I’ve been collecting these various links for a while, wanting to share them, but waiting until I had a proper number. Three links is a very proper number: neither too few nor too many. And so now I’ll set this little collection of links about poems adrift. Because who doesn’t need more poetry in their life?
These are delightful suggestions. The sort of thing that should be covered in any poetry class. Perfect for novice readers and “experts” alike. A sort of Zen of poetry as well as a very practical guide.
3. Try to meet a poem on its terms not yours. If you have to “relate” to a poem in order to understand it, you aren’t reading it sufficiently. In other words, don’t try to fit the poem into your life. Try to see what world the poem creates. Then, if you are lucky, its world will help you re-see your own.
12. A poem can feel like a locked safe in which the combination is hidden inside. In other words, it’s okay if you don’t understand a poem. Sometimes it takes dozens of readings to come to the slightest understanding. And sometimes understanding never comes. It’s the same with being alive: Wonder and confusion mostly prevail.
13. Perform marginalia. Reading without writing in the margins is like walking without moving your arms. You can do it and still reach your destination, but it’ll always feel like you’re missing something essential about the activity.
18. The very best way to read a poem is perhaps to be young, intelligent, and slightly drunk. There is no doubt, however, that reading poems in old age cultivates a desire to have read more poems in youth.
19. Someday, when all your material possessions will seem to have shed their utility and just become obstacles to the toilet, poems will still hold their value. They are rooms that take up such little room. A memorized poem, or a line or two, becomes part internal jewelry and part life-saving skill, like knowing how to put a mugger in an arm-lock or the best way to cut open a mango without slicing your hand.
20. Reading a good poem doesn’t give you something to talk about. It silences you. Reading a great poem pushes further. It prepares you for the silence that perplexes us all: death.
2. The Joy of the Memorized Poem, an interview with poet Billy Collins.
William Butler Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is about the allure of an imagined refuge. The poem’s distressed urban speaker fantasizes about fleeing the city and retreating to an idyllic Irish island; his fervid mantra is “I will arise and go.” For Billy Collins, author of Aimless Love, poetry itself is that sanctuary, a place to seek peace when times are tough. In our conversation for this series, he explained why the poems he memorizes become like cherished companions—and how he’s relied on Yeats especially in times of trouble.
One of the disadvantages of poetry over popular music is that if you write a pop song, it naturally gets into people’s heads as they listen in the car. You don’t have to memorize a Paul Simon song; it’s just in your head, and you can sing along. With a poem, you have to will yourself to memorize it. That’s what happened to me with “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” I knew the poem well—through many re-readings and through teaching it in my classes—but at some point, I remember thinking “I’ve just going to get this poem down.” This process—going from deep familiarity to complete mastery—is a challenge and a great pleasure. In repeating different lines, your reading becomes more focused than you’ve ever had before. You become more sensitive to every consonant and vowel.
When you internalize a poem, it becomes something inside of you. You’re able to walk around with it. It becomes a companion. And so you become much less objective in your judgment of it. If anyone criticizes the poem, they’re criticizing something you take with you, all the time.
Unlike prose which is complete, linear headlong movement forward—a poem is a design that displaces silence on the page. You can look at it as a thing to wander in. You can say every other line. You can play with the design by getting inside its structure. When you’re in duress, as I was in the MRI, you can put the poem to all kinds of diagrammatic uses.