Poems can be passionate, forthright, mysterious, allusive, elegiac, tender, wistful, as various and beautiful in different ways as women and the earth.
I was reminded of that by the anthology, Poetry Will Save Your Life. It’s a tall claim, that poetry will save your life, but poems certainly resonate, please, comfort, and stick in our memory.
Jill Bialosky, an American poet who compiled this collection of poems, writes: “I fell in love with poetry when my fourth grade teacher, Miss Hudson, read us Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. I’ve memorised that poem, and often, when I am at a crossroads — both literally and metaphorically — the lines come to me.”
I love The Road Not Taken, too, and will come to that poem, but first let’s note what makes this anthology special. It’s a memoir-cum-anthology, where Bialosky relates each poem to events in her life. Each poem is also accompanied by notes about the poet so the reader can understand the poem better.
Here is one of the poems from the anthology that made a deep impression on me:
What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why
By Edna St Vincent Millay (1892 -1950)
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why, I have forgotten, and what arms have lain Under my head till morning, but the rain Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh Upon the glass and listen for reply, And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain For unremembered lads that not again Will turn to me at midnight with a cry. Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree, Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one, Yet knows its boughs more silent than before: I cannot say what loves have come and gone, I only know that summer sang in me A little while, that in me sings no more.
Edna St Vincent Millay had many love affairs. Her biographer, Nancy Mitford, said of her: She smoked in public when it was against the law for women to do so, she lived in Greenwich Village during the halcyon days of that starry bohemia, she slept with men and women and wrote about it in lyrics that blazed with wit and a sexual daring that captured the nation. This wistful sonnet was written in 1923 when Millay was thirty-one years old.
Also about love, but very different, is the following poem. It dazzled me when I was in high school or had just entered college because the language and style were so idiosyncratic:
Somewhere I Have Never Travelled, Gladly Beyond
By ee cummings (1894 – 1962)
somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond any experience,your eyes have their silence: in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me, or which i cannot touch because they are too near your slightest look will easily unclose me though i have closed myself as fingers, you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens (touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose or if your wish be to close me,i and my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly, as when the heart of this flower imagines the snow carefully everywhere descending; nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals the power of your intense fragility whose texture compels me with the colour of its countries, rendering death and forever with each breathing (i do not know what it is about that closes and opens;only something in me understands the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses) nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands
Cummings composed poetry as a child, writing a poem every day. He is known for his signature use of experimental form, voice, and vision, sometimes using invented words, turning nouns into verbs, and avoiding standard use of punctuation and capitalisation. Yet underlying the word play, the polyphonic layering of voices, and parentheses buried within parenthesis, flows tender emotion.
Deeply personal, the anthology is a fine collection of poems made all the more attractive by Bialosky’s poetic use of language. This is from her preface, her introduction to poetry. She writes:
Stand by a window at night on the middle floor of a high-rise in an urban city and watch the lints go on and off in the apartment buildings across the street. Each building contains a set of mini compartments, and in each compartment resides a person… or perhaps a man and a woman, or college roommates. A family with young children. Or an elderly person and her aide. A pair of lovers. Some of the windows are easier to see through and others are more opaque. In each small compartment, people tend to their daily rituals. They make love, drink, eat, and sleep. Curled into the cushions on a couch, they cry from bereavement or a broken heart. Or out of loneliness. Sometimes, on a hot day when the windows are open, you can hear strangers arguing or laughing, In these rooms, babies are conceived; people get sick and even die; someone might take his own life. Imagine in each of these small spaces, poems are taking shape, poems written from the experiences that occur inside and outside these rooms. Experiences that are both common and unique and and a part of everyday living. Poems are made from the lives lived, borne out of experiences and shaped by solitary thought. Like a map to an unknown city, a poem might lead you toward an otherwise unreachable experience; but one you’ve reached it you recognise it immediately.
Here is the poem which made her fall in love with poetry when she was a schoolgirl.
The Road Not Taken
By Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth; Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim, Because it was grassy and wanted wear; Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same, And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back. I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
The anthology also includes another equally famous poem by Robert Frost.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
By Robert Frost
Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow. My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near Between the woods and frozen lake The darkest evening of the year. He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound’s the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake. The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.
Bialosky recalls Frost was one of John F Kennedy’s favourite poets. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening was also a favourite poem of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. His associates say that in his last moments the last lines from the poem lay on his pillow side:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.
Poetry Will Save Your Life also includes two famous poems by WH Auden.
By WH Auden (1907 – 1973)
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, Silence the piano and with muffled drum Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead, Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves, Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves. He was my North, my South, my East and West. My working week and my Sunday rest, My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong. The stars are not wanted now: put out every one; Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun; Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood; For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Musee des Beaux Arts
By WH Auden
About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters, how well they understood Its human position; how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening or just walking dully along; How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting For the miraculous birth, there always must be Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating On a pond at the edge of the wood: They never forgot That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse Scratches its innocent behind on a tree. In Breughel's Icarus, for instance, how everything turns away Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green Water; the expensive delicate ship that must have seen Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
The poem is inspired by a trip to the Musee des Beaux Arts, where Auden came across the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Peter Breughel the Elder… The poem contains two storylines. First is the story of the speaker recounting the knowledge and wisdom of the Old Masters, the painters who understood the nature of suffering and loss — that it happens internally. Second is the story of the myth of Icarus, the subject of Breughel’s painting…
In the painting, Breughel depicts the onlookers, the ploughman who hears the splash of Icarus hitting the sea, and all those for whom the loss is not personally important, and shows how they turn away. Perhaps in the poem Auden meant for us to see how unimportant we are as individuals to the universe. Or perhaps he meant it ironically — that each loss and onslaught of grief are particular only to the mourner.
No verse collection is complete without the Romantics, and Poetry Will Save Your Life includes Keats and Wordsworth — Keats’ Bright Star and Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud and My Heart Leaps Up.
By John Keats (1795 – 1821)
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art— Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night And watching, with eternal lids apart, Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite, The moving waters at their priestlike task Of pure ablution round earth's human shores, Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask Of snow upon the mountains and the moors— No — yet still steadfast, still unchangeable, Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast, To feel for ever its soft fall and swell, Awake for ever in a sweet unrest, Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, And so live ever — or else swoon to death.
In Bright Star, the poet addresses the “bright” star, Polaris, eternally steadfast in the sky. Like the star, forever watching over earth, the peot wants to experience for eternity the “soft swell” of his lover’s breast and “to wake forever in sweet unrest”. Of course, the impossibility of this conceit is belied by the tone’s melancholic state and our knowledge of his impending death. Keats died far too young — awareness of his own mortality reverberates in each wistful line and this poem captures that romantic spirit not yet tempered by the wages of time, or altered by experience or the undbridgeable chasm of difference.
Finally, here is another poem I love.
My Heart Leaps Up
By William Wordsworth (1770 -1850)
My heart leaps up when I behold A rainbow in the sky: So was it when my life began; So it is now I am a man; So be it when I shall grow old, Or let me die! The Child is Father of the Man; And I could wish my days to be Bound each to each by natural piety.
In the Wordsworth poem the speaker looks upon a rainbow and remembers how he felt as a child and reflects that the child within us gives rise to who we are as adults… Critics have read the Wordswoth poem as an ode to nature and to Wordsworth’s deep connection to the natural world through the life cycle.
All that may be true. But sometimes a poem requires no exegesis, no explanation, no analysis; it just resonates. Seemingly so spontaneous, Wordsworth in My Heart Leaps Up expresses feelings we can all relate to. That’s what gives this poem its universal appeal.