Jay Ambrose: How about a poetry century?
It’s April, it’s national poetry month, but here’s what I’d suggest — that we have poetry year or poetry century or poetry millennium. Where else but poetry, after all, are we going to find an echo asking a shadow to dance, queried the poet Carl Sandburg. Oh, excuse me. This is a newspaper column. I have to get prosaic.
My argument, then, is that, for their own enlightening delight, more people should read poetry and read it regularly. They’re allowed to refuse intimidation, scorning the stuff that never descends from hoity-toity peaks of academe, as they partake instead in the elation of language that’s not only clear but inviting.
Using rhyme sometimes, all kinds of other tricks with sound, taking advantage of rhythm, deploying visual images, making you hear, taste and smell what’s in someone else’s mind, poetry can grab your imagination and take you places you never expected. It hints at vastness behind the literal. It intrigues, it awakens, it stimulates, it enlarges.
Most definitions that try to encompass the whole of poetry end up failing, but there’s this some say about much of it: The words mysteriously conspire to give you a vivifying experience that is never captured in after-the-fact paraphrase.
I don’t mean that analysis and summing up meanings never have their legitimate purposes. I am contending instead that there’s a difference between being slammed to the ground or tossed to the clouds by a poem and reflecting later about what was said and the sensation’s causes.
There was a time, for instance, when I came across “One Art,” a great poem by Elizabeth Bishop. It’s about how we try to cope as so much passes out of our lives, from houses we lived in to people we loved. Even if I went on in detail about each line, I don’t think it would make you cry. When I read the actual poem aloud to my wife, she cried.
Crying is not the only thing poetry can make you do. It can also make you laugh, as when you read Billy Collins, a former national poet laureate who has written some pieces with no humor at all — such as one on 9/11 — but others that have you chuckling even as you journey into less-certain territory and suddenly note something serious going on. He himself confesses that intent.
In his poem “Forgetfulness,” you might well grin, as I did, when he says first you forget the author, then the title, then the plot and then the entire novel. The apparent joshing, it turns out, is prelude to a phrase about being “on your own way to oblivion” and suggestions of a life less than what it was.
You’re not left forlorn by this — at least I wasn’t. Good spirits mostly carry the day with Collins, as they did when he recently appeared for a poetry reading I attended in Denver. He kept the audience in as uproarious a mood as a comedian might even as there were interesting emotive gasps punctuating the proceedings.
His name might not be known to you, but Collins is reported to be the most popular poet in the country, and I can give you a good reason. Besides having major gifts, he believes in what he calls “surface clarity” in poetry, cluing you in immediately on what’s transpiring. Believe me, there are lots more like him, dozens whose works are worth knowing, even if you someday forget them, and they are all over the Internet, just a Google click away.
All cultures we know anything about, I’ve read, have had poetry, if only oral. Religion is full of poetry — poets of all faiths letting you see inside that faith, the psalms, of course, scads of other biblical passages, as well as hymns and many prayers. Secular life is surrounded by it, too. Just open the door, not only for the rest of this special month, but whenever you want a keener sense of what the commotion of this world and this life is all about.
Start with Collins. I bet you’ll like him.
Jay Ambrose was formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers. Email: SpeaktoJay@aol.com.