A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
— John Keats, from Endymion
I used to love poetry.
In high school, I was obsessed with it. I read it often. I wrote it often. It was an integral part of my life.
I grew older, though, and somehow less poetic. Perhaps I grew too content. Perhaps I simply stopped viewing the world through the eyes of a poet, or the eyes of a writer. Whatever the case, poetry was dead to me.
That’s no longer the case. Over the past few years, I’ve rekindled my love for poetry. While I used to be fond of free verse and blank verse, I find that now I’m inclined to like the rigid, structured stuff: poems with strong rhythm and meter, poems that rhyme.
Like this one.
She Walks in Beauty
by George Gordon, Lord Byron
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling place.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!
It seems to me that anyone can write a poem without meter, without rhyme, but it takes a special genius to construct a thing of beauty within the confines imposed by the traditional poetic structure.
Still, a good poem is a thing of beauty, no matter its structure:
Sailing to Byzantium
by William Butler Yeats
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees –
Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
by Robert Frost
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Courtney loaned me a book the other day: Good Poems, an anthology edited by Garrison Keillor collecting poems he’s read over the years on his Writer’s Almanac. In the introduction, Keillor writes: “Stickiness, memorability, is one sign of a good poem. You hear it and a day later some of it is still there in the brainpan.”
I like this definition. (And not just for poetry. All good things are “sticky”.)
And I like the anthology. It truly is filled with little gems, such as:
by Dana Gioia
We stood on the rented patio
While the party went on inside.
You knew the groom from college.
I was a friend of the bride.
We hugged the brownstone wall behind us
To keep our dress clothes dry
And watched the sudden summer storm
Floodlit against the sky.
The rain was like a waterfall
Of brilliant beaded light,
Cool and silent as the stars
The storm hid from the night.
To my surprise, you took my arm —
A gesture you didn’t explain —
And we spoke in whispers, as if we two
Might imitate the rain.
Then suddenly the storm receded
As swiftly as it came.
The doors behind us opened up.
The hostess called your name.
I watched you merge into the group,
Aloof and yet polite.
We didn’t speak another word
Except to say goodnight.
Why does that evening’s memory
Return with this night’s storm —
A party twenty years ago,
Its disappointments warm?
There are so many might have beens,
What ifs that won’t stay buried,
Other cities, other jobs,
Strangers we might have married.
And memory insists on pining
For places it never went,
As if life would be happier
Just by being different.
Why is it that I’m drawn to melancholy poems? Perhaps this goes hand-in-hand with my theory that only the unhappy can produce truly great poetry.
by Richard Jones
I lay on the bed
while she opened windows
so we could see the river
and the factories beyond.
Afternoon light falling
beautifully into the room,
she burned candles,
incense, talking quietly
as I listened —
I, who conspired
to make this happen,
weaving a web of words that held
the moment at its center.
What could I say now?
That I am a man
empty of desire?
She stood beside the bed,
looking down at me,
as if she were dreaming,
as if I were a dream,
as if she too had come
to the final shore of longing.
I lay, calm as a lake
reflecting the nothingness
of late summer sky.
The real problem is that Keillor’s collection is filled with too many good poems. I want to share them all. (That’s hyperbole, by the way, as you can probably guess. Still, there are many, many good poems here.)
Romantics: Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann
by Lisel Mueller
The modern biographers worry
“how far it went,” their tender friendship.
They wonder just what it means
when he writes he thinks of her constantly,
his guardian angel, beloved friend.
The modern biographers ask
the rude, irrelevant question
of our age, as if the event
of two bodies meshing together
establishes the degree of love,
forgetting how softly Eros walked
in the nineteenth century, how a hand
held overlong or a gaze anchored
in someone’s eyes could unseat a heart,
and nuances of address not known
in our egalitarian language
could make the redolent air
tremble and shimmer with the heat
of possibility. Each time I hear
the Intermezzi, sad
and lavish in their tenderness,
I imagine the two of them
sitting in a garden
among late-blooming roses
and dark cascades of leaves,
letting the landscape speak for them,
leaving us nothing to overhear.
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
I must stop. Must stop.
Oh, okay, one more:
Hay for the Horses
by Gary Snyder
He had driven half the night
From far down San Joaquin
Through Mariposa, up the
Dangerous Mountain roads,
And pulled in at eight a.m.
With his big truckload of hay
behind the barn.
With winch and ropes and hooks
We stacked the bales up clean
To splintery redwood rafters
High in the dark, flecks of alfalfa
Whirling through shingle-cracks of light,
Itch of haydust in the
sweaty shirt and shoes.
At lunchtime under Black oak
Out in the hot corral,
—The old mare nosing lunchpails,
Grasshoppers crackling in the weeds—
“I’m sixty-eight” he said,
“I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.
I thought, that day I started,
I sure would hate to do this all my life.
And dammit, that’s just what
I’ve gone and done.”
These are good poems. I love good poems.
I still love poetry.
Here, then, are some good links, a sort of effort to spread the poetic mood.
First, from the archives of this weblog, you can find the aforementioned Writer’s Almanac entry. I also once wrote about the great poet Langston Hughes, so recently re-vilified by the radical Right. I spent an entry adoring the poem To Posterity by Bertolt Brecht. I wrote about the Wine, Cheese, and Poetry dinner party that Kris and I hosted a couple of years ago (and plan to host again in 2005 — sennoma, want to come?). Finally, I shared a similar Poetical Interlude over a year ago, at which time I shared my favorite poems: The Sunlight on the Garden by Louis MacNeice, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning by John Donne, Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.