I hated poetry in middle school.
Just couldn’t understand the attraction. Whereas the plotline of short stories like Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game was immediately suspenseful, the meandering prose of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65 befuddled me.
What’s worse: I had to memorize the sonnet!
But, as with so many things when one ages from boy/girl to man/woman, my tastes in literature evolved.
Today, I seek out poetry in my weekly visits to the library. Not necessarily over other categories of literature, but on equal footing with a good memoir or classics novel.
I don’t remember the precise turning point. It could have been in my early 20s, when I stumbled across a book of poetry by one of my childhood author-heroes, Ray Bradbury.
I think I was stunned that the same man who could write The Illustrated Man and Dandelion Wine would also take pains (in my view) to write poetry.
After the initial shock, I bought the book. Not the greatest of poets, I thought. But, the impact had been felt. So, I went back and picked up my old college textbook of poetry and flipped through it, selectively reading where the pages landed.
I was intrigued. Still, reading poetry wasn’t part of my regular literature diet.
Until one memorable SXSW Interactive closing rant by Bruce Sterling. I think it was shortly after he had published Tomorrow Now.
I don’t know what it was going on in his personal or professional life, what he had just been witness to in recent days, or simply what particular moment of empathy had triggered a well of emotion. But, as he closed with a reading from Carl Sandburg’s monumental work The People, Yes he his voice began choking as he read.
Yet, rather than pause, take a deep breath, and carry on with his normal, ironic, acerbic sing-song, he plowed forward for what seemed like an eternity but was probably only 4-5 minutes.
Nearly at tears, nearly unable to speak, his near-wail of Sandburg’s powerful words was beyond moving. I was near the front of the room that was absolutely standing-room-only, packed to the gills.
And, as he finished the final words, the room rose up nearly simultaneously on-cue with a wave of riotous, appreciative applause – one of the most incredible standing ovations I’ve ever seen or been a part of. I’ll never forget it.
The final turning point was during my travels to China.
While seeking some connection back to familiar roots one afternoon while on one of my early weeks-long extended solo trips to Shanghai, I was browsing through the available videos in iTunesU.
While browsing, I stumbled across a selection of videos from NPR’s Poetry Everywhere series, recorded at the Geraldine R. Dodge bi-annual poetry festival. What a treasure!
I watched then (and have watched dozens of time since), many of the readings by the various featured poets, with their short intros by Garrison Keillor.
But, if I could only watch one, it would be For What Binds Us, by Jane Hirshfield.
Here is the full text, if you want to linger over the words, as I have.
For What Binds Us
There are names for what binds us
Look around, you can see them
The skin that forms in a half-empty cup
Nails, rusting into the places they join
Joints, dovetailed on their own weight
The way things stay so solidly
Wherever they’ve been set down
And gravity, scientists say, is weak
How the flesh grows back
Across a wound
With a great vehemence
More strong than the simple, untested surface before
There’s a name for it on horses
When it comes back
Darker and raised
As all flesh is proud of its wounds
Wears them as honors, given out after battle
Small triumphs, pinned to the chest
And when two people
Have loved each other
See, how it
Is like a scar
Between their bodies’
Stronger, darker, and proud
How the black cord
Makes of them
A single fabric
That nothing can tear, or mend.
As a great poem should, it speaks to me on multiple levels – physically, emotionally, intellectually.
So, whether or not you hated poetry as a kid like I did, if it has been awhile since you found a good poem, I urge you to insert it on your to-do list.
Like the milk commercial says, “it does a body good.”
Shoot… it’s even a little fun, with the nifty Poetry Foundation mobile app!