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.


Evensong said…
You said it so well, Karen. When my father died I wondered what it all meant. Where did that wonderful, supple mind, that wit, that energy go? Had his last few years been worth the pain of them? And I also wondered, why couldn't he admit to the depression that haunted him for so long? ~~ Leslie
Marinela said…
I like your poems :)
I think your mother and mine had much in common--I wish my mom had been able to live long enough to find the right combination for her.
apathy lounge said…
Simple and beautiful. Simply beautiful.
we_be_toys said…
Oh my yes! On so many levels this is a post that speaks to me. Poetry is such an integral part of the way I see, feel and deal with life,that it never fails to amaze me how painful and dry a curriculum or (and I hate to really believe this) a teacher can make it. The poem you posted did indeed set me on fire, as did your rumination on your mother, grandmother, and ultimately, yourself. This is where my head has been lately as well.
PS, I feel reassured, knowing that you are in the world, teaching the passion of poetry.
Professor J said…
Thanks, everybody, for your sweet words.
Wow. That was a bittersweet and beautiful share.

I am drawn to Mary Oliver, too.
I don't understand Candy. At first I thought she was repeating herself, too. But upon closer inspection, I think she's just long-winded.


I really just popped over to say, "Hi!"

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