Professor J's Place

13 July, 2009

Why I love poetry

This week over on my facebook page, I've decided to post a new poem every day.

When I teach poetry, I always talk about how much we love rhythm and meter when we are children. How poems and songs shape our lives. And about how the way we teach poetry can kill that love.

As much as I believe that riff--as much as I know how my childish, nay child-like heart responds to doggerel, I know that my love of poetry goes deeper than that.

Poetry is the art of surprise. Like the cactus flower that seems to grow out of the pure rock in the photo above, a poem can offer a surprising flash of life, of beauty, of truth, in just a simple collection of precise words.

Today's poem, Reckless, by Mary Oliver, is a great example of what I mean. I am not going to repost the entire poem here, but allow me to share a verse that set me on fire.

Just yesterday I watched an ant crossing a path, through the
tumbled pine needles she toiled.
And I thought: she will never live another life but this one.
And I thought: if she lives her life with all her strength
is she not wonderful and wise?
And I continued this up the miraculous pyramid of everything
until I came to myself.

My mother's life was hard. Her mother took arsenic when she was thirty-three (my mother was just sixteen) and died a slow and painful death. Of course, my mom was there to witness the entire three day ordeal. Mom went on to raise three girls all by herself (often working several jobs to make ends meet) and face her own ordeal of depression, alcoholism, and rage until much later in life when they finally found the right medicine for her. She had some fun along the way. I don't mean to say it was all horrible. And later in life--after the work was over and the meds were stable--she had quite a bit of fun, I think. She loved art and music and poetry. She was
generous and funny and sweet.

I had the typical questions a person faces when a loved one dies. What does it all mean? What did her life mean after all? Did the last few years make up for all that work? All that pain? "And I thought: if she lives life with all her strength/is she not wonderful and wise?"

Poetry offers a glimpse at truth--a glimmer of understanding. That's why I love poetry.