Because of two poems—barely a full page of words—100 Selected Poems by ee cummings has sat on my shelf for over a decade, the majority of its contents unread.
I like to see what words can do, and poetry is a good place to go when you want to browse the reaches of language’s possibilities. So I picked up 100 Selected Poems, and I forced myself to read every single word, no cheating, no skimming, no skipping. When I found my attention wandering, I read the words out loud.
Well, surprise, surprise, I still hate poetry.
But can I really say that I hate it? Those two poems that I like? I fucking love them. Memorized them. Wrote them on things I would see every day. “i like my body when it is with your body. It is so quite new a thing.” And, “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond any experience, your eyes have their silence.”
I still remember my favorite line, written by a teenage poet laureate I wrote about for my first newspaper job. “Anticipation is half the apocalypse.” Those words still send a little happy shiver down my spine, still pop into my head though I can no longer remember the poet’s name.
Though I never managed to memorize the entirety of Poe’s “The Raven,” it wasn’t for lack of trying. I did succeed when it came to another memorable, though very short, work by Poe: “Deep in the earth my love is lying, now I must weep alone.” When poetry gets to me, it really gets to me. Under my skin. Into my head. It builds a nest, and it never leaves.
I discovered a handful of interesting poems in the cummings book, but mostly I shook my head, rumpled my eyebrows, complained at the Beard (who was trying to play a computer game at the time) about the punctuation, and wished I was reading Shakespeare instead because I enjoy both the rhythm of iambic pentameter and the stories Shakespeare tells. cummings’ work, in comparison, felt masturbatory—weirdness for the sake of weirdness, punctuation all the fuck over the place, breaks that didn’t make any sense, words that didn’t make any sense—but that is generally my problem with poetry: the form doesn’t make any sense to me. When I come to the table, poetry refuses to speak.
However. The use of language poetically? I love that. Put poetry into prose, and I can fall in love. It is why I’ve fallen so hard for Catherynne Valente, and it is part of why I am enchanted with Tom Robbin’s cartwheeling sentences. Put the same words into a column with half of the verbs missing and punctuation like trash on the beach, and I am out. Yawn. What the fuck? No thanks. Bye.
You can imagine my horror then, perhaps, when I realized that I write poetry myself.
I was at a book club meeting, chatting with a fellow from Holland and a fellow from Portugal (who, at the start of the meeting, I had convinced to read a paragraph of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet
out loud in the original, fucking swoon man, fucking swoon, now there is poetic prose I could bathe in) and trying to explain why I don’t like poetry. Later, we got to talking about our own writing, and when I mentioned that I write songs, you know, with lyrics, they laughed and laughed at the poet who hates poetry. Funny thing is, it had never occurred to me that they might be the same thing.
Put poetry to music, and I can love it all over again. Poetry on paper is often mute to my ears, but poetry set to music can rip me apart, can make my stomach clench, and my skin quiver. How is that possible? How can the package in which the words arrive be so important? Aren’t they the same either way? No. Never. Absofuckinglutely not.
Words are a divining rod for emotion. Certain materials work better than others. You can’t often divine the beating of my heart with a printed poem, but you can find them with music and wrapped up in the sentences of stories.
What about you? Do you read poetry/hate poetry/worship poetry? What are your favorite poems? Can someone explain to me the allure of ee cummings?