When I was a child, there was a bookshelf in our living room and on that bookshelf lived a copy of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayam. I don’t remember when I first delved into this book. I know I was still in grade school and I do remember that my initial attraction was to the lovely, colorful illustrations that accompanied the text. It was a handsome book indeed -- hardbound with its own slipcase, pages smooth to the touch, text printed in some kind of fancy font that was almost as pretty as the pictures. The very act of holding the book and turning its pages provided the kind of keen excitement and pleasure that can only be had by a child -- because it was a thing of wonder. But being a precocious reader, I did eventually decide to read the words within. And it was there I found one of the first bits of poetry that lodged in my brain and never left:
The moving finger writes and having writ,
Moves on. Nor all your piety nor wit
May call it back to cancel half a line.
Is that an exact quotation from the volume I read? Who knows? The book has long since disappeared. But it’s close enough. What’s more important is the reason I’ve remembered for 50 years or more; because although I didn’t understand it, it had a resonance and weight that made me believe I should. So I adopted it, held on to it like a puzzle piece that I brought out periodically, one that I turned and twisted to see if it would fit some empty spot in the current context of my life. So began my childhood fascination with poets and poetry.
It was around this same time that I discovered two old college textbooks that had been my mother’s. These were the type of literature anthologies that we find commonplace as adults. Nothing particularly special. But to the young me, they were treasure troves. Within those pages, I first encountered Robert Frost. There was The Road Not Taken:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not be one traveler
And travel both, long I stood.
And stared down one to where it bent in the undergrowth
Then took the other,
As just as fair, and having perhaps the lesser wear.
There was The Hired Hand:
Home is the place where,
When you go there,
They have to take you in.
There was Mending Wall:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall
Frost is one of the poets I remember reading earlier in my childhood, more accessible than some others and yet still speaking to a mysterious world that begged to be understood. I adopted more puzzle pieces and stored them away.
As the years passed and I moved from young child toward puberty, I encountered (or perhaps tackled) poets of a darker nature. Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night comes to mind:
Old age … should rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And of course there was Shakespeare, whose plays I devoured without much depth of understanding. Yet I liked the characters and the exotic settings. At the age of ten or eleven, I was beginning to grasp more of the realities of the adult world and I could see that passion and ambiguity there. Did I fully get it? Was I capable of the complexity of emotion contained in the words I read? Not entirely. But once again, there were those words that I adopted and carried with me. There were these from MacBeth:
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time.
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death.
Out, out brief candle. Life’s but a walking shadow,
A poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.
It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
During my last year of grade school, my mother enrolled me in a speech class. This was an oral interpretation class where a few young people learned how to stand up in front of an audience and quote poetry. One of the pieces I elected to use in the class was T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. Lord knows what the nice woman who taught the class thought of that choice. To be honest, I don’t recall much of anything about that particular work. But It did lead me to some of Eliot’s other work, including The Hollow Men. In The Hollow Men, I ran across another bit of poetry to adopt:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Poetry is something that has stayed with me throughout a lifetime. There have been poets whose work has both moved and challenged me as an adult: Pablo Neruda, Wallace Stevens, John Berryman, Adrienne Rich and Theodore Roethke to name a very few. There have been those who spoke out against injustice and those who danced with beauty. There have been those like Lewis Carroll who made me laugh, those like Sylvia Plath whose lives have made me sad and those like Joyce Kilmer who made me cringe. In all these ways, poetry has been a constant in my life.
In American culture today, despite our colleges and literary journals, poetry has become unfashionable. When poetry has attained any degree of popularity, it has been at the hands of craftsmen like Rod McKuen whose work reads sweet though not profound. Perhaps this is because its place has been taken by song lyrics and other art forms just as expressive of the human experience. Perhaps this is because we no longer need it in the way that previous generations have. Yet I can’t help but think how much poorer my own life would be without the presence of poetry -- without its mystery and ambiguity, without its questions, without its emotional punctuation. Someday, I hope we will find a need for poetry again. I fear that its absence leaves us all poorer in many ways.