From Bad to Verse: How Poetry Ruined my Life

As I was young and easy, my childhood was ruined by beautiful writing and high-minded values and verbal expression, and I blame it all on poetry. For years, my parents left this dangerous, unstable writing lying around the house in plain sight. It was, alas, the era before parent advisory labels. Mom and dad left poems where unsuspecting children could find them. For birthday cards, there were poetic quotes. For the solution to every torment, from mere doldrums of summer to heartbreak and adolescent angst, there were quotes from poems.

My early years were imbued with the sense that language was the most precious thing in the world; that putting the right words in the right order was a virtuous life work; that finding power, and style, and beauty in language was the highest calling—all telegraphed to us kids by poems taped on the fridge and liberal quoting of verse. Poetry, it was clear, was the fount of wisdom, insight, and memorable, gorgeous expression. Even today, when I pluck a few, cherished anthologies from my shelf, it starts a flood of memory and feeling. Deeply embedded lines come to the fore like old acquaintances.

I still have the Leaves of Grass that dad gave me for Christmas in ninth grade. “Whitman loved much that you love—beauty, openness, honesty, freedom, nature. Inside here is his “Song of the Open Road.” You are entering your open road years. Demand much of them; give them fully of yourself and you will have come to terms with being.”

Dad felt obliged to convey pathos and meaning at every opportunity. How about a new bicycle for Christmas? Nope. But I bet I can now find a poem about it. By 12th grade, I only wanted one thing for Christmas: The Complete Poems of e.e. cummings.  Powerful words and emotions had infected my soul.

My paperback copy of Oscar Williams Pocket Book of Modern Verse was a constant companion for two years of high school English. It’s here on my shelf. Mr. Walker gave excruciatingly precise tests of memory based on that book. I still recall hours of poring over titles and poets, ready to identify any snippet of verse for tests covering 40 poems—the power of the poems, the power of recollecting them. Phrases from “Walker poems” still come to mind: “A poem should not mean but be,” “Imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” “had anything been wrong we would certainly have heard.” There. I’ve shared a poetry scavenger hunt.

Try taking a walk in the woods without Wordsworth or Frost accompanying you! The woods are always ‘lovely, dark and deep”—Oooo that comma! Try taking in a winter landscape without hearing in the sound of the wind “the nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.” There’s always a certain “slant of light” that must be appreciated or described. It makes the world a word-scape ripe for shaping and appreciation beyond the prosaic.

Inside the tent of poetry (metaphor alert!) I found a world of imagination (“’Twas brillig”), nature’s beauty (My senior yearbook quote: “Gie me a’ the spark o’ nature’s fire, that’s a’ the learnin’ I desire,”), and even environmentalism (“It is only a little planet, but oh how beautiful it is”). Poetry had an answer for everything, and beckoned to “a helluva good universe next door: let’s go.” It gauged human psyche and history and potential, all in cadence and rhyme: “We fray into the future, rarely wrought save in the tapestries of afterthought.”

The pernicious influence of an even greater range of poets was cemented in place in college: I was an English major. I read the old and middle English, Shakespearian, Romantic, Victorian, and modern British and American poets before settling on T.S. Eliot for my thesis topic. Senior year was “Four Quartets.” And what does one do with a B.A. in English? Teach poetry, of course. So I did.

Now my bookshelves groan with anthologies of all kinds. I can locate a poem on any theme—from running to golf to automobiles; guitar riffs to swimming lessons; geometry to thermodynamics; ants to Zulus. Nothing exceeds the grasp of the poetic imagination. Everything good, lasting, meaningful can be found in a poem.

In my professional life, I once had the privilege of interviewing Billy Collins, U.S. poet laureate. “Poetry is the result,” he said, “of taking an obsessive interest in language and finding that using language in a certain way can express what otherwise cannot be expressed. The history of poetry is the only surviving history we have of human emotion. It is the history of the human heart. There is no other one. Without poetry, we would be deprived of the emotional companionship of our ancestors.” No pressure, Billy.

There is now no walk for me that is not Thoreauvian; no day not filled with metaphor; no moment not experienced metaphysically or transcendentally, “beauty and truth, truth beauty,” everywhere. I cannot see “a certain slant of light,” or hear the winter wind without “hearing the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”—the world is words.  The “Little lame balloon man” augurs spring for me. The poet is the “priest of the invisible,” or an alien from inner space. “Poetry is the bill and coo of sex,” saith the poet. Erotica! It is a burden to be so dominated by great writing. Mommas don’t let your babies grow up to be English majors, though they will “come to terms with being”—like that’ll pay the bills.

My kids have been affected too, receiving poems as birthday letters or sundry quote barrages. “Happy birthday, honey. Have I sent you this one by Wendell Berry, recently? William Stafford! Sharon Olds! Naomi Shihab Nye” The word, the word, the word. Always gotta quote; share something pithy and succinct; passing along meaning, and feeling, and beautiful expression in other people’s words. It’s not enough to merely state a point—it must always have maximum possible resonance. Emotional companionship indeed. Yup, poetry made me the pitiful, empathic, romantic, Keatsian, truth-seeking, beauty-seeking, beatnik, transcendental, articulate man I am today—such as I was, such as I would become. “Horseman pass by.”

Todd R. Nelson is a former teacher in Penobscot.

Herein lie the words of Eliot, Yeats, Cummings, Burns, Wilbur, Stevens, MacLeish, Dickinson, Sandburg, Frost, Keats, Carroll, Thomas.

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