We don’t read poetry any longer, do we?
Oh, a bit here and there, and some of us more than others, but we’re much more likely to end our days with reality television than The Oxford Book of English Verse, aren’t we?
I often wonder why this is. Is it because we are so accustomed to the easy and comfortable we avoid using our spare time for anything that requires real effort? And I won’t fool you. Poetry requires effort. It asks that we meet it at least halfway.
We must quiet our minds (and our stereo speakers). We must slow down (no one ever speed-read a poem). We must re-read (a good poem can’t ever be checked as “read” on our reading lists and tracking apps; poetry happens in the re-reading).
All I really know is that I’ve hesitated to recommend poetry books in this space. I want to make you happy, and I’ve decided happiness means novels, memoirs, cookbooks, and picture books.
I read this article and realized that poetry is worth more than life to some people. They will risk everything for what it gives.
The least I can do is share a few recommendations with you.
Also, I can make this promise – tonight, when my children are (finally) asleep, I will not turn on my television. I will not pick up my big, fat novel. Instead, I will re-read, and I will remember. I will remember that my life is something different, something better, because I have read Yeats and Auden, Bishop and Heaney.
And these. I have read these:
I have read George Herbert.
One of the great English metaphysical poets (poets known for their elaborate imagery), Herbert was a priest in the Church of England and a friend of John Donne. His religious poetry is beautiful, desperate, and honest. But this is not confession (or not merely); it is art. It is art that dramatizes and explores the encounter between the flawed, sinful self and a God who is Love.
Herbert’s poems are intricately crafted. They reward the time we spend with them.
A verse may finde him, who a sermon flies, / And turn delight into a sacrifice. – George Herbert
I have read Eavan Boland.
I can’t recommend poetry without recommending the work of this contemporary Irish poet. Boland writes about home, about motherhood, about what it means to create beautiful art out of the raw materials of violence, loss, and the various troubles of history. Her work is accessible, but it is not superficial. It rewards our first reading, but it gives more with subsequent readings.
I suggest picking up a single volume of her work (rather than a collection or the few poems you might find in an anthology). Reading poetry is like music in this regard – poets write poems the way musicians create albums. It is one thing to know a hit single in isolation; it is entirely another to know what has been created when the artist gathers their work into a whole.
I often return to her volume In a Time of Violence. You might start there.
Write us out of the poem. Make us human / in cadences of change and mortal pain / and words we can grow old and die in. – Eavan Boland
I have read everything ever published by T. S. Eliot. But, always and especially, I have read Four Quartets.
Eliot was the first poet who ever made me love poetry. I was a teenager, and I was mesmerized by the rhythms of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Now I don’t often go back to Prufrock and his coffee spoons (though the first lines of that poem are impossible for me to forget), but I return, more and more often, in fact, to Four Quartets.
There are times when an imperfect little art (like a quirky little poem) will suffice. It is like us: small yet precious, strange but lovely. There are other times when we need an art that hints at something much bigger and more perfect. Four Quartets is like that for me. It is big enough to move in, big enough to dream in, big enough to inspire your own creativity. It is Art-with-a-capital-A, and some days that is what my own little life needs most of all.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling // We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time. – T. S. Eliot
Do you read poetry? Why? Why not? I’d love to know.
Every winter I am surprised to remember that the return of the light is accompanied by the coldest weather. These days are snowier and chillier, but they are brighter, too.
Old, Pennsylvania farmhouses are known for their extra deep window sills. So, these days, instead of sitting in front of the fire, I am reading my book while perched on the sill of these floor-to-ceiling parlor windows. All the better to catch every ray of this golden, late-winter light.
Appropriately, I’ve been reading The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland by Barbara Sjoholm. Part travel memoir, part history, this book is magical and intellectual.
Inspired by her childhood love of the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, Sjohom helps us see the beauty of a world that is almost (but not quite) in total darkness. This book reminds us how special snow and ice can be. It also asks hard questions about the intersection of tourism and indigenous culture. We may share Sjoholm’s fascination with the Sami people, the reindeer herders of northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland, but we are not allowed to forget that they too live in the modern world. After all, some of them still herd reindeer, but they do it with helicopters and snowmobiles.
I was out of sight of the Icehotel now, far away on the snow-covered still-frozen river, sliding along on my simple kick sled, no desire to turn back yet, into the wide world, rejoicing. – The Palace of the Snow Queen
I like to think of myself as someone who collects seasonal children’s books. I imagine pulling out a basket of warm-weather themed books on midsummer’s eve and books about autumn and back-to-school in September. Truthfully, except for a few Easter titles, what I have actually accumulated is a collection of Christmas and winter books that is threatening to take over our house. (Winter! I love you, I hate you, and I am always and forever inspired by you. One of the saddest seasons of my life? The two years I spent reading Gingerbread Baby and It’s Snowing! in Florida.)
This December we added A Day On Skates by Hilda van Stockum, and I am in love. The kids are pretty happy, too.
First published in 1934, this is the (delightful! enchanting!) story of a Dutch ice-skating picnic.
I’m sorry, do I need to say more? Are you not already rushing out to buy this book? Because, truly, can you imagine anything more wonderful than spending your school-day skating frozen Dutch canals with your teacher and classmates while stopping occasionally for adventures and warm snacks?
Well, if you think you can, then I dare you to read this book. Van Stockum was a painter before she was a writer, and the full-color, full-page illustrations are … well, I don’t know what to say except this: I want to live in them! I want to wear wooden shoes, I want to join in a school-wide snowball fight, I want to see my twin brother rescued from beneath the ice, and I want, oh how I want, to eat Snow Pancakes.
In that small country called Holland, with its many canals and dykes, its low fields and quaint little villages, Father Frost went prowling round one January night, with his bag full of wonders. – A Day on Skates
Tell me there’s no need to go on?
Okay, I’ll say this one thing more: I may include amazon links for convenience, but this is where you should be discovering and buying children’s books. Yes, amazon is convenient. Yes, amazon will save you money. Yes, the big-box bookstores have a train table that keeps your three-year-old happy. However, they also have case after case of Disney-themed this and Wimpy Kid-that, and I can practically guarantee they do not carry works of art your children will always remember. No one ever wanted to live in a Captain Underpants book.
Since I’m already on this soapbox can I recommend one of the greatest short stories ever written (and, surely, it is the greatest short story featuring snow)?
The Dead by James Joyce (I own this edition: Dubliners: Text and Criticism; Revised Edition (Critical Library, Viking)) concludes the stories collected as Dubliners. If you’ve tried to read Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake and are afraid – don’t be. This is realist fiction at its finest: highly symbolic but readable. It is the story of a middle-class holiday party. It is the story of a marriage.
Like all of Joyce’s work, there are quite a few allusions to nineteenth-century Irish history and politics. Don’t worry about all that. Your job is to enjoy the party. Feel nervous with Gabriel as he prepares his toast. Indulge his self-important fantasies about a night away with his wife, and feel his shock and pain when he realizes how little he truly knows of life, and love, and death.
Most of all, your job is to read the final paragraphs aloud. Slowly. Quietly. Close the door, if you must, and listen to these words as they float, gently, on the air:
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. – “The Dead”
Find earlier recommendations here: Week One, Week Two, Week Three, Week Four, and Week Five.
The two of us. Pre-digital camera. Pre-parenthood. (Just barely) pre-9/11.
I still have the airfare ticket stub marked September 11, 2001. Ten years ago, we didn’t use e-tickets.
Also, there were no smartphones. This partially explains why it isn’t the images of destruction that have stuck with me (images we didn’t get a good look at for nearly a week). It’s the voice of our pilot.
We had just begun our flight from Shannon airport in the west of Ireland home to Chicago, when a deadly-serious voice sounded over the speakers: “Something terrible has happened,” it said. “The FAA has closed all airspace, and we will not be continuing this flight.”
Our plane was grounded in Dublin, a city we hadn’t planned to visit during this, our first, trip to Ireland. Jonathan and I didn’t say anything while we sat on that plane waiting to disembark and collect our luggage packed with dirty laundry. We only looked at each other. Later, we discovered that the image in our minds had been the same: mushroom cloud.
Somehow the actual story was harder to believe. An Irishman with a working cellphone began hearing stories, and they spread quickly from row to row. Attacks? On New York City? Washington D.C.? We shook our heads, said we didn’t believe it.
A few hours later, the airport employee helping me find accommodations in Dublin said it was like something out of a disaster movie. That’s when I understood.
Jonathan left me with the luggage and went searching for a television. He found one at the airport pub. Walking back in my direction, he looked stunned.
I could only pray, “Lord, have mercy.”
For a week, we wandered around the city, feeling as if we might never get home. We guarded our torn ticket stubs as if they were a king’s ransom. We saw confused looks every time we handed them over to another ticketing agent. It was hard for them to understand that when the towers fell we’d been caught in mid-air.
Some small, rational part of our brains kept repeating that if only we knew when we’d be going home we could enjoy this unexpected vacation in Dublin. But we were counting pennies, dodging raindrops, and washing a suitcase full of clothes at the laundromat. It didn’t feel like vacation.
While on vacation we had spent our carefully saved dollars on bed and breakfasts that served Irish porridge with just-picked blackberries. In Dublin, we had a small lumpy bed and were served canned beans on toast. Want to make an American feel wretchedly homesick? Just serve her instant coffee and canned beans on toast.
The world had shifted on its axis, we understood that unimaginable evil could rear its head at any time and in any place, but we couldn’t comfort ourselves with the well-loved and familiar. The flags at half-staff were Irish ones.
After several days in Dublin, we were promised a flight home, but we would need to get back to Shannon airport. We said goodbye to the lumpy bed and took an all-day bus that brought us back across the country, to the place where we had started.
When international airspace reopened, we were there, again, at Shannon airport. They had no record of our names, and we had only our tattered ticket stubs.
We spent one night in the home of a family preparing for their daughter’s wedding. Two stranded German tourists were across the hall from us. The wife said not to worry, we were no bother at all, and she cooked us a big fried breakfast. The husband drove us back to the airport for another try.
At the airport again, we sat on the floor and listened as Aer Lingus employees filled up a plane to Chicago with names called out one by one. When there was exactly one seat left, they called my name. I said that I wouldn’t get on any plane without my husband.
We were wondering whether we could interrupt the wedding weekend with one more night’s stay, when a woman in an official green uniform came running up and shouting, “Does anyone want to go to Baltimore?” We raised our hands. Then, following our guide, we ran.
We also prayed, “God let the doors still be open.”
We weren’t headed home, but it was close enough.
We remembered a friend who lived near D.C. Jonathan, miraculously, remembered his phone number. He picked us up, drove us to his own home, gave us a beautiful, not-at-all lumpy bed.
We managed to find a tiny, out-of-the-way rental car business with one car still on its lot. We took it. Twelve hours later, and one week after 9/11, we slept in our own bed.
“God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
The holy place where the most High dwells.”
(Psalm 46: 1-4)