Poetry - Three that I Like

How do we find poetry? In English classes? In the New Yorker? Chiseled onto the back of a public bathroom door? Read over a loud speaker once every four years at the Presidential inauguration? It doesn't seem to be a prevalent craft in our popular culture anymore. It doesn't serve to inform, inspire and guide us the way it once did. We have a Poet Laureate... but can you name her? One of the poets below, Billy Collins, was Poet Laureate from 2001-2003. But that's not how I found out about him. He gave a reading at an elementary school in the town where I grew up. My mother attended, bought two of his books and asked him to sign them to me for my birthday. I loved them so much I read one of his poems at my father's funeral. Thanks, Mom.

I know of John Updike mainly because he loved golf and wrote many funny short stories and essays on the game that have appeared in the collections of golf stories that everyone gives me for Christmas. But I never thought of him as a poet until the day he died and Jim Lehrer gave him a nice fifteen minute tribute on PBS including a reading of a poem he wrote called "A Rescue." They also aired a ten minute interview with him from 2003 in which he described his own writing as "Bright and hopeful attempts to bottle some small portion of the truth." In a forward to one of his books he wrote, "My duty was to describe reality as it had come to me, to give the mundane its beautiful due."

I studied literature in college and have a book of Keats' collected poems on my bookshelf, but it wasn't until I saw Jane Campion's beautiful movie "Bright Star" that I was touched by the full force of his poetry. In a New York Times review of the movie, A.O. Scott writes, "The lives of poets have been, in general, badly served on film, either neglected altogether or puffed up with sentiment and solemnity and there are times in Bright Star when Keats, played by the pale and skinny British actor Ben Whishaw, trembles on the edge of caricature. He broods, he looks dreamily at flowers and trees and rocks, but these moments, rather than feeling studied or obvious, arrive with startling keenness and disarming beauty, much in the way that Keats' own lyrics do. His verses can at first seem ornate and sentimental, but on repeated readings, they have a way of gaining in force and freshness. And while no film can hope to take you inside the process by which these poems were made, Ms. Campion allows you to hear them spoken aloud as if for the first time. You will want to stay until the very last bit of the end credits, not necessarily to read the name of each gaffer and grip, but rather to savor every syllable of Mr. Whishaw's recitation of Ode to a Nightingale."

It is true. Seeing the creation of his poems and hearing them recited within the context of his life moved me in a way that reading them never did.

In each of these examples, my life has been made richer by the experience of poetry - feeling its truth and its power to unify us and awaken in us an appreciation of every precious breath of life. This seems especially important within the increasing din of superficiality and cynicism. I hope each of us is blessed with an opportunity to find true moments of silence and reflection when the words of the poet can strip back the layers that shield us from the passionate brilliance of our souls.

Bright Star

by John Keats

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art---
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite*,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors---
No---yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillowed upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever---or else swoon in death.

*Origin of the English word hermit from eremos (Greek adj.) - empty, desolate; eremia (n.) - desert; eremite (n.) - someone who lives alone in the desert. The reference here is to an unidentified star which, like a hermit, sits apart from the world.

A Rescue
by John Updike

Today I wrote some words that will see print.
Maybe they will last "forever," in that
someone will read them, their ink making
a light scratch on his mind, or hers.
I think back with greater satisfaction
upon a yellow bird--a goldfinch?--
that had flown into the garden shed
and could not get out,
battering its wings on the deceptive light
of the dusty, warped-shut window.

Without much reflection, for once, I stepped
to where its panicked heart
was making commotion, the flared wings drumming,
and with clumsy soft hands
pinned it against a pane,
held loosely cupped
this agitated essence of the air,
and through the open door released it,
like a self-flung ball,
to all that lovely perishing outdoors.

by Billy Collins

It could be the name of a prehistoric beast 

that roamed the Paleozoic earth, rising up 

on its hind legs to show off its large vocabulary, 

or some lover in a myth who is metamorphosed into a book.

It means treasury, but it is just a place 

where words congregate with their relatives,
a big park where hundreds of family reunions 

are always being held, 

house, home, abode, dwelling, lodgings, and digs,
all sharing the same picnic basket and thermos; 

hairy, hirsute, woolly, furry, fleecy, and shaggy 

all running a sack race or throwing horseshoes,
inert, static, motionless, fixed and immobile 

standing and kneeling in rows for a group photograph. 

Here father is next to sire and brother close 

to sibling, separated only by fine shades of meaning. 

And every group has its odd cousin, the one 

who traveled the farthest to be here:
astereognosis, polydipsia, or some eleven
syllable, unpronounceable substitute for the word tool. 

Even their own relatives have to squint at their name tags. 

I can see my own copy up on a high shelf.
I rarely open it, because I know there is no 

such thing as a synonym and because I get nervous 

around people who always assemble with their own kind,
forming clubs and nailing signs to closed front doors
while others huddle alone in the dark streets. 

I would rather see words out on their own, away 

from their families and the warehouse of Roget, 

wandering the world where they sometimes fall 

in love with a completely different word. 

Surely, you have seen pairs of them standing forever 

next to each other on the same line inside a poem,
a small chapel where weddings like these,
between perfect strangers, can take place.

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