I have the Poetry Foundation‘s Daily Poem brought into my feedreader every day. There’s a number of things I like about this, the most obvious being that it delivers a fresh new poem to me every day that more often than not I really like and enjoy. Another feature I like is that I can save my favourite poems – I’ll just log in with my e-mail and I can save every poem I want to keep. And even though I have a lot of them saved by now, I still know exactly which one’s which and what I felt with each one and so on.
So this morning when I read the title of the Daily Poem in my feedreader my heart gave a glad little skip and I could smell the salty tang of the ocean and the harbour, hear the voices of a city waking up, could feel the exhilarated tiredness, the itching eyes, the smiles tugging at the corners of the mouth through the yawns, the glad-eyed blinking in the sunlight after a night talked through with a friend. I just love poetry for being able to make me feel all that! The poem was one that I’d saved as a favourite some time ago and reading it again was like meeting an old friend. I really like it and here it is, just for you:
BY EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY
it’s all very well
saying I’ll only do what I want to do
when what I really want to do is
soar across an evening sky
look down on a landscape of open space
mountains on the horizon
the red sun lighting them up from beyond
the moon riding high and cold
on air that is cool
and tasty and supporting me
slipping along my body
carrying me as I glide over
the dusky emptiness
While putting together a collection of music for a friend, I got stuck on Nick Drake. To be exact, on Bryter Layter. And writing a little anecdote for said friend, explaining why I’d chosen this album, I relived the times I described and it suddenly became so real and so overwhelming that I couldn’t go on and am now, on an autumnal Saturday night, at my desk, listening to the whole album and drifting somewhere between daydreaming and remembering. I will just hope that the friend in question does not read this post before I can send the music off, because I’m just going to copy what I just wrote for him half an hour ago because I can’t describe it any better:
I can’t say that I have a favourite Nick Drake album, but if I had one, I think it would be this or Pink Moon. This is my “falling-asleep-under-the-stars” album. I listened to it almost every night when I was travelling in Croatia. I’d be outside in the sun all day, hiking or swimming or reading or writing or meditating and when it started getting dark, I’d crawl into my little tent and watch the stars through the mosquito net of the open tentflap, snuggled into the sleeping bag more for comfort than warmth and I’d listen to the rustle of the wind in the pines and the creaking of wood as the earth slowly cooled down and then I’d put on my mp3-player and listen to this album very softly.
I held on to that feeling in a poem. I’ll share it below the songs, together with a photo I dedicated to the poem.
cold stars are out
warm and safe
in the dark
in my ears
piano and guitar
for lonely songs
with intricate longings
and the vulnerable voice
of a musician
who died too young
and yet can make me feel
in this night
shimmering into sight
from the dusty mauve
from the grey-blue emptiness
from the velvet vastness
through the lingering heat and the songs of the crickets
single spark in the fading daylight
guiding my thoughts towards my dreams
Part of my morning routine is to open my feedreader and ignore all the multitude of updated feeds and go straight for one special one. Then I’ll lean back, sip my tea or coffee and read. That one feed is the feed linking the ‘Poem of the Day’ of the Poetry Foundation, that delivers a new and fresh poem to me every day.
It’s a revelation every day. Some days, I might not connect with the poem. Other days, I just don’t like it. Most days, however, it’ll give me something. A smile. An insight. A thought. A feeling. On the best days, a surprised gasp, a disbelieving re-reading with a growing warmth rising up from my stomach to my chest to my head, where it will pop like bubbles into untamed joy and wonder. Those days are special.
I’ll save that poem and probably write about it or talk about it or share it with friends. Those that are into oetry and those that aren’t. I don’t pay any attention to that – the latter category will just have to give it a try. That poem will colour my day, set the tone for it, provide atmosphere. I save them, and when I read them again, I can recall that first joy, like remembering that first butterfly in your stomach when you realize you are falling in love with the person you’re looking at.
Because they are special (to me), I want to share some of these poems. Or rather, since they aren’t mine to share, I want to share my feelings about them and maybe give others the chance to feel something similar. Or something different. Each according to their tastes. So I’ve decided to start a mini-series. I’m not a fan of weekly schedules and I don’t want it to feel forced, to me or to others, so I’m not going to write a weekly installment, but rather whenever it feels right to do so. I’m still thinking of a clever title for that venture and so far I haven’t got it. (Titles are my great stumbling blocks, I hate having to think them up. I’m open for suggestions.)
The first one I want to share is one that has come back to me the last couple of days. I first read it some months ago, three, four, something like that. I’ve thought of it in the meantime, but for two or three days it’s been very present in my mind. It’s set in spring and written from a guy’s perspective. I don’t know why it speaks to me so much right now, in the middle of summer. I’m guessing that it might be something to do with my itching feet and the fact that I want to travel and see new places, meet new people, have fresh winds blowing in my face. Or maybe it’s just he fact that it’s a great poem. Judge for yourselves. Here goes:
……..A Color of the Sky by Tony Hoagland via The Poetry Foundation
…….. Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,
…….. driving over the hills from work.
…….. There are the dark parts on the road
…….. when you pass through clumps of wood
…….. and the bright spots where you have a view of the ocean,
…….. but that doesn’t make the road an allegory.
……… I should call Marie and apologize
…….. for being so boring at dinner last night,
…….. but can I really promise not to be that way again?
…….. And anyway, I’d rather watch the trees, tossing
…….. in what certainly looks like sexual arousal.
……… Otherwise it’s spring, and everything looks frail;
…….. the sky is baby blue, and the just-unfurling leaves
…….. are full of infant chlorophyll,
…….. the very tint of inexperience.
…….. Last summer’s song is making a comeback on the radio,
…….. and on the highway overpass,
…….. the only metaphysical vandal in America has written
…….. MEMORY LOVES TIME
…….. in big black spraypaint letters,
…….. which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back.
…….. Last night I dreamed of X again.
…….. She’s like a stain on my subconscious sheets.
…….. Years ago she penetrated me
…….. but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed,
…….. I never got her out,
…….. but now I’m glad.
…….. What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.
…….. What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.
…….. What I thought was an injustice
…….. turned out to be a color of the sky.
…….. Outside the youth center, between the liquor store
…….. and the police station,
…….. a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;
…….. overflowing with blossomfoam,
…….. like a sudsy mug of beer;
…….. like a bride ripping off her clothes,
…….. dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,
…….. so Nature’s wastefulness seems quietly obscene.
…….. It’s been doing that all week:
……. making beauty,
…….. and throwing it away,
…….. and making more.
I love every line of this. Every single line. In the following, I’ll just jot down a few notes on what this makes me feel and think. (I give you leave to not be interested in that, so you don’t need to feel bad if you stop reading at this point. The important thing is the poem itself.)
It starts right off with the picture of driving on a road through woods, with glimpses of the ocean, and straight away I want to be off, driving down that road. I think I have driven down that road, and if I haven’t, I will. I also like that kind of wry humour, when he says ‘but that doesn’t make the road an allegory’.
I love the honesty. He should follow the social conventions, but, whatever… can’t be bothered, will only do it again anyway, so what’s the use… And anyway, the tossing trees are much more interesting. (I agree, by the way)
Is it possible to top that part about ‘the only metaphysical vandal in America’? I don’t think so. It’s a funny, intelligent, throw-away remark, as is the line underneath: ‘which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back’. It makes me smile and nod in recognition. It’s the kind of half-silly, half-deep thing you’ll think when your thoughts are drifting and maybe you’re a little tired, but at peace with yourself.
And there, buried in the middle of it, as if to hide it, is that lyrical, wonderful, suggestive stanza, that sounds as if it’s straight out of a beautiful pop song: ‘What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle. What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel. What I thought was an injustice turned out to be a color of the sky.’ Can’t you just hear that being sung? I definitely can.
The end, everything onward from ‘Outside the youth center …’ is perfect. I cannot even pick out one line or one part that I want to highlight especially, because I feel that once you’ve read it, there is nothing left to say. The dogwood tree, that is ‘loosing its mind’ – can’t you just see that? Coupled with the tossing trees in sexual arousal and the spring wind from the beginning, it makes such a painfully vivid picture.
I could write so much more about it, and actually, the more I write, the more I have to say, but this is already very long, and anyway, I’m sure you’re much more interested in using your own imagination and go and explore the pictures this poem has conjured up for you. I hope you have fun.
I never learned to love poetry. On the contrary – every time poetry came up at school, all it did was bore us and later on, faintly embarrass us (all that soppy stuff on love and passion! A poem on flowers – yawn! Poetry on dead people! How bizarre. Poetry on wars?! wtf?!?). And always the same questions. ‘What did the poet mean?’ – ‘What rhyming scheme was used?’ – ‘What literary devices can you make out?’ – ‘What is the historical context of this poem?’ – … ENOUGH ALREADY! While I generally read at the same pace as I was able to eat chocolate ice-cream (= very fast) and in amounts that sometimes seemed equally unhealthy to my family, I never touched poetry. I didn’t see what the fuss was about. I didn’t see it until I read Leonard Cohen.
I’d listened to Cohen’s songs since my early teens, and they were some of the first reasons that I really went through the struggle of applying my school-taught English to a specific task (understanding the lyrics; ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ in particular). I’d never considered the lyrics as poetry though. So one day, as I looked through the books in my Dad’s study, I came across a collection of Cohen’s poems. The ones he transformed into song, and even more that were just poems. I sat down on the floor and started reading. By then my English was good enough to get at least the gist of most of them.
And what a gist it was! It blew my brain. There were images that I could see without ever having seen them, sensory explosions in my mind as the written words travelled through my eyes into my brain! And the rhythms… and none of it rhymed or was forced or dealt with any high-brow topic – just a guy talking about the women he had loved, who had left him and who he missed and hated at the same time… just talking about this personal stuff, so very vulnerable and in such simple words, and yet every single thing he said was universal and I could understand it – no, not just understand it, feel it – even though I couldn’t be more of an opposite to him – female, two generations removed, grown up in a different culture and time, not even having really been in love before… And yet, I GOT what he said with every fibre of my bone.
It was a revelation.
I’ve stayed true to the master, and I will defend to the end my opinion that he is one of the greatest poets that ever lived, but he also helped me to appreciate other poets. I’ve bought books full of poetry; anthologies and books by individual poets. I read poetry online. I listen to the poetry of songs. A new poem finds its way into my mailbox every morning and reading it has become a treasured part of my morning routine. Hell, I even write poetry myself! And since that time, the only criterion that I use when approaching a poem is this: does it resonate with me?
That is the only thing you really need to teach about poetry in school: to read a great deal and a great variety and to pay attention to what each poem does with you. All the rest will follow by itself. I wish they’d taught me that. I might not have missed out on years and years of enjoying beauty.
I’d like to read
one of the poems
that drove me into poetry
I can’t remember one line
or where to look
The same thing
happened with money
girls and late evenings of talk
Where are the poems
that led me away
from everything I loved
to stand here
naked with the thought of finding thee
(Leonard Cohen – I’d like to read )
because it’s a balmy, velvety, starshining night outside and I’m remembering last year’s camping trip to the Balkans with longing, here is a poem I wrote on that trip, pretty much exactly a year ago…
………………..The Evening Cathedral
……………….. Particles of dust and peace
……………….. are floating in the shafts of light
……………….. that boldly enter between
……………….. the high domes of the pine trees.
……………….. Birds are singing hymns
……………….. while angels drift golden and red
……………….. across the serene sky,
……………….. disguised as wisps of cloud.
……………….. And when dusk arrives
……………….. in its dark robe, carrying the evening star,
……………….. men and birds and rocks hold their breath,
……………….. overwhelmed by the immense stillness
……………….. as the world stops spinning for one heartbeat –
……………….. and then goes on with the business of nightfall.
A friend’s status on facebook, quoting Walt Whitman, reminded me to go back to my old copy of ‘Leaves of Grass’ and thumb through it. As usual, I ended up reading ‘Song of the Open Road’, which is something of a personal hymn. Who couldn’t be enchanted by a beginning like this?
Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.
And then, later on, my favourite part of that poem:
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
So yes, Whitman is a bit wordy. And yes, sometimes that can deter from what he has to say, and sometimes it’s plain annoying. And then, just when I’m about to put down the book, I’m caught by the rhythm of the repetition – I get a shiver down the spine from the honest, straight-forward love of humankind that flows from his writing – I stumble across a single, little gem hidden inside the repetitions and the big words
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.
I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes, rhymes,
We convince by our presence.
– and I forgive the repetitions, the overflow of words, and am left only with a sense of grandeur and gratitude. Grandeur in the small things, in small ideas, in small people. Gratitude that there are people like Whitman who was able to see that grandeur, and love it, and express it.
This is an awesomeness-appreciation post. Today, I’m appreciating Dylan Thomas all over again.
To begin at the beginning:
It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.
The first sentence. The very first time I read it, years ago, I was irrevocably hooked. It goes on to describe how the whole town is sleeping, and I love every single word, but the part that I love especially, apart from that first sentence, is this:
Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams, with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glow-worms down the aisles of the organplaying wood. The boys are dreaming wicked or of the bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrodgered sea. And the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields, and the cows in the byres, and the dogs in the wetnosed yards; and the cats nap in the slant corners or lope sly, streaking and needling, on the one cloud of the roofs.
Is there anything more effortlessly vivid, more neatly expressive, more beautifully evocative than that?!? Somehow it’s the ‘anthracite statues of the horses’ that always send a chill down my spine. If you’ve never read Under Milk Wood, you’ve missed out. Go and get it. Even better, listen to it. It’s a radio play, after all.
Which reminds me… You can hear Dylan Thomas read it himself: