ROBERT KELLY: Poetry aficionado reflects on past works that marked him
Speaking of books; more specifically, words written on a paper page, words printed on an electric screen, words inscribed on one’s own memory, words of heft and power: The words of poetry.
My first recognition of poetry — and, in time, poets — came with the living room recitation of poems by my sister, Martha. Sister Martha’s voice resonating with sympathetic understanding is still available to me, finding a lasting residency in my head — plus these images from the poem, “Over the Hill to the Poor-House.” At the time, I remember my first attempt at analyzing a poet’s word choice. Why not down the road to the poor house, or through the countryside to the poorhouse? I concluded that over the hill was a better choice with its suggestions of climbing, of overcoming barriers, of struggling onward. In high school, I found the images of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” lively and robust.
“Canterbury Tales” with its challenging symbolism remains a benchmark of my widening interest in the mysterious enlightenment of reading poetry. As a competitive speech coach, I had a particular fondness for preparing students for the rigors of poetry competition. Mary was a strong recruit for comprehending the intricacies of a line that reads “My son has birds in his head.” In Ellen’s case, understanding the originality of E.E. Cummings and his “little lame balloonman” and “anyone lived in a pretty how town (with up so floating many bells down spring summer autumn winter he sang his didn’t danced his did)” was an immeasurable breakthrough. Matt won the state title with his interpretation of Carl Sandburg’s poetry, including his line, “the fog comes on little cat feet.”
Today, I memorize poems in honor of my sister, Martha, for my own edification and also for my continuing involvement with the impact, the discovery of all words that can be measured by the word, poetry — in all of its guises.
Among the guises one can find these treasures. W.H. Auden’s, “About suffering they were never wrong. The old Masters: how well they understood the human position.” Emily Dickinson’s, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” William Shakespeare’s, “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.” Stephen Spender’s “Who wore at their hearts the fire centre. Born of the sun they traveled a brief while towards the sun, and left the vivid air signed with their honour.” Edna St. Vincent Mallay’s “The rain is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh upon the glass and listen for reply . . . I only know that summer sang in me A little while, that in me sings no more.”
Fortunately, the quotes go on and the poets too: Hart Crane, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Sara Teasdale and for me particularly, John Donne: “No spring, nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.”
It should be noted that I am not elitist about poetry. The melodrama of “Over the Hill to the Poor-House” still impacts me, as does the simplicity of “all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” Similarly, the density of “The Truth must dazzle gradually. Or every man be blind.” Or the awareness of “hands that can grasp, eyes that can dilate, hair that can rise.”
A brand-new 2018, bright and promising, is near. Poetry with its erudition, insights, meaning, its sharp angles and soft curves, its bounty illuminating the nooks and crannies of life and living in wondrous ways can be found most certainly in words poetic.
“The world is mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful.” Mud pies come to mind, wading in, too. Poetry is waiting, an open invitation to “oddments, inklings, omens, moments.”
Robert Kelly is a resident of Fort Wayne.