In a time of multiple crises, the most serious a pandemic causing an overwhelming number of illnesses and deaths, a sonnet of John Keats offers us reassurance in "The poetry of earth." "On the Grasshopper and the Cricket" asserts:
The poetry of earth is ceasing never;
On a lone winter evening. when the frost
Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The cricket's song, in warmth increasing ever,
And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
The grasshopper's among some grassy hills.
December 30, 1816
In his poem "Blacksmith Shop," Nobel Prize Winner Czeslaw Milosz associates his joy in witnessing the shop in action with his calling to be a poet. He concludes his celebration of "a piece of iron in the fire, held there by tongs/ Red, softened for the anvil,/ Beaten with a hammer, bent into a horseshoe...
At the entrance, my bare feet on the dirt floor,
Here, gusts of heat; at my back, white clouds.
I stare and stare. It seems I was called for this:
To glorify things just because they are.
Translated from the Polish
by Czeslaw Milosz
and Robert Hass
The Ecco Press
One of the challenges in reading poetry is the requirement of participation. The work is not all done for you. A poem of Philip Larkin's shows how the imagination of the reader can vary the images. Each reader provides the look of the doctor, the priest.
What are days for?
Days are where we live
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
Days are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days/
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Continuing the focus on the work of Elizabeth Bishop, in his biography LOVE UNKNOWN Thomas Travisano brings out how an experience long past becomes the subject of a poem by Bishop appearing generations later. "In the Waiting Room," published in GEOGRAPHY III asserts:
The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.
Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.
Response to the observed, its originality as well as its accuracy, is a quality in an effective poem. The work of Elizabeth Bishop exemplifies this excellence. In her poem " The Filling Station, " she concludes her description of the careful, though dingy, details of its interior with humorous recognition:
Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so they softly say :
Somebody loves us all.
The Complete Poems 1927-1979
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Though considered to be undervalued in America, Peter Kane Dufault found enthusiastic support for his poetry in Ireland and England.
I discovered his work many years ago in The New Yorker and had the good luck to meet him in the home of a niece in Hillsdale, New York. His comprehensive view; the world, nature, political questions not excluded, the music and humor in his superbly crafted verse deserve the attention of anyone for whom poetry is indispensable. In this period of forced isolation his poems offer a release. In the last stanza of four in his poem "Things at a distance," he asks:
"Why is it we leave always
what we love the most?" The thought
so far from the sick heart
of the case, can become art;
God knows, the good byes were not.
In distance. Distance. Grace.
Copyright 1993 by Peter Kane Dufault
New Things Come Into the World
Poetry's quality of sustaining its readers and writers is of interest in the life of the free jazz bassist Henry Grimes, who died recently at 84 of complications related to the coronavirus. After playing no music for 30 years, he returned to a successful musical career in 2003, according to his obituary in The Washington Post. In his thirty years' absence from music, he read and wrote poetry, reciting his poems, and publishing a volume of poems.
Today, the believed birthday of William Shakespeare in 1564, is an appropriate day to return to posting this poetry blog after an extended absence. At a time when most of the country's inhabitants are harboring at home because of the pandemic it is interesting to note that Shakespeare wrote his last few plays at home in Stratford, having left London to avoid the danger of the bubonic plague. In our isolation, we may find time to discover reading put aside or never explored. I returned to the work of the American poet William Stafford (1914-993). His surprising insights into our experience, his reassurance of the value of our lives, is especially invigorating at this time. A poem from The Way It Is, New and Selected Poems, Graywolf Press, I found heartening.
Notes for the Program
Just the ordinary days, please
I wouldn't want them any better.
About the pace of life, it seems best to have
slow, if-I-can stand-them revelations.
And take this message about the inevitable:
I've decided it's all right if it comes.
The poetry of Charles Simic reveals the effectiveness of the surreal in the work of a master. In the poem "Walking," he searches for evidence of a past neighborhood, asks : "Where is the bus that passed this way?/...And that schoolhouse with the red fence?" He asserts that "Miss Harding is probably still at her desk,/ Sighing as she grades papers late into the night." Not finding the street, he concludes:
"All I can do is make another tour of the neighborhood,
Hoping I'll meet someone to show me the the way
And a place to sleep, since I've no return ticket
To wherever it is I came from earlier this evening."
THAT LITTLE SOMETHING
Copyright 2008 by Charles Simic
Because of our human bond in feeling, the narrative of an individual in a poem can be the narrative of all. If a poem effectively addresses an experience of joy or suffering it may resonate with the reader, easing a depth of loneliness, not possible in the instant communications of social media. Emily Bronte's poem which begins: " Cold in the earth, and the deep snow piled above thee!" concludes with her not wishing to follow her "Sweet Love of youth" into the grave or to indulge in "Memories rapturous pain:/ Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,/ How could I seek the empty world again?"
Neva Herrington is a poet and former educator. She is currently working on a new book of poetry, a collection of short stories, and her memoir. Her inspiration comes from her own experience and the work of other poets.