We’ve talked a lot about fiction here, a bit about non-fiction, and we touched on quite a few films and TV shows because Sarah and I are fiends for a good story. A story doesn’t need to be pretend to be exciting, real to be relatable, or follow a narrative formula to make sense. A good story is true–and that doesn’t mean it has to be anything rooted in reality. Truth is not always as tangible as that. If I’m losing you now, stay with me here–because we’re going somewhere a little new in today’s post.
In my grade school years, I was made to read poetry, and I hated it. I was bored by the forgettable poems of my literature textbooks. But I wrote poetry. That poetry was dark and mostly rather terrible (I rhymed “pain” and “rain” unashamedly). I was probably more influenced by emo musicians (My Chemical Romance, Good Charlotte, the Used, etc.) than any actual poets, so I tended to think of poems as songs without music. But as I wrote more poetry, I couldn’t quite fit a tune to what I was writing. In high school, around that same time, I came across poems that captured me. It wasn’t just pretty words or skillful phrases, though some had that. It was that each spoke a truth, not an obvious one, building to it, dropping it at the end, or holding it aloft and just beyond the reader’s reach.
As I read more poetry in the latter end of high school and throughout college, my tastes broadened–though I’ve still never liked much of the Romantics–but I still was always looking for that quiet truth. Here are a few poems that have stuck in my mind for the past decade and a half. They aren’t necessarily in any order, and I will leave out some, so we might get back to this topic later in the year.
“Rhodora” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
This was the first poem that I couldn’t skim. I stopped while reading it and went back to the beginning. It’s also the only poem of the many I memorized that I still can recite perfectly. I’m not always an Emerson fan, and I tend to be apathetic toward nature poetry, but this one flows beautifully and also makes you think about something beyond the words themselves.
On its surface, it’s about a flower, a rhodora, which is lovely but only grows in darkness, unseen, but Emerson is asking about a lot more:
“Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,
Then beauty is its own excuse for Being”
In the rest of the lines, Emerson questions the purpose of anything, of wonderful things and of moments, suggesting that all things have a reason. Please sit somewhere you can see the sun, but away from distractions, and read this aloud to yourself.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot
The first poem I read by Eliot was probably “The Hollow Men,” which I also recommend highly, but “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is one that lingers in my mind. Eliot is one of those poets who moves from simple language to picturesque phrasing to classic quotes and themes and always seems to be reminding you of some half-forgotten haunting memory.
It has an inconsistent structure and rhyme scheme, and the writing pulsates, guided by the idea more than any poetry rules. There is a good deal of symbolism, but a reader doesn’t need to know the references to Biblical or Shakespearean characters to feel what Eliot is describing:
“To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.”
The poem itself is written with a note of indecisiveness–ellipsis points, self-interruptions, interjections, and clarifications. It’s supposedly a love song, but it’s not clearly about any specific love. The narrator tells of his observations and knowledge, but continually reminds us that he does not expect anything from anyone or the universe itself. He compares himself to various tragic characters (Lazarus, John the Baptist, Hamlet), but hesitates to make any impact himself. The lines are repetitive and one can imagine the narrator wringing his hands and looking about as he speaks.
Please read this one aloud too–by a window as the sun goes down, with a cup of some very strong black tea.
“Report on Human Beings” by Michael Goldman
I read this poem in a creative writing class junior year of college, and while I can always remember various lines from it, I can never remember the title or the author. (Maybe typing it up here will help avoid another lengthy Google search using keywords and fragments?) Goldman’s word choices are wonderfully evocative, even when he lists seemingly random common-place words. It’s written on behalf of humanity and it provides more than a report, but a montage of human existence. Who Goldman is addressing is unclear, but presumably a species that has come after the demise of humanity–aliens? The tone, as you read on, becomes progressively eerie once you realize who he speaks to, but also makes you feel sad and nostalgic, as if humans were already gone:
“Our love of poetry would have amused you;
we were so proud of language
we thought we invented it
(and thus failed to notice
the speech of the animals,
the birds’ repeated warnings,
the whispered intelligence
of mutant cells).”
It’s also strangely encouraging, a reminder that as awful as humans can be, and while we are constantly faced with how we as a species make our lives worse collectively, there is also beauty in our existence. We are cursed with self-awareness, something Goldman reflects on bitterly and fondly, as we blame ourselves and can’t imagine that any negativity is inevitable and not tied to our own flawed natures.
Pleases read this one silently, to yourself, with your back to a wall. Memorize a piece and write it down somewhere or think of it during the day.
“Always” by Pablo Neruda
I don’t always like love poems, but Neruda wrote passionate poems that manage to never be corny, even when they are dramatically romantic, or ever be smutty, even when they are at their most sensual. I have a small book of his love poems, translated from the original Spanish by Donald D. Walsh, and I much prefer these translations to most online versions, so I won’t give a link here. You can find versions online, or you can purchase a copy of Walsh’s translations, which is definitely worth a read. “Always” is one of my favorites, reminding me of Helen of Troy somehow. It’s about love, but not just affection or emotion. It’s about a feeling that runs deeper than any moment or thrill, something that surpasses mistakes and the past, and makes forgiveness and redemption possible:
“Come with a man
At your back,
come with a hundred men in your hair,
come with a thousand men between your bosom and your feet,
come like a river
filled with drowned men
that meets the furious sea,
the eternal foam, the weather.”
The above is from the middle of the poem. Neruda builds it up to there and then closes with a softer line. Please read this poem in full silently, then aloud, ideally on a beach, looking at choppy waves coming in and out.
“Bright House” by Fukao Sumako
If you have known me for a long time, you may know that I was obsessed with Asian culture for many years (art, music, literature, history, film/TV, etc.). While that eventually became more of a mild interest, and I have since forgotten most of the Japanese I learned in Elementary Japanese 1 and 2, I still love that I ended up being exposed to a variety of Japanese poetry in my Modern History of Japan course. It led to me reading a lot of geisha poetry and more female-driven Japanese poetry, like this poem by Sumako. This is a translation by Kenneth Rexroth (you can read more translated works by Rexroth on the link above). The poem is a feminist manifesto, declaring both the power and the uniqueness of women–which is really what feminism SHOULD be about.
“It is a bright house.
I will create in it
a world no man can ever build.”
In the earlier stanzas of the poem, Sumako speaks of waiting, a theme common in a lot of the geisha poetry, but Sumako is not only waiting for something (which may be love or something else). She is creating something. A lighthouse, a bright house–a place that will stand out and be noticed.
Please read Sumako’s poem slowly. If you are a woman, read it in a whisper and read those three lines above over and over. Repeat as needed in life.
“Brown Penny” by W. B. Yeats
Yeats was a uniquely Irish poet, and his works are rich with fairy tales and magic, yet owe just as much to Christianity as paganism. He is almost a Romantic at times (the influence is apparent), but he is more straight-forward and honest in his phrasing. I first came upon “Brown Penny” in an Eva Ibbotson novel (The Morning Gift), and fell in love with the line “I am looped in the loops of her hair.” I had this poem up on my wall when I started college. I memorized it, but can’t recite it now, though that line and the following lines stuck with me.
“O love is the crooked thing,
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it,
For he would be thinking of love
Till the stars had run away
And the shadows eaten the moon.”
Like Neruda, Yeats could talk about love without getting unrelatably dramatic. The narrator here longs for love, loving the idea of it, hoping he is old enough to have it, without realizing that no one can understand love. Those who are in love understand it even less.
Please read this love poem when you are feeling awful about love or lack of love. Read it again when you are in the throes of joy and a love that goes well. Read it when you are satisfied to not have love, but are content with other good things. Remind yourself that there isn’t time in the world to understand the biggest human emotions.
“Putting on Mourning for Aelis” by Katharine Diehl
Now, I know this poet personally, so I could ask her what this poem means. But while I would be interested to know Katharine’s process and inspiration, a poem should stand on its own. And Katharine’s does. The chapbook it’s from (of the same title as this poem) is a compilation of poems that put me in mind of womanhood and personal value when compared to the perceptions of others. It’s a lovely handmade book from a small company, illustrated with little Renaissance prints that remind a reader that while this is modern poetry, it’s rooted in old truths. Katharine’s word choices have always been spot on when I’ve read her other works in progress, so I expected as much from her polished and published poetry:
“Why bury her holding elk antlers and wearing soft furs?
Why bathe her bones in milk and place her in a jar?
Why break her flesh and grind her into little cakes
And bake them for the vultures and spread them with butter?
Why inter her dust in a vessel or arrange her in fire?”
The rest of the poem is just as vivid and lovely even it’s forceful language. I won’t put the whole of this poem here. You should buy it here (same as link above), because it’s new and poetry needs support. All the other folks above struggled in their time. Make the struggle less by supporting an artist today, okay? And when you get a hold of it, read it, and think of what we bury and mourn for throughout our lives. Read this one and go and do something you love.
What are some poems you feel tell a quiet truth? Or do you prefer something else in your poetry of choice? Do you absolutely despise poetry? Let us know your thoughts!
Brittany Ann Zayas
*these are excerpts from these poems, not their works in full*