Reading poetry is an an acquired taste worth every new sip. For once you discover—or, perhaps better put, you are discovered by—the imperishable enchantment of a fine poem you can’t go back to a life of reading without it. “I have listened hard and let the poems inhabit me,” wrote Edward Hirsch and I know what he means. Reading poetry has certain immediate pleasures and incalculable powers unlike other forms of reading—and I do so enjoy other forms of reading, believe you me. Poetry, however—good poetry (and let us reserve another time to speak of what is good)—employs (in our case) English words, phrases, caesura, and space (silence) like a composer combines musical notes and rests to fashion, not merely technical features like tone and rhythm, but more importantly sympathetic features, serving a transcendental experience that touches the deepest parts of a soul. I say again: it is the breathtaking immediacy of the elegiac impulse that fascinates me about a poem.
This morning, for instance, I read from William Wright’s collection called Tree Heresies. My soul listened to the offerings of one of the creations in that collection; a beautiful poem that I share:
“To be clothed in the smell,
A skin of sweet-rot, flowery,
Life-dark as a pond floor—
Their fruit felled, wet, fat,
Half-black, half-green in slack grass
Sugared in bees and calyx sap,
Where blue squill and fern lift
To a bedraggled sun
From this picked ground,
In mosses bright, this vanishing,
And later, star blown night.” (from William Wright, Tree Heresies, 2015)
Reading poetry is different than reading the prosaic, but much loved and appreciated, works of fiction or nonfiction. Aside from obvious technical differences there is a remarkable euphoric impact upon the mind and spirit made by a single phrase in a good poem. “To be clothed in the smell, a skin of sweet-rot, flowery, life-dark as a pond floor” is a powerful parcel of Wright’s poem that, for me, carried my mind back to an ancient pond, a slough in a thicket, next to a stand of black walnut trees. The pond—more of a bog—had succumbed to algae decades before I was born. It breathed forth a most vile, fruity-sick air. The smell of the rotting black walnuts in the soft east Louisiana soil, mixed with the slimy, green, gaseous algae, with some occasional fumes from a dead animal, and honeysuckle, created a ethereal power that bid me, “come see if you dare.” The old pond under the black walnuts seemed like the kind of place that goblins might have gathered around under a full moon whilst the rural farm-dwellers slept in apparent safety. Now, I had not thought of that old bog and I had not experienced its effect for over fifty years. Yet, in one phrase I not only remembered the pond, I smelled it. I smelled the rotting black walnuts on the ground next to the swampy hole. I experienced all of this at six o’clock in the morning as I read from William Wright’s poem. So, I say, “this is a good poem.” Moreover, I commend the writing of William Wright to any of you wanting to venture out into the often small, but contented band of readers who relish the joy, even the anticipation of what might happen to us—what we might see, or remember, or feel, or smell—when we read good poetry.
I turned six years old just as my father died, leaving me an orphan. As Aunt Eva and I went through his sundry belongings I came across my father’s most recent reading collection—a couple of expensively bound volumes and assorted paperbacks. They were all books of poetry. “Your daddy loved Rudyard Kipling,” I remember Aunt Eva telling me as we both held the artifacts of my father’s soul in our hands. He must have especially felt close to The Favorite Poems & Ballads of Rudyard Kipling, as it was most obviously well-used. I kept his poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson through most of the years of my childhood. There was, also, Milton—John, that is. We had his Milton in our home for as long as I can remember. This was as much a shrine to our seventeenth century literary relation (“See, John Milton our poet cousin did well, so can you, Boy!”) as it was to remember Daddy. Milton is gone. Kipling is gone. They are all gone now. Ghosts gone. Like all the few relics of his life (save on volume on navigation from his Merchant Marine officer school) they are no more. But, I sensed that my father, who had suffered the inevitable loss at the hands of hard drink, had self-medicated with deep sessions of poetry (I wonder if the voice I heard coming from his house, when I would sneak under the porch to listen, was Kipling’s voice in my father’s?). Perhaps only poetry of all the literary elixirs can reach the distant, untouched places; the far-away places in the womb of our spirits where a stone tossed never hits the water—no sound, no ripples, ever; always the dark untouched pond inside. Maybe that is why we go back to the Psalms so often. It is said that Billy Graham reads Psalms each day. When I was so sick I found that I could only read a Psalm. Maybe, in the end we only have faith in its poetic form.
Well, this was my father. And I imagine that the poems did for him what they do for me: reach the old far away pond that I had forgotten. In this way, if never another, we link life to life and generation to generation when we trust the poet’s art.