Why read poetry?

How do I explain why I have been reading and writing poetry longer than I can remember?

I have played with poems like wooden building blocks, spoken them aloud in fields and taken them on picnics in the backyard when the violets first opened in the grass, on those first magic days in spring when you walk out the door to find it is as warm outside as it is inside.

In poems I’ve held conversations with people I’ve lost, trembled at people I have, tried to hold or reawaken feelings too large for everyday, and given gifts and received them.

Why read poetry? It wakes and challenges. It calls to action.

Poetry sets off on a journey, bareheaded. This time of year, while baby animals are born at Hancock Shaker Village and gardeners start seeds indoors, people launch into spring cleaning. Passover seders and Easter hymns tell stories of change, visionaries, and beginning again. People walk out of their houses with the clothes they stand up in and sit exposed around a fire at night, rubbing their sore feet. A poem is pared down to essentials.

Reading the Haggadah for Passover that my friend Rachel Barenblat of Lanesborough has created, reading the contemporary and ancient poetry she brings together, I feel the immediacy of a decision and the struggle of will to follow through after the first rush. It is hard to hide in a poem.

Why read poetry? It comforts.

When someone puts into words a way I have been feeling, the world feels open and understandable. And looking through somone else’s eyes can give me a new sight of place I know well — bright and adventurous — like walking through my neighborhood with someone I love and seeing for the first time the way the late light hits the old wooden grain siloes on stilts by the railroad tracks.

It comes when I read Danielle Legros Georges, Boston Poet Laureate, who visited MCLA on Feb. 17 —

Begin with the Massachusett, setting nets in the harbor
Of Boston, before it was 
Boston harbor — Quonehassit,
Place of clear water, and arrive at my door.

Yes, I have looked at the hills where I live like that — and I read her words with a feeling of recognition and perspective and warm delight.

Why read poetry? It’s alive. It condenses feeling and solid detail and wrings the juice out of them. A few words that feel natural and unexpected come together, and I feel and taste, smell and touch the place and time in the poem — and the place and time I’m in. Sad, angry, longing, gleeful, a poem is always intense.

Robert Haas translates a haiku the poet Buson wrote not long before he died:

“Early spring: 

In the white plum blossoms

night to next day

just turning.”

Buson is lying in bed, ill, and he is absorbed in the beginning of the day and the early spring. That first touch of light on the petals will last only a small time, but it will come back. I look up from that poem to note carefully the shade of new snow on a roof against the winter sky.

Charles Simic remembers an afternoon in Sicily,

“The olives and goat cheese tasted delicious,

and so did the wine

with which I toasted the coming night,

the darting tree swallows,

the Saracen wind and moon.”

A picnic in a ruined temple holds loneliness and naked emotion beyond the words.

We have both National Poet Laureates coming to visit this spring. Hass read his work at Williams College on March 7, and Simic will come to Bennington College on May 11.

Why read poetry? It’s fun.

Listen to the sheer energy of slam poetry — come to a WordxWord evening and watch the audience. People laugh. People cry. People cheer each other on.

And when I first heard Lucille Clifton giving her Hommage to My Hips, on a recording from the library, I wanted to dance with her and cheer.

She won the National Book Award and was nominated for two Pulitzer prizes, and she read and spoke with frank delight and confidence. I wish more people I know could say to themselves What the Mirror Said, in her words, and carry themselves with pride:

“Listen. You a wonder. 

You a city of a woman. 

A man need a map 

to find his way around you.”


Photo at the top: Fatimah Asghar, a featured poet at the WordxWord festival, performs at Mission as fellow poets including Robbie Q. Telfer listen. Photo by Kate Abbott

This column is adapted from a By the Way piece I wrote in my time as editor of Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont that ran April 1, 2010

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