For some kinds of literature, one read is enough. Fiction, for instance, can present such vivid scenes that the characters, tone, main plot, and lesson often stick even in my Crisco-lined mind after just one time through, in many cases for decades. I could never forget Huck dressed as a girl or Aunt Betsey chasing donkeys off her grass. But a poem is not made just so readers can remember facts about it. As with songs, poetry should be experienced again and again. It doesn’t make sense to say, “Ah, yes, that’s the classic rock song with the unusual choral parts at the beginning and in the middle. I remember its structure and its theme of regret during incarceration.” No, Queen’s song demands hearing. If we remember it, we remember hearing it; memories of the actual sounds go through the mind. (And this from a guy whose business it is to analyze musical structure!)
In the same way, poetry should be read and heard over and over. So I’ve come up with a way to work against my poor memory and restless reading schedule: I’ve started making my own poetry anthology. My goal is to end up with a collection of poems that have excited or moved me in the past so I can occasionally open it up and just read at random, finding inspiration again, making the familiar even more familiar, and perhaps even (I’m not making myself any promises) memorizing some lines.
It will take me a while to compile my anthology, I’m sure. A couple of months ago, I started with a variety of poems I remember from many years past. Then I reviewed some works from my current plan and added some poems and excerpts from the first two years. As of today, it’s thirty-four pages long. It includes some standards found in almost any English-language collection of poetry: “To Lucasta, going to the Wars,” “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” “The Second Coming.” But I wouldn’t need my own anthology if it read just like any publisher’s One Hundred Favorite Poems. So it also includes Sidney Lanier’s “A Sunrise Song,” which begins:
Young palmer sun, that to these shining sandsAnd Henry Vaughn’s “The World”:
Pourest thy pilgrim's tale, discoursing still
Thy silver passages of sacred lands,
With news of Sepulchre and Dolorous Hill
I saw Eternity the other night,And “Tegner's Drapa” by Longfellow, the poem that gave a young C. S. Lewis a life-altering rush of the longing he called “joy”:
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
I heard a voice, that cried,And this by Jack Gilbert:
"Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!"
And through the misty air
Passed like the mournful cry
Of sunward sailing cranes.
I saw the pallid corpse
Of the dead sun
Borne through the Northern sky.
Blasts from Niffelheim
Lifted the sheeted mists
Around him as he passed.
Poetry is a kind of lying,Poetry is a form of lying. The palmer sun pours a tale? It isn’t a palmer, it doesn’t pour, and it tells no tales. Three “lies” already. But truth may be told only so, and I need to read these lying truths, because I want to see what the poets have seen. I want to see the ring of Eternity.
necessarily. To profit the poet
or beauty. But also in
that truth may be told only so.
Those who, admirably, refuse
to falsify (as those who will not
risk pretensions) are excluded
from saying even so much.
Degas said he didn't paint
what he saw, but what
would enable them to see
the thing he had.