I didn’t used to like poetry. I wrote abominable verse as a teenager (what literary teenage girl doesn’t?), but poetry was something we studied in school, something teachers asked you hard questions about, questions like, “What is the symbolism of the bird in this poem?”, questions you didn’t dare to answer because you might be wrong. How were you supposed to know what the bird symbolized? You were only 15. Weren’t birds, well, birds? So you kept your head down and tried not to make eye contact and hoped that the teacher wouldn’t notice you and call on you and make you expose your ignorance. Sometimes he did and sometimes he didn’t.
As far as the poetry was concerned, it didn’t much matter whether he called on you or not. What you learned from these sessions was that poetry was hard to read. It was obscure. It was opaque. It made you feel stupid, and who wants to feel stupid? You read the school poems when you had to, and at home you read historical novels and if some of them read like poetry, you never noticed.
Or at least that’s what I did. I thought poetry was inhospitable. It didn’t seem to want me. But that’s mostly because I didn’t understand what poetry was.
A poem, even the shortest, is not a cocktail party where you wander about with your plate in one hand and a drink in the other, grazing. Nor is it a meal-in-a-blender that you can chug as you run out the door. Nor is it a hydrolyzed, homogenized, high-fructosized package of unpronouncibility that leaves you scratching your head about what exactly those ingredients are and how they add up to food. If that’s how you approach a poem, it will turn its back on you.
Instead, a poem is a nine-course meal, and it requires that you sit your hind end in a chair and stay there for awhile. If you’re willing to sit and stay and sip and savor, poetry will feed you course after course. Sometimes it’s lamb four ways, and you’re amazed because you had no idea someone could do that many different things with a single shank of lamb. Sometimes it’s a fizzy soda with a splash of juice and a sprig of mint, light and refreshing. Sometimes it’s a dark, gooey, oozy, chocolate mess and goes really well with stout. And sometimes it’s a simple slice of sourdough slathered with salted butter.
Whatever it is, it’s been hand-crafted and deserves to be enjoyed sitting down. In fact–and this is the wonder of poetry and why I think it’s the medium our age so desperately needs–it can only be enjoyed sitting down. You have to sit and still a spell in order to read poetry with anything approaching enjoyment. You cannot read it in a hurry. It won’t let you. Just like you can’t wolf a nine-course meal on the run, you can’t read a poem on the run. Well, you can, technically, run your eyes over the little black marks on white paper, but that’s not reading, and it won’t do you any good. The poem will remain opaque to you.
And this is why in my middle age I’ve come to appreciate poetry–because it slows me down. It will not brook skimming. It requires attention. It requires multiple readings to unveil its full meaning. It does not wear its heart on its sleeve. It makes you get to know it before it lets you in. But, oh, once you’re in, it is the most hospitable of hosts, feeding you basketfuls of bread and platters of fish and all the fresh pure water you could wish for.
And that is also why in my middle age I’ve taken not just to reading poetry but to writing it. Writing a poem slows me down and invites me, encourages me even, to take a deep breath and be present to what is right around me, to attend to the gifts and the pain of this moment, right here, right now, which is just another way of saying it helps me to be hospitable to myself, to invite myself to show up in this one life I’ve been given and look around and actually see it for the wondrous shining thing it is, and then to give it back to the One from whose hands I receive it in the first place.
Today I give you
the sodden laurel leaves
drooping beneath the weight
of rain. I give you the puddles
on the patio and the hard lump
of reasonless fear in my chest, where
my heart should be. I give you
the lowering clouds
and the silence of birds,
this explosion of dishes
in the kitchen sink, the
mountain of laundry waiting
to be washed.
I will give you tulips
reaching colorful faces to the blue
sky. I will give you my laughter
that bubbles up
like a spring. I will give you
viridescent praise in the arms
of an apple tree, and the glad tidings
of stainless steel clinking
in sudsy water.
I give you what I have—
today, this anxious ache, these interrupted
thoughts, this yearning for the light.