Later this month my husband and I will read poetry to a group of grade 4 and 5 students. Guess how much fun we're having as we assemble a reading list.
In the midst of the jamble of reading poetry, I've also been reading about the lives of several poets over the centuries and a few things struck me.
First, the luxury of being able to gaze back in time and line up facts, quotes, and biographies stretching back to the dawn of Western civilization is an unspeakable honour. Let us not waste such a vast opportunity to the cell phone drone of today. Let's teach our children (and reteach ourselves) to look up from our screens and dive deep into history, thinking long about anything at all.
Second, I found it thrilling to read about the diverse--even polemic--attitudes the poets themselves held about the art of poetry. As I've been skidding across time like a teenager at a sock-hop I've hit upon these bulwark positions about what sort of subject matter makes for great poetry:
"I think it will be found that grand style arises in poetry, when a noble nature, poetically gifted, treats with simplicity or with severity a serious subject." Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)
by Matthew Arnold (1887)The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand, Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be trueArnold believed that great poetry comes when it's aimed at a worthy, grand subject. His poetry examines faith, politics, self inside of society, loss of faith, and the question of how best to live. His most famous poem, likely, is the one above, a gloomy piece about losing faith.
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Now, race ahead in time and set Arnold's opinion beside that of Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) who wrote poems and was described by John Ashbery as "a writer's writer's writer." She once told Robert Lowell, "I'm not interested in big-scale work as such. Something needn't be large to be good."
Filling Stationby Elizabeth Bishop
Oh, but it is dirty!—this little filling station,oil-soaked, oil-permeatedto a disturbing, over-allblack translucency.Be careful with that match!
Father wears a dirty,oil-soaked monkey suitthat cuts him under the arms,and several quick and saucyand greasy sons assist him(it’s a family filling station),all quite thoroughly dirty.
Do they live in the station?It has a cement porchbehind the pumps, and on ita set of crushed and grease-impregnated wickerwork;on the wicker sofaa dirty dog, quite comfy.
Some comic books providethe only note of color—of certain color. They lieupon a big dim doilydraping a taboret(part of the set), besidea big hirsute begonia.
Why the extraneous plant?Why the taboret?Why, oh why, the doily?(Embroidered in daisy stitchwith marguerites, I think,and heavy with gray crochet.)
Somebody embroidered the doily. Somebody waters the plant,or oils it, maybe. Somebody arranges the rows of cans so that they softly say: esso—so—so—so
to high-strung automobiles. Somebody loves us all.
“Filling Station” from The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop. © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. www.fsgbooks.comSource: The Complete Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1983)
What do you think? Grand subjects, or small things? What are you doing to celebrate National Poetry Month? We love hearing from you.