I know that school lessons about poetry were not for everyone. But I loved them – and with that everyone knew the joy that a poem can bring.
Dealing with email can be a daily organisational chore – but it can also bring joy.
I don’t remember now when I first came across the Poetry Foundation, but I am grateful I did. Their website says they recognise the power of words to transform lives. “We work to amplify poetry and celebrate poets by fostering spaces for all to create, experience, and share poetry.”
The foundation, which publishes Poetry magazine, is based in Chicago so its emails hit my South African email box in the late afternoon, and I often only read the poem a day later. But this is the one email I always open, and always read – even when I have no idea what the poem is about (which happens quite often).
The poems are often tied to a historic event – the email of September 19, 2023, for instance, brought me Once upon a Time: Surfside, Miami by Richard Blanco, which marked the United States’s National Voter Registration Day. Richard Blanco, the email told me, was the first Latino and openly gay poet to read as part of a U.S. presidential inauguration.
And long ago, to mark National Cat’s Day in 2018, there was The Cat’s Song by Marge Piercy, which I still treasure, ending as it does with two perfect lines about cats: “I will teach you to be still as an egg/ and to slip like the ghost of wind through the grass.”)*
Careful use of language
The emails are often very specific to life in the United States out of kilter with life in the southern hemisphere – I’m getting lots of poems about autumn right now, when of course for us it is spring.
But it doesn’t matter. Each email reminds me why I love poetry, and why I have always loved it. It’s in the way language can be carefully coaxed to give the sudden insight, the lift of the heart, the stoking of a memory, the evoking of a feeling.
Take the poem Autumn by John Clare, in which the last verse goes:
Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun,
And the rivers we’re eying burn to gold as they run;
Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air;
Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.
John Clare was a Romantic poet who lived in England from 1793 to 1864, and his life and work would seem not to be all that relevant to hot and dry South Africa. But those lines: “Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air;/ Whoever looks round sees Eternity there” … how could they not stir something in everyone, even if just a mental image of a sunset, burning rivers to gold as they run?
My top tips for reading poetry
Poetry can be hard to read (and it is often deliberately so) and difficult to understand. But, as with all reading, it is worth persevering: there will almost always be something to be treasured.
First tip: The best way to start decoding an English poem is to start with the punctuation and ignore the way the lines break. The language may have been made dance confusingly, but the punctuation will keep you anchored.
In an example from a Shakespeare sonnet, the lines go:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
If you look for the full stops first and ignore the line breaks, you get two sentences, like this:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold when yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang upon those boughs which shake against the cold, bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day as after sunset fadeth in the west, which by and by black night doth take away, death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
Second tip: Now you might have some dictionary work to do (the word choir, for instance, does not mean a group of people singing, but instead refers to part of a church building). And look at the complex sentences with this in mind: poets often tinker with grammar to emphasise something. Ordinarily, that first sentence might go: “You can see a time of year in me in which leaves hang from trees…” But the time of year – cold bare autumn is the thing you need to focus on, so that’s been shunted to the start of the sentence.
Third tip: Look for the compressed meaning. Shakespeare is saying he’s sad and desolate, just as the season of autumn is sad and desolate. But he’s taken the loss and death of the season and hurled it into his heart and soul. And who of us has not felt that way at some point in our life? Across the centuries, the poet gives us words and images to make meaning of our life.
And that’s why I love poetry.
* When writing lines of poetry outside of the context of the poem, you indicate a new line with a slash.
Main picture: Sunset on the River Medway, Chris Child, Unsplash
This is an updated version of a post from 2018.
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