A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life . . .
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
As I sat staring at my screen, trying to decide which books to include in my list of summer reading recommendations, it occurred to me that I’ve never said much in Books on the Table about my love of poetry. I’ve begged readers to give short stories a try (5 Reasons to Read Short Stories), pointing out that they are perfect for anyone who needs what novelist Amber Dermont calls a “single serving” of literature. Expanding on her metaphor, I’d like to suggest that if you need a shot (espresso or liquor, take your pick!) of literature, read a poem.
A poet dares be just so clear and no clearer . . . He unzips the veil from beauty, but does not remove it. A poem utterly clear is a trifle glaring.
E.B. White, known for the lucid and concise prose advocated in The Elements of Style, also celebrated the mysterious nature of poetry. If you know White only through his classic children’s books, I encourage you to read his essay collections, which are spectacular. You’ll never read better writing. In Here is New York, White says: “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning.” White wrote several books of poetry, all now out of print, although you can find some of his poems online.
I treasure my poetry books more than any others I own, but I also enjoy reading poetry on my phone or computer screen. Before watching or reading the news in the morning, I like to read a poem. It puts me in a much better frame of mind, and if I’m lucky, certain lines will resonate with me and stick with me for the rest of the day. Rereading old favorites is always a pleasure, but it’s a special treat to discover new poems. You can subscribe to Poem-a-Day, Your Daily Poem, The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor, or other websites that will deliver poems to your inbox every day. The Poetry Foundation has a free app with thousands of poems. If you’re stuck waiting in line for a few minutes, what better way to spend your time than reading a poem?
Garrison Keillor has collected his favorite selections from The Writer’s Almanac public radio show in anthologies — Good Poems and Good Poems for Hard Times. Two other anthologies I recommend are Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them and Poems That Make Grown Women Cry: 100 Women on the Words That Move Them. The editors of these books (father and son team Anthony and Ben Holden) asked notable men and women this question: “What poem moves you to tears?” Please don’t be put off by the word “cry” in the titles; the poems are emotionally powerful, not depressing.
In grade school, I was forced to memorize poems, which was not so bad, and then to recite them to the class, which was dreadful. I don’t think that’s part of today’s curriculum, unfortunately. I probably sound like a curmudgeon, but I think rote memorization is good mental exercise, and being made to do something that makes you uncomfortable builds character. Anyway, when you can’t sleep, it’s helpful to have a little treasure trove of memorized poetry in your brain. Strangely, I’m often comforted by Macbeth’s soliloquy, delivered as he struggles with guilt and possible insanity: “Is this a dagger which I see before me/The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee . . .”
This morning’s poem, “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm”, by Wallace Stevens, is everything a poem should be: lovely, evocative, and a little puzzling. Please read it, let it soak in, and be glad you don’t have to analyze it for English class.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.
Note: I just discovered a wonderful blog called Read a Little Poetry — check it out!