I used to be a poet. Of sorts. At least I used to think of myself in that way when I was young. Now as an adult I rarely find time for poetry, rarely make time to think high thoughts and enjoy language for its primary purpose: intimacy. We tend to favor language for persuasion and information, but those came long after its first purpose of raw communication. When people say “Did I use that right?” or “Is that even a word?” they’re worried about information or persuasion. Typically in those moments where we worry about the “right” word, communication was already achieved and the usagery of proper-fide grammatics matters little. Ironically poetry, one facet to the language of intimacy (a space shared with coos, sighs, moans and prayer), depends on “the right words in the right order.” At least to Coleridge…
That realization and a tip on poetry reading threw me back into the game. Now I’m reading again, but not to sound smart or to get information or to persuade some girl to date me. Now I read to find those garnets and emeralds in the riverbed of poetic thought that show the way to diamonds—those phrases, those thoughts that express what it means to be human.
I started with my American anthology, moved to my Major British Writers tomes for Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the version of Faerie Queen edited by none other than Clive Staples Lewis. Eventually, however, I started to realize that other than the New Yorker and the Missouri Review, I’ve yet to read work by living poets who influence the craft. My poetic imagination (until this week) grew no older than 1967–the death of Langston Hughes. That was forty-five years ago. That discovery threw my poetic imagination into a mid-life crisis.
I went to my local Joplin Public Library and what do I find but a fabric-bound, silk-paged Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. At first, I’m leery. I’ve seen these before (like my American anthology) and they seldom help me move beyond the sixties death line. I crack the first pages to find old friends like E. E. Cummings, T. S. Elliot, Ezra Pound and the inevitable Robert Frost.
Quickly the names branch out to include those still living and those who passed at the close of the Twentieth Century. I crack these pages to find new friends. Robert Creely says, “you want so much so little” while James Merrill points out the “little dog revolving round a spindle/gives rise to harmonies beyond belief,/A cast of stars….Is there in Victor’s heart/No honey for the vanquished? Art is art./The life it asks of us is a dog’s life.” Frank O’Hara extends his sarcastic hand to me while John Ashberry leaves me musing for days over his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Most moving was Galway Kinnell’s After Making Love We Hear Footsteps, specifically the line “sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake.” For the Anniversary of My Death I’ve contemplated writing many things in my journal and W.S. Merwin’s poem by the same name offered counterpoints to things I’ve thought for years.
Oh there are others like James Wright’s In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia, Has Been Condemned or Philip Levine’s streak of vegetarian rebukes or Anne Sexton’s haunting reflections on suicides, Anne who took her own life at the unripe age of forty-six. I will continue to explore this anthology, this rescue mission for my poetic mind, and dream up new ways to see things and think of life.
For unlike many who stumble upon this blog (sometimes literally), I graduated with neither a degree in the classics nor in English nor with an emphasis on poetry, creative writing or storytelling. My learning on these subjects is patchwork, a quilt of scraps I unearth from library stacks or chance upon inside the dumpster behind my house, refuse like Tom Sawyer and Gone With the Wind and Uncle Tom’s Cabin and A Tale of Two Cities that someone threw away for the burden. Perhaps for the danger of throwing away literary giants my city posted those signs on my dumpster: “No public dumping.” It’s a sad time for our people when you can dumpster dive for the classics. These books are no burden on me, they are light and easy yokes. I tend to think like good Will Hunting:
“You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a education you coulda got for a dolla fifty in late charges at the public library .”
Five out of five stars on this one, as far as anthologies go.
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