I believe in poetry.
Even though I write prose, it is poetry that counts. Poetry distills; it juxtaposes thought against thought. Rather than describe a lemon, poetry makes you taste it. Saliva surges. Read a poem and drool.
Rhyme and meter fuel poetry; poetry is not just about meaning, but meaning amplified by music. “Music,” Shakespeare says, is “the poetry of love.” Poetry is the language of love, especially for those who love language. Poetry is how we learn language: think “Good Night Moon,” “Green Eggs and Ham.” So why do we stop reading poems?
Not all of us do. I married a man who courted me with John Donne, “If ever any beauty I did see/Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.” Honestly, how could I resist? At our wedding, when we closed the door on our extended bachelorhoods, we recited T. S. Eliot, “What we call the beginning is often the end/And to make an end is to make a beginning./The end is where we start from.”
Yeats tell us “love is a crooked thing,” and poetry has helped us through our adjustment to marriage and kids while climbing the ladder of professional achievement. Whenever the world is “too much with us; late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” we turn to Wordsworth for “glimpses that would make [us] less forlorn.”
When we are “out of tune,” my husband and I climb into bed and read poems aloud. After all, he is the “one man who loves the pilgrim soul in [me];” he “loves the sorrows of [my] changing face” and can recite Yeats by heart. Memorization eludes me; I read from the text. “Tell me,” a poem by Mary Oliver asks, “what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”
Reading poetry, even more than reading prose, can momentarily stop time the way, sometimes, driving home at dusk, the green-blue light of the sky lying against the dark cheek of the horizon stills my heart for part of a second, reminding me that, indeed, I am fully alive.
We all live poems, not only on the drive home but especially in moments of high stress, happiness and grief. We speak poetically when we don’t know what else to say. Reading poetry, then, is a way to condition our souls, the way aerobic exercise improves our hearts. Poetry trains us to the subtleties of existence, not only ours but all of humankind’s.
I am a Doctor of Letters, and people often come to me for advice. Inevitably, I prescribe poetry. “Don’t worry about understanding at first sight,” I say. “Just plant your feet wide, take a deep breath, and declaim.” It is essential to read poetry aloud. Administered by mouth, words come in the ear and soothe the heart. Given voice, words sing. Poetry is both music and medicine for the soul.