I can’t remember exactly when I became enchanted with the rhythmic compactness of poetry. Maybe it was the delight I felt when my mother read one of my favorite toddler tales about the “funny little bunny” or Dr. Seuss's addictive meter in The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. Many of those early rhymes stuck in my head because of repetitive rereading, but in 5th grade I consciously set out to memorized Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The story drips with suspense, which is accelerated by a setting imbued with darkness, coldness and aloneness. Dramatic questions abound, which is what we writers aim for because questions keep readers reading to find answers: Who is this person? Why is he stopping in this remote area? What are the promises he vows to keep and who may be harmed by them? Even after all these years, I'm still drawn to Frost's words.
As I child, I had a vivid imagination. For a time, my career choice was: spy. Even at 7 or 8 years old I knew the downside. If I ever got caught, I was likely to spend some time in prison. I needed a way to entertain myself in solitary confinement, so I began memorizing other poems: Frost’s the “Mending Wall” (Good Fences Make Good Neighbors), and Carl Sandberg’s “Chicago” (Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler; Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders), and his in-your-face “To a Contemporary Bunkshooter,” tough talk that was sure to intimidate my captors.
You come along. . . tearing your shirt. . . yelling about
Where do you get that stuff?
What do you know about Jesus?
Jesus had a way of talking soft and outside of a few
bankers and higher-ups among the con men of Jerusalem
everybody liked to have this Jesus around because
he never made any fake passes and everything
he said went and he helped the sick and gave the
You come along squirting words at us, shaking your fist
and calling us all damn fools so fierce the froth slobbers
over your lips. . . always blabbing we're all
going to hell straight off and you know all about it...
Over the years, I squirreled away copies of the poems I loved best, which I still have in a large plastic envelope. Recently, I thumbed through the pile. The paper is dog-eared from handling and yellowed with age. Inside, I also found a college essay I wrote on Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Everything that Rises Must Converge” and a dreadful poem I wrote at age eighteen or so. Some of my favorites were typed on my mother’s old Royal manual typewriter. Some are on mimeographed sheets from a poetry class I took in college. When I pulled those out of the envelope, I put my nose to the pages, hoping to rekindle that intoxicating fragrance of mimeograph ink but the scent had gone missing.
I also found “Portrait of a Southern Lady” from John Brown’s Body, Stephen Vincent Benét’s epic poem about the American Civil War. The excerpt, which I had originally read in a textbook, was hand copied onto lined and hole-punched paper and written in my careful school penmanship. Years after I had fallen in love with his portrait of Mary Lou Wingate, I found the whole work in a used bookstore. It will always be part of my permanent collection because this is one of the most moving and compelling character sketches I have ever read:
…Mary Lou Wingate, as slightly made
And as hard to break as a rapier blade.
Bristol’s daughter and Wingate’s bride,
Never well since the last child died
But staring at pain with courteous eyes.
When the pain outwits it, the body dies,
Meanwhile the body bears the pain...
Stephen Vincent Benét
Many of my favorite poems are philosophical. For example “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley taught me not to overestimate my impact on the universe, something all writers learn sooner or later.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'
Another poem in the pile is a bit of a mystery. It’s called “The Clue,” circa 1970s. I can’t remember where I found it, but it impressed me enough to retype the entire text on the Royal, all four and a half pages of it. The anonymous author pressed every hot-button, angst-filled issue of that era with references to race, war, greed, literature and T.S. Elliott. I found no references to “The Clue” on the Internet. Maybe I have the only surviving copy? It starts:
Maybe we believe it, and maybe we don’t
But on we sing: “A Mighty Fortress is Our God…"
Sure He is
But with reservations…
We need the Lord, when we’re in hot water But Otherwise,
Back to your golden roads and squawking harps…
You know: “Don’t call us…we’ll call you”…
Christianity is for…”crutch-needing” people, old people And kid stuff like that,
We’re past that state; this is the age of technology.
Anyway we’re kicking old Zen around,
Giving it a whirl.
Later, it reads:
That’s what I don’t like
Because then the questions come thick and fast:
Where am I going?
What am I doing?
Riots in Algeria,
The freedom riders
Conservation in Maine
The men in space
Ban the bomb
“Black Like Me” !!!
And still later:
Back to the books
Back to course 322…
On how to out psych the Prof.
Back to Econ.
Always coming at us in a mad swirl.
No time to stop.
No time to think.
Keep in there…
A thirst for knowledge.
A search for truth.
Don’t make me laugh...
I want that piece of paper that leads to
10 Harmony Haven
Home of the split level
And the split personality...
I often wonder about the author of this piece, who he/she is and what prompted this outpouring of anguish, much of which seems universal even today. Perhaps I wasn’t meant to know who wrote it. Perhaps the words are enough.
The word according to Virginia Woolf