To commemorate National Poetry Month, here is an excerpt from my recent article entitled “A Quick Riff on Poetry and News“. It was published in October 2020 by The Good Men Project. I have edited from the original. I share a few definitive moments when I realized poetry was for me:
This year’s Nobel recipient for Literature was the American poet, Louise Glück, ”for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” This summer I spent a few days reading her book The Triumph of Achilles. What follows is a very short story of what poetry means to me. I hope it inspires you to check out Louis Glück and many other poets too.
Here is the truth of how I got into poetry.
It was a secret.
I cannot say exactly when or why it grabbed me. But I remember feeling shame. I was a fresh military veteran in my early 30s. My head was full of common ideals on what guys should and should not do. No one ever said it outright, but poetry was not one of them.
I began sampling a poetry podcast that led me down a rabbit hole and into a conversation between Bill Moyer and Jon Litigot. The Iraq War was at its height. I had recently turned in my rifle and was trying my best to start my new life. The conversation between these two men was about war and poetry. I understood much about the former; very little on the latter.
One of them read The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner – a WWII poem by Randall Jarrell in 1945. It brought the conversation to a halt, for both men were in tears, and I was too:
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
This is the first poem that struck me in a deeply personal way.
My second formative experience came when I got caught in my secret love for poetry.
I am a huge library patron, and in the old days, you gave your stack of books to the librarian. They would check them out and hand the book stack back to you. Now, everything is moving to automation.
I was embarrassed by what others thought, so I buried a poetry book between other books about home improvement, sports, and astronomy.
On this day, the book in question was La llama doble or The Double Flame by Octavio Paz, a Mexican poet and Nobel Laureate for Literature in 1990.
The librarian and I exchanged usual greetings as I handed her my book stack with Octavio Paz buried decisively in the middle. She quietly scanned them one-by-one, her eyes trained on a computer monitor to verify that each book was being properly processed.
As she reached for the poetry book, I tensed, pretending my attention was elsewhere. Then, in a single fluid yet unmistakable motion, she definitively placed the poetry book at the very top of my book stack.
She said nothing more than “Have a nice day”, yet her message was loud and clear. I fought back a smile, knowing that I was found out. My habit of concealing my love interest in poetry ended that day.
What does it mean? Why does it matter?
I am just a writer and (sometimes) poet. I would defer to the Swedish Academy to pontificate why poetic literature matters in times such as these. I think to simply experience poetry is more essential than listing explanations. I would simply encourage you to dive in.
Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets are great websites to explore. Attending an open mic night, even virtually, is well worth your time. You are bound to hear something that resonates with you. The experience can be similar to finding a favorite music band you have been waiting for your whole life.
Don’t overthink. You will know it when you hear it.
Follow the light.