Poetry is difficult to teach. Sure, I can assign the poems to be read, or we can read them in class. I can generate a few questions about the poem in terms of author, subject, and particular details. But poetry is not easily subjected to a factual set of accomplishments; meaning, I cannot say that I understand T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” because I have learned who he was, when he wrote it, and what images it contains. Poetry has to be felt to a large degree, but this too leads to problems. Often, when we read a poem in class, the students respond with “I liked it” or indications that they didn’t like it. As a teacher, I feel like I am dishing out samples of ice cream flavors at Baskin and Robbins.
The emotional impact of a poem is not something that races straight to the heart, bypassing the brain or reason. In fact, I may not at all like the emotional punch that a poem delivers, but still recognize the power of the poem. “Don’t Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas disturbs me, but it is a great poem. I think that it is odd that we recognize the depth of some types of mathematics and hard sciences, but poetry still gets kicked back into the realm of rhyming words that really serve no purpose.
To admit the next problem is difficult: In spite of having shelves of poetry collections, both anthologies and works by individual authors, I am prone to not read poetry. For the thousandth time, I am seeking to correct this vice, and vice it is for me. My tendency is to start a book with the goal of reading it from beginning to end. I am not a speed reader, but I do want to cover the ground in a reasonably short time. Poetry reading throws all my normal reading patterns off.
Many years ago, I asked my students if they had read the homework assignment, which was to read some poems. A rather good student (who is now a lawyer) said that he scanned over the poems. Technically, scanning a poem is a technique that involves a very close and careful reading. What he meant was that he glanced at the poems and speed-read through–to get the main idea. Imagine applying that to Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony.” Instead of listening for a half hour or so, a person just hears a few notes here and there.
Yet another problem with poetry is the tricky word “interpretation.” I hear it from students: “I don’t know how to interpret poetry.” Once when we were reading The Iliad, a student made this as an objection. And remember that The Iliad and The Odyssey are both poems. This is really nonsense. When Homer says that Achilles thrusts a spear through some hapless Trojan, there is not extraordinary or hidden or veiled or metaphorical meaning. Often we think of poetry as though it consists of riddles. We read over a poem numerous times with puzzlement, and then the light comes on! “Oh, it’s talking about a hippopotamus!”
Granted, poems contain the veiled, mysterious, metaphorical, and obscure, but the goal is not figuring out the riddle. There are so many wrong ways to read poetry. I confess that I am still struggling to read poetry better. Some of my struggles, which have been more successful, are highlighted in the brief reviews to follow.
I read Some Permanent Things by James Matthew Wilson last spring and read it all wrong. I thought the poems to be fine, but had run through them far too hastily. Let’s just call that misadventure a pre-reading.
I then began–in late May–to read through his poems again. This time I read slowly. I kept my cell phone handy so I could look up words that were a bit off my vocabulary chart (and there were several) and places that I was unfamiliar with and people, usually other poets, that he referenced. The richness of his poems opened quite a bit more. Being that it is a book of poety, I can say that I have read it–twice–but I cannot say that I am through with it.
A big part of my appreciation for this book is knowing that the author is a Christian. But these are not simple ditties designed to affirm our faith. Such things are nice, I’m sure, but trite commonplaces are not what the Christian who wants to really read poetry wants to experience. The faith undergirds the poems. Wilson’s word-experiences contain troublesome thoughts, even unchaste thoughts, memories, questions, and various angles on a host of life experiences. That resembles my own life, rather than a series of faith-platitudes. Again, I am not criticizing encouraging words from believers, but I don’t want my mechanic or dentist to simply exhort me to look to God, and neither should my poet.
Lest I make Wilson’s poetry sound like a “Where’s Waldo” kind of works where the Christian message is hidden in there somewhere, I will share this verse:
“For, while You shroud Yourself in speaking darkness or withdraw,
The world You fashioned coruscates with stars that overawe,
And the abyss in which You set them terrifies my soul.
From those abyssal depths, I cry to You, My God, my goal.
From “De Profundis”
Part of the bigger challenge of poetry is the battle between poetry with rhyme and meter and that which is often called Free Verse. In the world of poetry today, anything goes in all too many cases. In spite of Robert Frost’s complaint that writing free verse was like playing tennis without the net, most of the moderns play poetry without the net.
Wilson describes his labors to work within the parameters of the older forms where rhyme and meter counted. This book, Some Permanent Things, is a second edition. I will add that it is published by Wiseblood Books.
It is really far more than a reprinting of the first book, for Wilson says, “This second edition of Some Permanent Things contains all the poems of the first, but each of them has been rewritten to come closer to that ease and fluency that belongs to the classics of our prosody.” That sentence alone reveals so much about the man and his craft that it alone sold me on the book.
On to a couple of other books:
I am nearly finished with reading The Old Life: New Poems by Donald Hall. I learned of Hall’s death some months back from Remy Wilkins, a most literary friend of mine. My first thought was that I had never heard of Hall, but then discovered that I owned one of his books, Their Ancient Glittering Eyes: Remembering Poets and More Poets. Hall was acquainted with, even more than that, friends with many of the great poets of the twentieth century. Men like Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and others were among his peers and mentors.
Having learned who he was, I was then delighted when I found The Old Life in a used book quarry for a couple of bucks. I have been reading it over the past week or two. Let’s just say that his poems in this collection are strongly autobiographical in a narrative style. At times, I ask myself what makes his poems poetry? I ask that quietly, by the way, so as to not look foolish. There is much that is sad, delightful, whimsical, and homey (home-like) in this work. Yup, I reckon I will need to read it again after I finish. And I need to read som more of his books.
The beautiful book in the collection is Collected Sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I love the beauty and design of that old hardback volume, which was another bargain find. But I do have a bit of concern when poetry is dressed in such finery, lest we think that such poetry is just pretty words for pretty people on pretty occasions.
And I love Edna St. Vincent Millay. I cannot say her name without feeling like it is poetry. Why she is not as popular as Robert Frost is a mystery to me. She was a modern, but her style was very much rooted in the traditions of the past. I may never read this book from cover to cover, but may, instead, open it to a sonnet or there and read randomly. Such is the nature of poetry. And life.