Ah, poetry, why dost thou vex me so?
Last updated 4/14/2021 at 4:47pm | View PDF
“Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.”
I used those lines from Wallace Stevens in the first round of a grad school party game. Recite a quote or drink a shot. Or it might have been recite a quote and drink a shot — I’m not sure.
Either way, I wouldn’t recommend the game. First, because games that involve drinking shots typically are not a good idea. Second, because this one makes me sound like a real nerd.
I thought of the quote — and the game — because April is National Poetry Month. I confess I have had a rather tortured relationship with poetry over the years. The last time I was truly comfortable with the genre, I was in elementary school and writing short little rhymes that were published in our community newspaper, The Homewood-Flossmoor Star. (I was even named Queen of King Arthur’s Court once in honor of my many submissions.)
But poetry got a lot harder as I got older. I remember spending an entire class in high school on a poem called “Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed. The words describe the parts of a rifle. Our teachers tried to delicately explain to us that poem was about some other parts as well. We were slow to catch on.
In college I took a class in American Poetry taught by a professor who liked to rub the skin between his thumb and forefinger with the thumb of his other hand. I found this highly distracting. Nor did I enjoy the bitter words of Sylvia Plath or the prolific writing of Walt Whitman in “Leaves of Grass.”
I stumbled through poems by John Milton and Alexander Pope in a British lit class and thought I was through with poetry. Then I entered grad school.
I managed to escape with a master’s degree after taking a single poetry class, in which I was introduced to the ice cream quote. In addition to Stevens, we also read works by Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot.
Frost seems so simple with his poems on snowy woods and good neighbors. I guess there is more to it than that. My first paper on his work earned me a “B” for “banal, basic and boring.” That was pretty harsh, Professor.
I tried harder with Stevens. I learned poetry really isn’t about anything but language. I think I managed to earn an “A” or “A-” on that paper. I suspect my grade improved because another one of my professors, who shared an office with the poetry guy, put in a good word for me.
Our final poet was Eliot. I think I can sum up my response to Eliot’s work very accurately in only four words. I didn’t get it. Even now, I’m getting a little sweaty just thinking about it.
I do have one very fond memory of a poem — listening to Maya Angelou read (in person!) “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993. I’m sure those who watched Joe Biden’s inauguration in January will have similar memories of 22-year-old Amanda Gorman reading, “The Hill We Climb.”
As much as I’ve complained here about poetry, I really am fascinated by its rhythm and its economy with words and its ability to express ethereal concepts like love. Perhaps I need to take the lead from our associate editor, Ken. I told him about my column topic earlier this week.
“I love a good limerick,” he replied.
— Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean. Readers can email her at [email protected]