There are a lot of things I forget I like until someone forces them on me again. For instance, I never buy raisins at the grocery store, but am always pleasantly surprised– each time– at how delicious they are whenever I eat them, and I forget I enjoy going to live sporting events until I’m sitting in the stands with my friends beside me, nachos in hand, and heckling whichever player happens to be closest at the moment. (Baseball is probably the best for this, since outfielders make such easy targets.)
Poetry is like this for me. I know, in a vague way, that I’ve enjoyed it in the past, but I never sit down and read poetry on my own, and lord knows I can’t write it. (I’ve tried. I’m horrible.) Yet each and every time I’m forced to read poetry, usually as either a student or a teacher, I’m struck all over again how much I love it. Since I’m both teaching poetry in a creative writing class for the first time this year and preparing my seniors for their AP lit exams in May, which includes a poetry section, I’ve been digging through old collections I have sitting on my shelves and asking for recommendations from poet friends.
And, unsurprisingly, I fall in love with almost every poem I decide to teach, and a lot that I decide not to teach for whatever reason. Language and rhythm are things I already enjoy in well-written prose, so to see it unfurl and flourish tenfold in poems leaves me entranced and impressed. They also have a way of getting to, and striking hard, certain feelings or emotions that otherwise seem nebulous and intangible, and they do it in such unexpected and fleeting ways, hitting you like a drive-by. Simply put, poems are acrobatic literary feats, the best of which present parallel reflections of our world that are truer, rawer, and more articulate than what we consciously realize we’re experiencing.
Here are three poems that I’ve either discovered or re-discovered this semester and particularly enjoyed. These poems quietly explore the visceral interplay of love, distance, and letting go, show how a single moment or experience can juxtapose death and life, and discover new ways of looking at loved ones whom we always thought we knew.
X. We Have Lost Even
We have lost even this twilight.
No one saw us this evening hand in hand
while the blue night dropped out of the world.
I have seen from my window
the fiesta of sunset in the distant mountain tops.
Sometimes a piece of sun
burned like a coin between my hands.
I remembered you with my soul clenched
in the sadness of mine that you know.
Where were you then?
Who else was there?
Why will the whole of love come on me suddenly
when I have said and feel you are far away?
The book fell that is always turned to at twilight
and my cape rolled like a hurt dog at my feet.
Always, always you recede through the evenings
towards where the twilight goes erasing statues.
-Pablo Neruda, Twenty Poems of Love and A Song of Despair
A un compagno
Con la bocca
Volta al plenilunio
Con la congestione
Delle sue mani
Nel mio silenzio
Lettere piene d’amore
Non sono mai stato
Attaccato alla vita.
-Guiseppe Ungaretti, published in Cima Quattro
A whole night
With his gnashed mouth
Facing the full moon
With his congested hands
Penetrating my silence
I have written
Letters full of love
Never have I been
attached to life.]
Some Foreign Letters
I knew you forever and you were always old,
soft white lady of my heart. Surely you would scold
me for sitting up late, reading your letters,
as if these foreign postmarks were meant for me.
You posted them first in London, wearing furs
and a new dress in the winter of eighteen-ninety.
I read how London is dull on Lord Mayor’s Day,
where you guided past groups of robbers, the sad holes
of Whitechapel, clutching your pocketbook, on the way
to Jack the Ripper dissecting his famous bones.
This Wednesday in Berlin, you say, you will
go to a bazaar at Bismarck’s house. And I
see you as a young girl in a good world still,
writing three generations before mine. I try
to reach into your page and breathe it back…
but life is a trick, life is a kitten in a sack.
This is the sack of time your death vacates.
How distant you are on your nickel-plated skates
in the skating park in Berlin, gliding past
me with your Count, while a military band
plays a Strauss waltz. I loved you last,
a pleated old lady with a crooked hand.
Once you read Lohengrin and every goose
hung high while you practiced castle life
in Hanover. Tonight your letters reduce
history to a guess. The Count had a wife.
You were the old maid aunt who lived with us.
Tonight I read how the winter howled around
the towers of Schloss Schwoebber, how the tedious
language grew in your jaw, how you loved the sound
of the music of the rats tapping on the stone
floors. When you were mine you wore an earphone.
This is Wednesday, May 9th, near Lucerne,
Switzerland. sixty-nine years ago. I learn
your first climb up Mount San Salvatore;
this is the rocky path, the hole in your shoes,
the yankee girl, the iron interior
of her sweet body. You let the Count choose
your next climb. You went together, armed
with alpine stocks, with ham sandwiches
and seltzer wasser. You were not alarmed
by the thick woods of briars and bushes,
nor the rugged cliff, nor the first vertigo
up over Lake Lucerne. The Count sweated
with his coat off as you waded through top snow.
He held your hand and kissed you. You rattled
down on the train to catch a steamboat for home;
or other postmarks: Paris, Verona, Rome.
This is Italy. You learn its mother tongue.
I read how you walked on the Palatine among
the ruins of the palaces of the Caesars;
alone in the Roman autumn, alone since July.
When you were mine they wrapped you out of here
with your best hat over your face. I cried
because I was seventeen. I am older now.
I read how your student ticket admitted you
into the private chapel of the Vatican and how
you cheered with the others, as we used to do
on the Fourth of July. One Wednesday in November
you watched a balloon, painted like a silver ball,
float up over the Forum, up over the lost emperors,
to shiver its little modern cage in an occasional
breeze. You worked your New England conscience out
beside artisans, chestnut vendors and the devout.
Tonight I will learn to love you twice;
learn your first days, you mid-Victorian face.
Tonight I will speak up and interrupt
your letters, warning you that wars are coming,
that the Count will die, that you will accept
your America back to live like a prim thing
on the farm in Maine. I tell you, you will come
here, to the suburbs of Boston, to see the blue-nose
world go drunk each night, to see the handsome
children jitterbug, to feel your left ear close
one Friday at Symphony. And I tell you,
you will tip your boot feet out of that hall,
rocking from its sour sound, out onto
the crowded street, letting your spectacles fall
and your hair net tangle as you stop passers-by
to mumble your guilty love while your ears die.
-Anne Sexton, A Self-Portrait in Letters