poetry: Dickinson, Frost, Coleridge and more

The papers have been piling up on my desk. Once upon a time, while working as a librarian, I had a volunteer who helped me out one full day per week, who was herself a retired librarian. I was at the start of my career. She said once that you can always tell a busy and productive librarian by all the piles on her desk. (My mother points out that this is not necessarily a sign of productivity, but I like Anne’s thought better.) Well, I have piles. Hopefully this wisdom applies to writers, too.

I often pick up tips or follow links to short pieces of writing. For whatever reason, I am much more eager to pick up a whole book than I am to read an essay or short article; must be a mental block. When I come across short things that need reading, I often print them out and stack them up. After carrying this stack of papers cross-country on at least two trips now, I have finally gotten around to some reading. Today’s theme is poetry. And you may know that I am a perfect amateur when it comes to reading poetry, so these are the layperson’s interpretations.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (text of 1834), by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: this was by far the longest poem of the stack, but it was a pure pleasure. I can remember my mother reciting the lines, “water water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink… nor any drop to drink” from way back, but I’d never read the whole thing. I love the rhythm, the rhyme, and the sound: I found myself mouthing the words, repeating lines and stanzas, tapping out the beat; the pure language and music of it is astounding art. I enjoyed some of the usages that are no longer modern, and have some questions for Mom (who is, among other things, a linguist) about historic pronunciation. Beyond all of these features, there is a story, that I found charming as well – particularly the concept, that this man must tell his story, that it is something like a bodily need. Naturally, for those of us that love stories, that is appealing. As I often feel when I encounter poetry, I wish I had an expert to help me delve into its depths; but I found The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to be more accessible than most. It has musicality and storytelling, and was easy to follow. Clear win all around. I can’t wait to read it aloud. Will Husband tolerate it?

Next, two Robert Frost poems: “The Oven Bird” and “Mending Wall.” I am sure I pulled these two titles from something I read recently, but I didn’t make note of the reference; why?? I’m afraid Frost lost me. For one thing, I kept looking for rhythm and rhyme, which Coleridge did so beautifully, and what I found here was no rhyme, and any rhythm was scarcely or not at all discernable to my untrained mind. The subjects were a little obscure to me as well. Ah me. I need the seminar course.

And then a batch of poems I pulled from someplace, some months ago, with the bizarre idea that I wanted to try memorizing poetry. (This may go nowhere.) They are therefore, mostly, short. I’m afraid I have lost my original source for the list. Nevertheless, here they are.

Risk,” by Anaïs Nin: eight lines, clever, thoughtful and wise, unrhyming but perfectly clear to me: lovely.

Nothing Gold Can Stay,” by Robert Frost: nice, short, clear Frost for a change. Like many in my generation, perhaps, I first met this poem in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. (I haven’t seen the movie; does Ponyboy recite the poem like in the book?) I seem to still have it memorized from that childhood reading. It made an impression; and it rhymes. Maybe I’m simpleminded, but it’s easier when it rhymes. I like that it involves nature as well as a plainly stated concept about Life.

The Fish,” by Elizabeth Bishop: I read this aloud to Husband and he nitpicked the details of the story, because he is a fisherman and perfectly literal-minded. I find it a lovely piece of description and imagery, but I share his concern that she let the fish go without removing those other nasty hooks. No rhyme, but I found it a perfectly readable, comprehensible piece of carefully composed writing.

Kubla Khan,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: I recognized the language, the lilt and sound immediately, and felt glad. The story here is less clear to me, but I like the sounds. This is where I definitely need an expert to walk me through.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” by Dylan Thomas: unlike Coleridge, whose beat varies throughout, this one has a single, strident, regular rhythm. It is a strong poem, and with strong subject matter. I again wanted illumination of the finer points, but have no trouble understanding on some level what he is getting at, and the tone and pace of it is powerfully captivating. I would certainly be glad to have this one handy in my head to recite at will.

Hope,” by Emily Dickinson: it’s been a long time since I’ve read Dickinson (high school English with Mrs. Smith; I still own a big fat volume of it), but I suspect not all of her words are so clear as these, and I feel sure not all are this hopeful. I love love love the image, and every line of this short, charming poem is as good as every other.

Richard Cory,” by Edward Arlington Robinson: am I the only one who thought of the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby? Sort of as a counterpoint. Powerful images, a strong and regular beat (although not so drumlike and insistent as Thomas), and a clear and striking finish. Not my favorite here – perhaps because its ending is so disturbing, as it is meant to be – but very good.

No Man is an Island,” by John Donne: I have always been captivated by this poem, because its concept is so big and calls for contemplation. There is the added attraction of its famous penultimate line, which as we know as been recycled as the title of one of the finest novels I know. Free verse again, but somehow still with a rhythm, a compelling set of sounds that propel it to its finish.

The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost: I am aware of some question as to Frost’s point in this one, and again wish I had a friend to discuss. Pleasant images, certainly, that I would sit comfortably with for an afternoon. Clearer than those Frosts, above. But somehow not my favorite.

This has been an enjoyable and thought-provoking exercise; I should do it more often. As to memorization, my busy schedule says HA!, but I would love to learn a few of these by heart: “No Man Is an Island”; “Hope”; “Do Not Go Gentle”; “Risk.” And for that matter, I would love to be able to recite “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by heart – but it is fifteen and a half pages long; I may as well aspire to learn the Odyssey (which would be great). I would happily settle for paraphrasing, and a few individual lines here and there. My brain is filling: for years and years I knew the title, author and synopsis of every book I’d ever heard. And then in the last two years or so, I stopped being able to add new ones, except for the very most outstanding of the books I continued to discover; and the less impressive of those from years back began to fade away. Ah, me. Rage, rage against the dying of the light…

4 Responses

  1. I had an expert walk me through Kubla Khan. Couple of years ago and it was worth it. I love some of the above poems. If you go to YouTube there are some excellent renditions with actors reading them. I think I listened to The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner about ten times. Mesmerising. Enjoyed this blog, thankyou.

  2. […] day that I was done with Faulkner, and yet here we are. In a continuation of going through those pages that have been piling up, I’ve read a few essays and short stories – including one by […]

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