Recently I stopped by my public library to pick up a book on hold or to drop off an overdue book. While there I decided to peruse their poetry section. I'd never done this before because when I was the librarian of a high school library there were plenty of poetry volumes to keep me busy reading for years. While looking through the public collection I was struck by how most of their books of poetry were aimed at kids. What? Don't adults like poetry anymore? They didn't even have any of those huge anthologies which I thought were requirements for libraries to have on their shelves. Anyway, I did find three volumes which interested me enough to check them out. Below are highlights from these books.
Calling All Readers
I'll tell you a story,
I'll spin you a rhyme,
I'll spill some ideas---
and we'll travel through time.
Put down the controller.
Switch off the TV.
Abandon the mouse and
just hang out with me.
I promise adventure.
Come on, take a look!
On a day like today,
there's no friend like a book.
2. The Ordering of Love by Madeleine L'Engle is a complete collection of all the poetry ever published by this beloved author of A Wrinkle in Time. Though I have not read the whole book, the poems have a decidedly religious nature to them, deep in symbolism or drawing on religious metaphors which I think would go largely unappreciated without being fairly familiar with the Bible stories and scriptures. In the poem, "Who Shoved Me Out Into the Night?", I found myself thinking of Psalm 91 where God promises to send his angels to protect us and that He will hold us in the pinions of wings, safe from harm. It also reminds me of the Chronicles of Narnia, where Jesus is represented by a lion, Aslan. After the set up of fear of the unknown, noises in the night, the poet encounters a lamb, which morphs into a lion.
...This is not hell, nor say I damn.
I know not who nor why I am
But I am walking with a lamb
And all the tears that ever were
Are gently dried on his soft fur.
...The lamb has turned to lion, wild,
With nothing tender, gentle, mild,
Yet once again I am a child,
A babe newborn, a fresh creation,
Flooded with joy, swept by elation...
In another poem, "How Very Odd It Seems, O Lord" L'Engle grapples with the concept to going to church or mass in churches away from home where she meets people from all stripes of life. All flawed individuals like herself. All seeking comfort and guidance from the Divine One, asking to be blessed. This poem seems particularly appropriate today when we are confronted with a President who wants to divide us and make us think of other people as wrong or less-than. L'Engle pointedly pokes a stick at that kind of thinking. Here is the conclusion of this poem:
...I share communion with the halt.
The lame, the blind, oppressed, depressed.
We have, it seems, a common fault
In coming to you to be blessed.
And my fit friends, intelligent,
Heap on my shoulders a strange guilt.
Are only fools and sinners meant
To come unto you to be filled?
3. Billy Collins is one of my favorite poets because his poems are so accessible. One doesn't need to have a MFA to understand his poems. I always get the idea when I read Collins that he is an accidental poet. It is as if he has to write down a poem or two every few days to survive, so he writes about whatever pops into his mind. The poems themselves aren't really stream-of-consciousness but the ideas for them seem to be. The first poem in The Trouble with Poetry, is a tease. In "You, Reader", Collins brags that he wrote down a poem that you or I should have, but he got to it first.
I wonder how you are going to feel
When you find out
that I wrote this instead of you, ...
Collins makes me laugh, too. He muses in the poem which is also the title of the book, "The Trouble With Poetry", that the trouble with poetry is that it encourages the writing of more poetry. Isn't that the point? No wonder Collins was the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001-3. He is a good ambassador for poetry.
...Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.
But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry.
My favorite poem in this volume is "The Flock". Collins had read somewhere that it took 300 sheep skins to make the first Gutenberg Bible. In this poem, with an oblique reference to the 23rd Psalm, he imagines the sheep all milling around in the a pen. They are all squeezed together, all so similar one cannot tell them apart, so it would be difficult to know...
which one will carry the news
that the Lord is our shepherd,
one of the things they already knew.
Collins is one of the few poets, no wait, the only poet I have paid money to go and listen to. In this clip, you will find out what a wonderful experience it was listening to Collins reading his own poems. His humor is so dry and his poems invite me in. I can relate to them. The first poem he reads is called "The Lanyard", which pokes fun at childhood pursuits and reminds me of days when I, too, constructed lanyards to give away as gifts.
Every time I write a blog post about poetry I get comments from my readers that they don't "get" poetry and don't enjoy reading it. I wonder if it is a selection problem or a reading problem. I don't like reading poems which were written in past centuries in what seems like an archaic language, either. Unless I have help from someone else like Roger Housden in his Ten Poems series, I avoid those types of poems, too. In addition, I find that I cannot read poetry as I would a novel. I usually only read three or four poems in one sitting and then I need to sit and ponder a while. That is especially true when I am reading from a volume of poetry which seems to contain a lot of symbolism or religious references like The Ordering of Love. I have been reading this book for four weeks already and I'm only 1/3rd of the way through it. I may keep going, or I may set it aside for a while. No hurry. I am still savoring those poems which I have read and I don't want to race along and miss the good ones. Which reminds me. When I read a volume of poems, I never like them all. In fact, I often like just a few of the poems, but I like them so much, it makes the whole experience worthwhile.
Want to get started reading poetry? I recommend that you give books by poets Billy Collins or Mary Oliver a try. Both of these poets are living today and make poetry available to the common man. Or give one of Roger Housden's "Ten Poems" books a try. Housden not only highlights ten poems in each volume but talks about them and what different references mean. It is really his books which opened up poetry for me. I recommend them highly. In Collins, The Trouble With Poetry, one of his poems, "The Introduction" makes fun of poems which need explanations or prior knowledge to understand. That would probably be a great place to start.
Add a little poetry into your life today and see where it takes you.