Poet Mary Oliver
April 3, 2020
April is Poetry Month. What better time to dip into the wealth of thoughts told well? I know a number of people claim they don’t like poetry, but I think perhaps they simply haven’t sampled enough, for it comes in every shape and style. On the other hand, I claim I don’t like football. Maybe I simply haven’t watched enough.
In any case, I admit there are many poems I don’t care for, but I’ve learned to simply turn a page and try another. Raised in times when most poetry rhymed and had formal structures, I’m relieved so much of it now is free-flowing and organic. The change makes it easier for me to write. I’m just beginning to learn that even free verse, which lacks both rhyme and a regular rhythm (meter), does have commonly accepted standards to help evaluate if a poem is any good.
But mostly I just try to decide what I like and what I don’t. One quality that always gets to me might be called “heart” or “insight.” The ones I treasure are those describing the human condition and emotion, not in a beat-you-over-the-head way, but in a subtle, hey-notice-this manner. I believe that’s what any art does—leads you to look at and consider something you may not have thought about. One of my current favorites is “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver. She combines an eternal question (“Who made the world?”) with an intimate and tender observation of a common insect, then ends with a challenge to the reader. Another with similar impact, by Maya Angelou, is A Brave and Startling Truth.
A friend of mine connected me to a poem chain letter online. We each send one poem to the person at the top of the list, then send the query to 20 others. Some decline to be involved, but that’s fine. I’m reading an assortment of poems I’ve never run across before.
In addition to exposing me to ideas I may not have stumbled over, poetry also helps me with what I call “middle of the night crazies.” These are the times when insomnia tracks me down and crams stupid, useless fears in my head. Why don’t my children like me? Why is the water in the toilet running and running? Is the tender spot on my foot some terrible disease, and how long will it take to manifest itself? Did I offend a person on a poetry video conference so that she’ll never talk to me again? I reach for poetry at these times because it blasts my mind out of its destructive, downhill hurtle and into something resembling human.
Lots of poetry is available free online. Not every poem, I hasten to add, because poets need to eat as much as anyone else. This website, https://poets.org/, enables you to search a number of subjects and poets and hosts the Poem-a-Day feature. Another, PoemHunter.com, has tons of poems and poets. You can bookmark your favorites so you can get to them quickly. This site, however, is cluttered with pop-up ads that make it a challenge to read the text. Then there’s Poetry 180, a project to introduce high school students to the joys, hosted by Billy Collins, a former US Poet Laureate, from the Library of Congress. If you like the oldies but goodies, try Project Gutenberg, which has notables by people like Shakespeare and Walt Whitman, and you can download ebooks of some collections.
In these slow, yet somehow tense, days of our modern plague, people seem to be allowing externals to affect them adversely and profoundly. Try checking out of the constant, hysterical barrage of “news,” and explore the world of poetry. Hey, even if you favor off-color limericks, they’re still entertaining and thought-provoking. You may find that you’re a poetry lover, too.