Jay Ambrose: The gifts of poetry
ěIt is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.î
ó From ěAsphodel, That Greeny Flowerî by William Carlos Williams
April is poetry month and you ought to tune in. If you already have and get the poem-a-day e-mail offering from KnopfPoetry.com, you maybe encountered ěThe Coat,î as I did, and then read Deborah Digges saying, ěI wore your clothes when you went out of town.î
She explains that she wore this personís shirts as pajamas and this personís coats when she walked their dogs, and you figure she is writing about her husband. Soon enough, when she sees a face like his ěthrough those last wretched months of your long illness,î you know that ěout of townî means the husband is dead.
ěForgive me,î says the poet, after mentioning the lookalike, ěI was happy in your coat to see you!î I found great sweetness in that line and then re-read the introduction to the poem, focusing on how Digges, full of grief, had committed suicide in 2009.
ěOh my goodness,î I said, and my wife in the next room asked what was wrong, and I said, ěNothing.î I had simply read a poem along with some extra-poetic information, and had a lesson in grief but also a lesson in how Digges had had a sense of seeing her lost husband again, of being reunited with him. Before her desperation had become too much for her, she had brief relief. I cannot explain in prose all the implications I felt in that remarkable line. Poetry is mostly its own explanation.
The analysis we find in criticism does have its place, but it examines after the fact while poetry gives immediate experience. Like other forms of art, it takes you someplace and then collides and colludes with you. The amazing consequence can often be a seeming flash of insight, revivification, a new awareness. If all of that does not keep you from misery, as the poet William Carlos Williams suggests in the lines above, it often does connect you with the universe in an astonishing way.
I think that by turning to poems, at least the good ones, we enrich ourselves, and that entering this world is not so forbidding as some may believe. Move on from the confusing poems and find enchantment in the best of the past and the new, in Shakespeareís sonnets, for instance, in William Butler Yeats and Alfred Lord Tennyson, in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, in T.S. Eliot, in Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elizabeth Bishop, in one of my favorite anthologies, something called ěStaying Alive.î
The Internet swarms with outstanding poetry, as in the site I mentioned, but in many, many more, and if you explore enough, you will find what works for you.
The best way to talk about this is to talk about poems themselves, such as ěThe Artillerymanís Visionî by the 19th centuryís Whitman. It was offered up by KnopfPoetry.com in an e-mail in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.
Whitman, a combat nurse, tells us of a veteran in bed after the war with his wife, listening to his infant child breathe nearby, then having the contrasting sights and sounds of the battlefield come back to him and envelop his senses.
The spared artilleryman tells us he is focused on the show, parenthetically explaining that he does not heed the dying or the wounded dripping their red blood. But what we know, of course, is that the dying and the wounded are exactly what he does heed in the comfort of his home, that their dreadful fate is a reason this nagging, thundering vision has come to him and may never leave him alone.
Engage with this poem, and you learn about the Civil War in a special way.
Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. Email: SpeaktoJay@aol.com.