Putting the words of great poets in your head

Posted: 20 February, 2013 in Poetry, writing
Tags: , , , ,
We are so in awe of great poetry we even paint our buildings with it.

We are so in awe of great poetry we even paint our buildings with it. (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons – Green Lane)

Mary Pipher (Writing to Change the World) wrote of how her grandparents’ generation considered poetry one of life’s important coping tools. Students of the time memorised a great number of poems and it was normal for farmers, cooks, housewives and lawyers to be able to quote Longfellow, Wordsworth or Dylan Thomas. Poetry, Pipher says, was also used to entertain and to introduce beauty into their otherwise harsh lives.

This thought made me sad for the students of today who will likely have no great love of poetry because they haven’t been given an opportunity to immerse themselves in it.

I remember watching Oprah climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge when she was in Australia. While she was climbing she recited the poem “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes. It was so moving watching her climb this iconic structure while reciting the words of someone who was speaking to her almost 90 years later through their poetry. To me, this is what great poetry does. It speaks to us years, even decades, down the track.

Percy Shelley called poets “the creators, and … the creations of their age”. The more poetry I read, the more I agree with this statement. Even those considered bad poets are celebrated, though often not in their own lifetime.

I fell in love with Ella Wheeler Wilcox years ago after reading her poem New Year:

New Year (As the old year sinks down in Time’s ocean…)

As the old year sinks down in Time’s ocean,
Stand ready to launch with the new,
And waste no regrets, no emotion,
As the masts and the spars pass from view.
Weep not if some treasures go under,
And sink in the rotten ship’s hold,
That blithe bonny barque sailing yonder
May bring you more wealth than the old.

For the world is for ever improving,
All the past is not worth one to-day,
And whatever deserves our true loving,
Is stronger than death or decay.
Old love, was it wasted devotion?
Old friends, were they weak or untrue?
Well, let them sink there in mid ocean,
And gaily sail on to the new.

Throw overboard toil misdirected,
Throw overboard ill-advised hope,
With aims which, your soul has detected,
Have self as their centre and scope.
Throw overboard useless regretting
For deeds which you cannot undo,
And learn the great art of forgetting
Old things which embitter the new.

Sing who will of dead years departed,
I shroud them and bid them adieu,
And the song that I sing, happy-hearted,
Is a song of the glorious new.

This was the first poem I had ever read that really moved me.  I’ve read it countless times since and I never tire of its rhythm, rhyme and lovely message.

It’s been good for me to revisit some favourite poets and poems and find some new loves along the way. It shows me what truly great writing is and gives me something to aspire to.

If you don’t have a favourite poem, one where you can truly hear the voice of the poet speaking to you, I urge you to find one. There is nothing like having the words of a truly amazing poet in your head.


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