If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. ― Emily Dickinson
My dad once introduced me to a waitress he knew as “my son, the poet.”
I wish it were true. There doesn’t seem to be time to read a poem, much less write one. Perhaps there will be time someday, but lately I don’t get much further than playing with the word magnets on our refrigerator. As with most Americans, my life seems too full for such diversions.
That is, unless poetry is all around us and we don’t know it. That’s the position taken by the new poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, the first Latino to hold the post. The poet laureate is appointed by the Library of Congress and serves one year—Herrera’s term began last month.
In an interview with CNN, Herrera says poetry is all around us, in our ads, our Twitter feeds, our greeting cards, our songs: “You could say we live in poetry.” And I suppose in some sense he is right. We are always playing with words, their sound, their shape, their power. In this view, a well-crafted blog post has a little poetry in it. I certainly hope mine do.
But as my colleague Bob Miller once told me, it is easier to write something that sounds like a poem than to write something this is a poem. And it is poetry as art, intentional and thoughtful, for which I sometimes long. I long for the time to read it and the time to make it. I know what it is, as Dickinson said, to feel “as if the top of my head were taken off.”
If you ever felt that, you want to feel it again. But apparently not everyone is longing for a good poem. In a 2012 survey, only 7% of Americans reported that they had read a poem in the last year, down from 17% twenty years earlier.
Sometimes well-meaning teachers have diminished our interest—we come away from our literature classes convinced there is a code we cannot crack by ourselves. In How Does a Poem Mean, John Ciardi argues that the experience of a poem is more important than the meaning. I think he is right. But for the most part we just lack the time and patience to savor a poem, and time and patience are indeed required.
There are many reasons we should make the effort. A good poem requires us to slow down, to contemplate mystery, and to ponder the power of words to evoke thoughts, images and emotions. We find, sometimes, a better vision of the world. Sometimes one that is worse. We get a little closer to knowing the difference. But as Dylan Thomas put it, it is in poetry you find that, “your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.” This is a sobering and liberating truth. It leads to understanding, even prayer.
You should try it, reading a poem two or three times, out loud. And if you are not moved, try it again, with a different poem. As it turns out, a good poem is not hard to find. Here are three places to start:
A Bible. A whole section of the Bible is poetry: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. And there are more apoplectic visions in the prophets and Revelation. Most of us have a Bible in our house, but you can easily find one online.
An App. The Poetry Foundation has an amazing app for Apple and Android. You can find poems about dozens of subjects and combinations of subjects. They make it as easy as spinning a dial. I just gave it a whirl and it gave me 50 poems on “Aging” and “Humor.”
A Newsletter. I like the one from Knopf-Doubleday, which sends you a poem every day in April. I also like Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, which almost always starts with a good poem followed by some literary trivia.
In a sense, Herrera is right. Poetry is all around us. But I think you have to go find it.
And then you have to slow down and experience it.