Friday, May 14, 2010

A Poetry Kind of Morning

Understanding Poetry
by Charlie Leck

I never really understood poetry – at least most poems – until I gave up trying to understand it. Or, put better,…

I never really understood poetry –
at least most poems –
until I gave up trying

I remember once reading a poem, which I am certain was by Billy Collins, a past poet laureate of the United States, that described a poem, tied to a chair, tortured by some villains seeking to find out from the poor thing what it really meant.

These days I enjoy poetry more. I simply read along with it, slowly and calmly, waiting patiently for gentle and beautiful breezes to blow across my understanding, leaving me stunned by a sentence or a phrase.

“We’re all attracted to the perfume
of fermenting joy,..”
[Tony Hoagland]*

I don’t remember the rest of Hoagland’s poem, but that line has stuck in my mind for a decade or so. Nice! True!

There is something about reading a poem
That changes everything in its moment

That opens something that ambles along inside me
Challenging slopes too steep and ledges too dangerous

That leads me down through the peril
To the mesmerizing, peaceful meadowlands below

There are some days, like this dim, grayish and damp one, when I feel the compelling urge to go to the shelves where the books of poetry are set aside. I pull out familiar volumes and leaf through them. I search for lines that unruffled me on other occasions.

After Hearing Robert Bly Read a line
From a Poem by James Wright

Emotions skitter down my back
My brain melts into tears;
My God! This verse I cannot wade,
There is no bottom here.
[Arthur Mampel**]

That nails it pretty well – I mean, that feeling I get when I encounter something said so extremely well and beautifully in a poem or in prose that may as well be poetry. I simply yield to it rather than try to understand it.

A fellow found my blog quite by accidental circumstance recently. He wrote that "One has to stop and check out a site which contains a Milton quote at the top of the page."

Many years ago, as a young and foolish man, I wanted to be a writer of prose who occasionally dabbled in poetry. It is quite as silly as a boy dreaming about being a Yankee slugger some day. Such high ground is reserved for the few. One day, back then, I discovered Yvengy Yevtushenko, the Russian poet, and wondered how beautifully he must have sounded in his own, Russian language. Some of his poems were compellingly simple to understand, such as the one below. Others required an understanding of some Russian history and some appreciation for the Russian language. So, I went through his volume of work, satisfied to understand what I could understand and to enjoy that and not worry about the other. I'll leave you with this simple Yevtushenko poem.

We are sitting at an airport
in Copenhagen drinking a lot of coffee.
It was most elegant there, and comfortable,
and refined to the point of lassitude.
Then suddenly he appeared- that old man-
in a plain green parka with a hood,
his face deep tanned by salt and wind-
loomed up rather than appeared.
He walked, furrowing through a crowd of tourists,
as if he’d just been sailing a boat,
and like the sea foam his beard,
whitening it, fringed his face.
With grim victorious determination
he walked, generating a big wave,
that swept through the modernized antique,
through every sort of antiqued modernity.
And pulling open the coarse collar of his shirt,
he, rejecting a vermouth and a pernod,
ordered a glass of Russian vodka at the bar
and pushed back the tonic with his hand: 'No! '
With rough-hewn hands, all scarred and dented,
in boots that made a mighty clatter,
in trousers indescribably stained and greasy,
he looked more spruce
than anything nearby.
The earth seemed to bend beneath him-
so heavily did he tread upon it.
And one of us said to me with a smile:
'Just look! The very spit of Hemingway! '
Expressed in each brief gesture, he strode off
with a fisherman’s ponderous gait,
all out of granite crudely hewn,
strode as men stride through gunfire,
through the ages,
He strode as if stooping in a trench;
strode shoving chairs and men aside...
He resembled
Hemingway so much!
Later I learned
it was, indeed, Hemingway!
Yvengy Yevtushenko
Translated by George Reave

*from Donkey Gospel, Tony Hoagland, Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota, 1998
Silk Over Wood, Arthur Mampel, International Theological & Philosophical Library Press, London, 1981

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