“If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
— Emily Dickinson in a letter to her mentor and friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1870
I’m editing a book that references many famous poems. It’s lovely to be reminded of poems I haven’t read in years and to be introduced to new works as well.
Poetry, sadly, gets a bad rap in schools. I think that’s partly because teachers are discouraged from assigning any poems that might be considered suggestive, upsetting, or controversial. I’m a big Emily Dickinson fan, and I’ve always regretted that she’s represented in English classes by poems like “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass.” I mean, it’s a nifty little poem, but it’s a snooze-fest if you’re sixteen. I might suggest “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” That’d make ‘em sit up and take notice. Or what about “Dare you see a Soul at the ‘White Heat’?" If that one doesn’t make you feel physically as if the top of your head were taken off, well, you need to get the top of your head checked. (Possibly the whole head.)
The boredom of many high school poetry lessons leads to adults who think they hate poetry. Some probably would hate it even if they knew it better, but others might be surprised by how much they like it now that they’re allowed to roam its full depth and breadth. Poetry delights, moves, and comforts me and always has—which is one of the reasons I like to share a poem in each edition of the "Savvy Writer." This month I'm also highlighting the work of my friend Missy Brownson; look for her exhibition at the Loudoun House in the "Events" section.
I’m very grateful to all the poets who bring their gifts to the world.
She is working now, in a room
not unlike this one,
the one where I write, or you read.
Her table is covered with paper.
The light of the lamp would be
tempered by a shade, where the bulb's
single harshness might dissolve,
but it is not, she has taken it off.
Her poems? I will never know them,
though they are the ones I most need.
Even the alphabet she writes in
I cannot decipher. Her chair -
Let us imagine whether it is leather
or canvas, vinyl or wicker. Let her
have a chair, her shadeless lamp,
the table. Let one or two she loves
be in the next room. Let the door
be closed, the sleeping ones healthy.
Let her have time, and silence,
enough paper to make mistakes and go on.