Before I realized that April was National Poetry Month, I stumbled on this micro review of T. S. Eliot by “igbookreviews” on Instagram (of all places):
“The verse of T.S. Eliot is less a question of meaning than it is of captured emotion.”
As I’ve written before, I would characterize my relationship with poetry as “polite acquaintances.” But truthfully, poetry makes me nervous. I don’t know what to do with it. When I read, it’s usually to immerse myself in a story. From narrative, I look for insight into the human condition and possibly a capital-“I”-Idea and capital-“M”-meaning.
But that micro review reminded me that perhaps my anxiety about poetry has to do with my expectations. I expect poems to “mean” in the same way that narrative does and then become frustrated when it doesn’t. This is not unlike how Americans traveling to, say, Paris become frustrated when their notion of “customer service” does not square with Parisians’.
And then instead of appreciating the Seine at dusk with the city rising around it or a pain au chocolat’s perfect ratio of creamy chocolate to flaky, buttery layers of pastry, you waste a miserable day fuming about the rudeness of the clerk at the Orange store. Oh wait. That was me.
But my point is that perhaps the key to enjoying poetry (and Paris) lies in adjusting expectations or maybe even doing away with them altogether. Rather than seeking the familiar, enter the moment as a blank slate and see what bubbles up to fill the empty space.
When I first moved to Westport, I lived in a little cottage on the banks of a river. One morning after a storm, a rusty red wheelbarrow appeared lodged against the rocks just outside the large picture window facing the backyard. I don’t know where it came from, and though we set it near the road in the event its owner came looking for it, no one ever claimed it. Eventually, we took to using it to collect leaves and to transport plants from one side of the yard to the other.
The experience called to mind a poem that caused me endless anxiety in graduate school, William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
In school, my job was to analyze its Meaning (capital "M"!). But discovering the red wheelbarrow in my backyard that fall day, the poem came to me, like the wheelbarrow itself, as a kind of inexplicable gift—words penned in 1923 that somehow captured this moment. And that was more than enough.
In honor of National Poetry Month, click here to check out this list of celebratory activities at poets.org.
For a cool poetry project, check out Nina Katchadourian’s Sorted Books project, which creates poems from book titles.
What are some of your favorite poems? “We have a comments” section! :)