I came upon poetry late in life, and am sorry for that fact. It was four years after I arrived in New York City, the spring of 2002 that I first discovered the wonders of a well turned phrase. I was 34. An invitation came to me for a gathering where poet and soon to be NEA Chairman Dana Gioia was doing a reading of some of his rhymes and reciting other favorite poems. It was the first time I had ever been invited to an event where the invitation included two books to read in preparation for the festivities. Both, written by Mr. Gioia had a profound impact on my life and forever convinced me of my need for poetry. That night in Brooklyn where poetry was extolled, was memorable and especially needed by all the New Yorkers gathered as the specter of 9/11 still lingered even six months after those dark days.
I sometimes wonder why it took me so long to discover the value of cogent, obscure writing and if I would have faced the world differently had I stumbled upon it earlier. A poignant regret rises when I think about it, and I search for the good phrases to fill that guilt.
What is it about poetry that is of such value to human life? Two possibilities come to mind. One, poetry – its reading and /or writing is an admission. Second, poetry is also a submission. I will cover the admission of poetry this week and next week delve into its submission.
Poetry admits what one knows. The construction or “turning” of a poetic phrase shows the writer and the reader what their eyes, ears, mouth, nose, and skin, coupled with their mind, are telling them about the world. When Robert Frost wrote the lines, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood” he could be drawing on an actual experience, something from his imagination, or both. He is admitting what he knows and putting it in such a way that we can enter that moment with him and see the same path in the yellow wood. By bringing us to the place he describes in the poem he opens us up to what he wants to show us (this is related to the submission of poetry I will talk about next week).
The observations in the admission of poetry can also be a bit more involved than the mere raw data of the senses. There is also the admission of the complexities of human relationships in poetry. This could be called “internal admissions”. This poetry may not be as apparent in its connection to experiential things – things we see and hear and taste and touch. But they are no less real to the human experience because they communicate the emotional inner workings of what the poet is thinking.
This is why romantic and love poetry can have such depth. While I was dating my then girlfriend/now wife, my favorite poet to share with her was Michael O‘Siadhail (pronounced “Meehole O’She’ll). His book of poems called Love Life was written about his relationship with his wife. One of our favorites that we still quote from time to time today is called For Real:
A first gazing at you unawares.
Wonder by wonder my body savours
The conch-like detail of an ear,
An amethyst ring on your finger.
Could I ever have enough of you?
Juiced cantaloupe, ripe honeydew,
Slack desire as I desire you more.
Laugh as no one laughed before.
Vivid more vivid, real more real.
I stare towards heavens you reveal.
Yellower yellow. Bluer blue.
Can you see me as I see you?
Sweeter than being loved to love.
Sweetest our beings’ hand in glove
Milk and honey, spice and wine.
I’m your lover. You are mine.”
The intimate desire is obvious in this poem. Michael is sharing an inner feeling that he has no other way of describing except to go to concrete details – an ear, a ring, a laugh, a hand in glove, etc. He is sharing what he knows about this loving relationship with his wife and he invites us to consider whether we have one like this too. He is calling us to admit our love for someone and perhaps put it into similar words he does.
Frost’s and O’Siadhail’s poems are just a couple of examples of one aspect of poetry, its ability to help us with admitting what we know. I would wager we could find this same characteristic rather evident in most poetry. But there is another aspect of poetry that goes beyond the boundaries of admission and helps us also see more of our true humanity, and that is submission – which I will address next week.