I memorized my first poem when I was ten and obsessed with horses. The poem was called The Untamed Spirit by an unknown author and appeared on my horse calendar. Here it is, directly from my memory:
His stance is proud, his heart is pure, his loyalty unbound
And when he runs, his hoof beats echo thunder’s noble sound.
His swiftness challenges the wind, in untamed majesty.
His spirit ever riderless. His soul forever free.
Much as I loved that poem, I forgot about poetry as a teenager, mostly. Here and there, I’d see a poem I’d like hung on a wall or in a greeting card, enjoy it, and move on. I didn’t think about reading poetry. I just liked the idea of poetry. It had an aura of romance. So I imagined myself a poetry fan, although the truth was I didn’t even know who Sylvia Plath was until I was in my twenties.
The turning point was a gift, and I don’t even remember who gave it to me. A box of magnetic poetry took up residence on the fridge of my first apartment. Suddenly evenings dissolved into a meditation in the kitchen, staring at the refrigerator and looking for the right phrase to follow “Whispering summer sky, you move me.”
All of a sudden I was thinking about poetry every time I scrounged for a snack. My friends would come over and do magnetic poetry with me. It became an obsession. If you want to get someone (a teenager, perhaps?) interested in poetry, trust me, this is the way.
Soon after, I walked into a college lecture hall for a class titled Poetry and Poetics. The instructor was the renowned Irish poet Eavan Boland, author of ten volumes of poetry and a beloved professor. She guided us through the most magnificent poems in The Norton Anthology of Poetry in one short semester. We read everything from Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation, to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, to Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck, to Sylvia Plath’s Daddy. There was Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, and John Donne. And then there was me, scribbling endless notes in the margin and focusing all my mental energy on figuring out the meaning of each brief and powerful line. I had never thought so hard about such few words.
Reading poetry is not like reading a good novel or a piece of narrative nonfiction. It makes you do the work, the complete opposite experience of having a writer lay everything out for you just like a good waiter at a restaurant. If you want to fully appreciate a poem, you’ll have to catch the fish, skin it, cook and season it, serve the meal, prepare the salad and dessert, and do the dishes. The moral, of course, is that often times the more work you put into something the more you enjoy it in the end.
To finish this ramble, I’ll keep my magnetic poetry masterpieces to myself, and instead offer you one of my favorite poems that seems relevant this time of year:
The Trees by Philip Larkin
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
Happy National Poetry Month!