So first of all Happy World Poetry Day! It’s no secret that we here at 2 Rules of Writing <3 us some poetry. In fact, we’re dedicating the month of April to sharing poetry from all over the world. We have people weighing in with their favorites from Hong Kong, Sweden, Nigeria, Australia, and that’s just so far. So please follow this link to add YOUR favorite poems and we’ll try to include them in our yearly 30 Days, 30 Poems marathon.
But I also wanted to talk a bit about what poetry means; what it does; how it works. And I thought to start with the elephant in the room: the canon.
I always want to boost the work of poets we are more likely to ignore because of the circumstances of their birth. But it is a fact that too many of my own favorites are English or Anglo-American. Too many of the classes I took in college centered around these canonical poets. I knew at the time this was wrong. I even took steps to introduce myself to poets from elsewhere in the world. And yet. Certain canonical poets still occupy plenty of real estate in my head and heart.
Why do I keep returning to them? Why do I need a specific poem at a specific moment? And why does that poem have to be something by Shakespeare or Wordsworth? Won’t any poet, any poem, do?
The Preference for Some Poets over Others; for Some Nationalities over Others
I don’t think so. That is to say: a would-be poet can write beautiful or forgettable poetry as their gifts permit, regardless of where they were born. And so there is no inherent reason why only English poems should be canon. That’s just power dynamics and economics. But once I’ve fallen in love with a poem, there is certainly a reason to keep reading that poem and not to stray to other pastures. Even if that poem is from that narrow sliver of canonical authors.
So why do I keep returning to that poem whatever that poem may be?
The reason has something to do with the very nerves that run under our skin. If, like me, you suffer from anxiety, there is a decent chance you have contemplated seeing a therapist, a psychiatrist, something of the kind. And if you’ve done so, there is a good chance you have been told to use breathing exercises: to breathe in on counts of four and out on counts of eight, for example. There is medical evidence that breathing exercises can help to improve cardiovascular and cardiopulmonary health.
So let’s take a fairly old poem by a poet who was very interested in psychology, William Wordsworth:
A Slumber did my Spirit Seal
A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
What does it Mean to Discipline the Breath?
A poem like this, when you recite it out loud, will discipline the breath. Try it and you’ll see. You’ll find yourself wanting to breathe in between lines, not during, and to say each line in a single breath.
The poem itself is a poem of mourning. It is about a woman (I think quite a young girl, actually) who has died. Wordsworth uses images of nature to soothe the mourner; to emphasize that death is a part of life and that the beloved child is not gone, but rather gone back into the landscape.
It is a remarkable poem for its time, in that it does not recourse to religious or mythological imagery to convey relief but rather focuses on images and ideas from nature.
Longer Lines and Fewer Punctuation Marks Discipline the Breath to Longer Exhalations
But while these soothing images penetrate the grief-stricken mind, these long (but not too long) breaths penetrate the breast and force the breathing to slow. Actually, if you look carefully, you’ll see that several of the lines towards the end of the poem contain a two-syllable coda:
Each of which connects logically and grammatically to what comes before but does not add information. These two-word codas emphasize that these lines are not as long as they are in order to cram in information. They would be as informative at perhaps half the length. But the lines must be this long, else they would not have the effect of calming the reader. And that, ultimately, is the point.
The Force of Habit
So I return to this poem because it helps me breathe in a way that calms my nerves. And I return to this poem in preference to others just as good, just as calming, because there is power in repetition. We are creatures of habit, and using the same poem with the same images for the same purpose time and again has a cumulative effect.
Now. Am I saying that ballad meter always has the effect of calming the reader? No. A different pattern of punctuation would discipline the breath in a different way so that the effect would be to heighten tension rather than release it. That effect would dovetail nicely with a more action-oriented poem. And we haven’t even begun to talk about the possibilities of setting a poem to music; music that could either excite or assuage the emotions.
Expand your Breath; Expand your Mind
You might think, reading what I’ve written so far, that this is an argument for putting Wordsworth and the other tried-and-true (that is English or Anglo-American) poets back on the syllabus where they blah blah blah. No. Please don’t. That’s not it at all. In fact, it’s important we do the opposite, and the earlier the better. If you have a favorite poem by a favorite poet and you want to share that with your child, nobody is saying not to do that (unless the poet in question is egregiously racist). But the bonds between a person and a poem last a lifetime. So if you help a child–whether student, offspring, or other young relation–to form a relationship with a poem, that poem will be with them in their darkest hours.
And that poem can lead the child to respect other cultures, which God knows is something we need more of.
Get yourself Some New Poems
I will say that, like any other habit, an attachment to a new poet may be formed later in life. It’s not as easy or as natural as in youth. But a good place to start is with the favorite poems of others. Which is partly why we’re doing what we’re doing for National Poetry Month.
For example: my new favorite poem (well… since I first read it in about 2007) is called “casi un requiem” by Mario Benedetti (Uruguay, mostly 20th Century). I couldn’t find a good translation, so I made my own. And I despair of depicting the rage and frustration mixed with grief; the way that the public so ruthlessly invades the private even in our most intense and intimate moments. Yeah. I’m not going to get there; leastwise, not like the original. Nor am I even going to attempt the intricate system of indentation using the blunt instrument that is WordPress.
But here goes. And you can ask yourself as you read it: how does this poem discipline the breath? What part of my response to this poem is physiological as opposed to intellectual or emotional?
almost a requiem
while my father suffocates in room 101
while my father suffocates like a little bird
and uses his last thread of voice for a humble cough that
detaches his soul
away from this room events go on
president nixon exits healthy from a routine medical exam
the same president who detaches souls but with
young cambodians of pentagonal education decapitate
north vietnamese cadavers and photograph themselves smiling
with one head in each hand
the venerable heath sells his weapons to the archangels of
and here in montevideo efficacious torturers buy tender
gifts to give this epiphany to their
all of this while my father who was a decent and
generous man suffocates and dies in room 101.
-january 5 (epiphany) 1971
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