When I was at SF writing boot camp (aka Clarion West), one of the highlights of the six weeks was the day that Joe Haldeman, an accomplished poet himself, asked us all to write a poem, using any metrical device we wanted. So indulge me here, friends: I’m going to talk about poetry—sincerely and unpretentiously, because (fortunately for you), I’m no academic, and lack sufficient erudition to bore you with tedious analysis.
I think everyone ought to read poetry, at least occasionally. And GOOD poetry, not fluff. How do you know if it’s good? It’s good if it quickens your pulse, or sends a shiver down your spine; if it’s stood the test of time, far outliving its author, it’s likely very good indeed.
We ought to read poetry because it frees us from the ordinary, giving us a glimpse over our claustrophobic urban horizon, or possibly even beyond the veil. Because great poetry is drenched in magic and speaks of immortality. And because sometimes it just delights.
If you’re a writer, you ought to read poetry, even try your hand at it, because nowhere will you find metaphor, compression, and precision of language to equal the best poetry. I begin or end most days reading a favourite or two; sometimes, I’ll spend a few days memorizing something I really love, and then recalling it at odd times. It’s an exercise worth the effort.
As I said, I’m no academic. So instead of making an ass of myself by attempting to deconstruct the work of the greats, I’ll simply quote a few fragments of my favourites, hoping you’ll savour the words with me, and rest my case there. Take just five minutes, and read these slowly, let them get under your skin. If you were turned off poetry—as I was—at school, maybe these will make you look again.
There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.
– Robert Graves, To Juan at the Winter Solstice
But pleasures are like poppies spread:
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white—then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.
– Robert Burns, Tam o’Shanter
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
– Allen Ginsberg, Howl
Never on this side of the grave again,
On this side of the river
– Christina Rossetti, A Life’s Parallels
— Then do the clouds like silver flags
Stream out above the tattered crags,
And black and silver all the coast
Marshalls its hunched and rocky host,
And headlands striding sombrely
Buttress the land against the sea,
— The darkened land, the brightening wave —
And moonlight slants through Merlin’s cave.
– Vita Sackville-West, Moonlight
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer
– Dylan Thomas, The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower
THIS is a wild land, country of my choice,
With harsh craggy mountain, moor ample and bare.
Seldom in these acres is heard any voice
But the voice of cold water that runs here and there
Through rocks and lank heather growing without any care.
No mice in the heath run nor no birds cry
For fear of the dark speck that floats in the sky.
Robert Graves, Rocky Acres
If you enjoyed any of the above fragments and care to read any of the poems in their entirety, I’m sure they’re available online. I’d also recommend three marvelous volumes:
– The Mentor Book of Major British Poets
– The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse
-The New Oxford Book of Light Verse
To close, here’s one in its entirety. Beyond its gentle humour, I love this one because it reminds me of England, and the vanished eccentricity of its people; and for the poem’s wonderful, strolling rhythm, every bit as suited to the poem as that of Longfellow’s The midnight Ride of Paul Revere.
The Rolling English Road
by G. K. Chesterton
Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.
I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.
His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.
My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.