What About Evil? (A very moving poem in a great book). That poem was used by contemporary Christian music artist Phil Keaggy and it is titled “Maker of the Universe.”
I took a graduate level English class a year or so ago that was called “Poetry and Literary Criticism.” But my main motivation was the need for 3 additional graduate hours in English (so as to be able to teach English at a college level–which hasn’t happened). I did enjoy reading previously unfamiliar poetry and in understanding some of the theories of literary criticism (many of which are insane).
Even in teaching, poetry has its challenges. How do you teach the poem without making it into a pedantic labor that guarantees that neither student nor teacher will like it? Sometimes, we read the poems and we all weigh in as to whether we like the poems or not, as though we were sampling sweets in a candy shop.
Then where do we fit in the person who writes poetry? It seems lame to be standing in a crowd of guys where one speaks of having overhauled his truck engine, another tells of having hunted and killed an elk in Colorado, the next one updates us on his remodeling of the living room of his house, while yet another tells of his deadlifting over 300 pounds at the gym, meanwhile, you are wondering if you should mention your failure to get the rhymes and syllables just right in a sonnet that you labored over all afternoon.
Poetry often survives because of the captive classrooms. Like with many academic subjects, there is always the student who “smartly” questions where he will ever use what he is being subjected to in the classroom. The teacher takes consolation in the small cadre of students who like the poetry. That creates the danger, however, of that particular type of student (like me) who assumes that because T. S. Eliot wrote poems without rhyme that he can do the same.
Let’s face it: America, Western Civilization, and the world are in trouble. Be it the liberal viewpoint or the conservative viewpoint, no one is echoing Robert Browning’s lines “All’s right with the world.” Few people read poetry. Few know contemporary American poets. And who memorizes poems?
And yet, I was in the hospital for 23 days during May and early June. Being in ICU and a hospital bed, I was struggling to rest and sleep. One night, John Masefield came to mind. I remembered his book of poems that I found in a bargain store for a buck or less. And there was that line from his most frequently anthologized poem, “I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky….” (from the poem “Sea Fever”).
My longing for home, my bed, my life was comforted by those words. It may only be Fahrenheit 451 type fragments of poetry that I know, but they come to my mind. They remind me, fortify me, redirect me, and often just bring a bit of pleasure. Perhaps poems need to be labeled for ingredients: Comfort, humor, meditation, courage, sadness, memory, etc.
I have recently become acquainted with Benjamin Myers. He and I share an affinity for “the Great Books” and teaching the classics. He does such work at Oklahoma Baptist University, just as I was doing such work at a different level at Veritas Academy. I reckon that if he and I were bound to ride together across west Texas. we would suffer no shortage of books, novels, authors, and poetry to discuss. We would probably both prefer to meet and talk over a few cups of coffee or other refreshments.
Benjamin is also a published poet. He was the poet laureate of Oklahoma and has written several volumes of poetry. This past year, I read his latest volume, which is titled Black Sunday: Dust Bowl Sonnets. This book is published by Lamar University Literary Press.
This is a really fine collection that would make sense to the person who is not at home with poetic works. I am assuming that such a person would be aware of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. In other words, those who know a bit of history or literature would recognize what is going on.
Myers writes a series of sonnets here that reflect the experiences of different individuals during those terrible times. The book also includes some grim pictures showing the heavy piles of dust covering everything. Unlike Steinbeck’s Joad family, these people are stuck in Oklahoma. The miseries pile up with each layer of sand. The farmer, the wife and mother, the preacher, and others are all struggling with the sandy, dry, life-killing Hell. Even the few experiences of having sand or grit in my mouth are unpleasant. Even the seasonal pollen that coats our out-of-doors is a mild plague. Imagining the waves of dust is basically unimagineable.
Myers’ people are a bit like those of Edgar Lee Masters in his famous Spoon River Anthology. The difference is that Myers doesn’t include a wide range of character, and each one speaks through several of the poems.
Okay, here is an interpretation of history and a bit of collateral reading to supplement the Steinbeck novel. Why read the book? This past year (2020) America went through all manner of upheavals primarily springing from the Covid pandemic. Granted many bad things happened. But people often talked about this as though this was the ultimate disaster and crisis of all American and even World history.
Along with that, we suffer. And if we are not suffering, we are prone to not have the empathy needed to help those who are in misery. These poems take us to the inside of such suffering and hardships. Dr. Louise Cowan used to emphasize how literature teaches us of mortality (even as she seemed for a season to defy it while continuing to lecture while in her 90s).
Such poetry, whether Myers’, Masters’, or Masefield’s, provides us with emotional knowledge. We too often put knowledge and reason in one box and emotional responses in another. But human feeling is knowledge of the human condition.
To follow up on this, I will soon discuss Myers’ latest book A Poetics of Orthodoxy: Christian Truth as Aesthetic Foundation. This book is a fine way to deepen our understanding of the hows and whys of poetry.
Save yourself some time by ordering and reading both books.