Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Poets and poetry

Today at the bookstore I picked up a new Mary Oliver book of poetry (Evidence). She's been a favorite poet since a friend gave me The Leaf and the Cloud a few years ago. The new book has a CD in the back, which I assume is filled with Oliver (or a surrogate) reading the poems inside. And friends are busy writing poems on their blogs, even sending me websites (here's Milkweed's e-poems) that connect me more than ever to current poetry.

I have been guilty of spending whole days of my life sitting around reading poetry of one kind or another (usually when I'm in love), and sending poems in emails to others. But what is a good poem? Some people I know are so prejudiced against poetry that they consider them to be just fluff. I have often wondered if a good poem is sort of like a sculpture: you remove all that is not the poem, and what remains is the poem. (A sculpture in this sense being where you remove and eliminate what is not the sculpture in order to reveal the underlying form.)

My favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, said this about poets:
I reckon - when I count at all -
First - Poets - Then the Sun -
Then Summer - Then the Heaven of God -
And then - the List is done -

But, looking back - The First so seems
To Comprehend the Whole -
The Others look a needless Show -
So I write - Poets - All -

ED, 1862
But of course she was one of the greatest poets, so it might look that way to her. There are people who have spent their entire lives studying her poetry, becoming Dickinsonian scholars. To me, a good poem is one that I read over several times and feel satisfaction afterward. A great poem is one that I read several times and I'm somehow expanded and elevated by having read it. I'm more than I was before, the poem is more than it was at the first reading, and my life is enriched.

Emily Dickinson was a real enigma. Only seven of her poems were published during her lifetime (all of which were altered by well-meaning editors), and it was only because her sister Lavinia found Emily's ebony box of poems after she died that any of them were eventually published. For the last two decades of her life, Emily never went out of her home and had no physical contact with others. When she had visitors, she sat on one side of the door, they sat on the other and they conversed. Although she had a very rich inner life and a lively correspondence, she ordered that everything except that box of poems be burned when she died, and so much of who she was in the earthly sense has been lost. In the book Ancestor's Brocades, by Millicent Todd Bingham, a quote offers a tantalizing clue:
When Colonel Higginson asked Emily whether "she never felt want of employment, never going off the place, and never seeing any visitor," she replied, "I never thought of conceiving that I could ever have the slightest approach to such a want in all future time," and added, "I feel that I have not expressed myself strongly enough."
I myself believe that she was so attuned to her inner self and inner life that going out and being involved in the world would have tainted her somehow, so she lived in her father's house, in a real ivory tower. She fascinates me, because this person who lived as she did has expressed herself in poems that live on and on, long after her physical self perished, touching on the whole gamut of earthly life.

So many of us pass through this world and leave little or nothing behind for others. And does it really matter if we do? Who knows? But I thank God for Emily and for Shakespeare, and for Mozart, and...

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