It’s a rainy Monday morning. I went to bed feeling disjointed, out of sorts, fighting something. I woke up feeling worse and called out of work. I should be teaching a classroom full of freshmen right now, but am sitting here trying to plan my upcoming Poetry unit instead.
Poetry. Maya Angelou wrote on her web page recently that “I had a very interesting, sometimes difficult, childhood. Poetry became my friend, my buddy, I loved it so. It seemed to have been written just for me.” Her words move me. I can relate. I’ve recently begun to explore my own childhood a bit more deeply, and am coming to terms with its harshness, the dark realities that fit more easily in a drawer or under the rug. Whether in the form of music or words on the page, poetry was my friend, my buddy too. And, oh, how I still love it so.
As a shy little girl, I relished quiet moments curled up with a book and soon discovered the pleasure of shaping my own thoughts and observations into poems. Words provided me escape, shelter, peace.
I remember groaning along with my classmates in one high school English class, in particular, when the teacher began to lecture on the importance of symbolism within poetry. Who cares what the red wheelbarrow symbolizes, I remember thinking. Look how beautiful and delicate it appears on the page. Hear how profoundly simple it sounds. Perfection.
Once in college and graduate school, I continued to tune out the “science” of poetry to gravitate toward the poems that spoke to me, sung to me, got me. Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Audre Lorde. I didn’t care about a poem’s meter or alliteration or rhyme structure, as long as it had the audacity to shake me, pull me, punch me in the gut. Not the most scholarly approach for an English major, I’ll admit, but why mess with soul.
Poetry, like music, has remained a loyal friend to me. When everything else seems loud, overwhelming, and complicated, poetry breaks it down. Simplifies and quiets things. Poetry sucks me into life, one detail at a time. Joe’s jacket. An orange bed. A painting by de Kooning. Small hands. Kitchen glasses of brandy. A Paris sky. A monster in the shape of a woman. Love, death, and the changing of the seasons.
I often think of an evening years ago, when I went to a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg at the bookstore Rizzoli in Soho. Crammed in between overstuffed bookshelves and worshippers like myself, I listened to his every word, peeling and dissecting each one for treasure. After the reading, I inched along the crowded line to have him sign a book of his poems. Bearded, balding, and a bit frailer than I’d imagined, Mr. Ginsberg stared at me intently as I nervously handed him the book to sign. “Beth,” I whispered to him. “Can you sign it to Beth?” He gave me a little smile, explaining he did not sign books to specific names but that he would give me his favorite word instead: Ah. I accepted it gladly. I guess that’s what poetry is after all, isn’t it. Moments. Connections. Truths.
Maya Angelou closed her comments on poetry with, “I think that is what art is supposed to do. Help us to save our lives and to grow.” And that is what I will teach my students. Poetry is not just about rhythm or meter or symbolism, no. Poetry is music, ecstasy, rage, heart, guts. A lifeline. A voice. The truth of poetry lies within the reason the poet had no choice but to write a particular poem in the first place. Breathe or choke. Live or die. The stuff worth learning.
My Essential Poets
1. Frank O’Hara
2. Adrienne Rich
3. Marilyn Hacker
4. Langston Hughes
5. Maya Angelou