My first love growing up was poetry. Though I had dual majors in college, I was an English Lit major at heart. Politics was fun, and stimulating, and, well, practical. But I reveled in the literature course work. Who wouldn’t – homework consisted of reading. Poetry, the classics – my battered, dog-earned, written upon Norton’s Anthology of English Literature was my most prized possession. It still is.
But picking a single poem to talk about is near on impossible. So I thought I’d share a few that have incredible meaning for me.
My love affair started with Tennyson. Alfred Lord, to be exact. Who wouldn’t love the imagery, the absolute desolation of his powerful words?
When I was a little girl, I used to sneak into my parents' room, to their tall bookshelf and read. One of the first things I discovered was my mom’s book of poetry. I sat on the floor on the other side of their bed, the door to the hall half closed, blocking me from sight. I was a sneak thief, stealing little moments of influence.
It was early on when I discovered it. The work so compelling, so overwhelming that I snuck in the bedroom as often as I could to read it again and again. It was a fragment of a poem, bristling with promise, the glory its very succinctness.
He clasps the crags with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls:
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt, he falls.
Sigh. What is it about this piece that devastates me so? I’ve never really been able to put my finger on the why. But it opened the door to who I am today. As a little girl, something in my very core shifted the day I read this poem. I wanted to do that. I wanted to find a way to devastate a reader. I wanted to create the words that would blow some other little girl away. It was an epiphany. I started writing.
My parents, of course, knew I was rooting around in their world. They never dissuaded me, only encouraged me. I think it tickled them, their towheaded tomboy in love with words. I read everything I could, tried my hand at writing. Found a vocation. An all-consuming vacuum to get lost in, over, and over, and over. Words.
It made perfect sense that when I started writing as an adult, poetry would find its way into my work. My first novel, ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS, has several of my favorite poems on the page, used in a scavenger hunt of sorts to find a killer. It was Yeats who gave me the idea – his provocative LEDA AND THE SWAN set the ultimate stage.
LEDA AND THE SWAN
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
I remember reading this poem as a young girl and loving it, getting that warm, funny feeling in my stomach, though I couldn't comprehend its meaning at the time. I still love it - the powerful imagery, the horror, the seductive voice... I happened across the sculpture in Rome, at an exhibit on Eros at the Coliseum. Seeing it live was a true highlight of that trip, especially since I had just finished writing ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS. It felt like a sign.Not surprisingly, I’ve tried my hand at poetry several times over the years. And that too gets into my work. You can see an original of mine in THE IMMORTALS:
Black boils beneath thin pink flesh
Molten emotion devouring rational thought.
Carrion attacks the filial bonds of lust
Which lie exposed, faultless in
Oedipal wantonness, broken by greed,
Damned to an eternal external hell
For another's unknown sins.
The saving grace of a bleeding hand
Reaches through earthly bounds to
Experience the afterlife.
Hades, Creon, Zeus be damned,
Simple Antigone is drawn beyond
Where a silken sash has unforeseen power:
Haemon's love cannot penetrate
The bridal tomb but for layer
Upon layer of pounded metal thrust
Through a rib as life ebbs onto
The musty gray floor.
Bound forever in the deathly marriage
Of two minds transgressing mortal thought,
Drawn to immortality in legend,
Farther and deeper that bloodless
Purity bound to bloody passion.
Yes, the influences are quite clear.
Tennyson, and Yeats, both favorites, are joined by Shelley’s OZYMANDIUS:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Whew. Shelley just does it for me. I met a traveller from an antique land? What an amazingly seductive opening. Be still, my beating heart.
And finally, one of the most important poems in my world, the prayer to the Muse, one which every writer should start their day with, from Homer’s Odyssey, and brought to me through Steven Pressfield’s fabulous tome THE WAR OF ART:
O Divine Poesy, Goddess- Daughter of Zeus, sustain for me this song of the various-minded man who, after he had plundered the innermost Citadel of hallowed Troy was made to stray grievously about the coasts of men, the sport of their customs, good and bad, while his heart, through all the sea-faring, ached in an agony to redeem himself and bring his company safe home. Vain hope—for them. The fools! Their own witlessness cast them aside. To destroy for meat the oxen of the most exalted sun, wherefore the Sun-god blotted out the day of their return. Make the tale live for us in all its many bearings, O Muse.
I read these poems today, and my heart fills up with that indescribable love again. I forget my roots too often. I labor over my words when I should read these lines – and learn how to write, how to reach, how to influence all over again.
Feel free to share your favorites in the comments.
Viva Poetry Month!