It’s happened before and it will happen again. It’s happened to me personally and professionally. One simple poem can stop all motion and inspire even the most hardened anti-poetry type. I have many examples of this, based in part on the tours and readings I did to promote my book. My most recent experience happened on my deck out back on one of our football Saturdays.
I was sitting with my family and we were talking about the upcoming wedding. We’d read a poem as part of Jennifer, my older daughter, and David’s wedding years ago. They chose Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 43” from Sonnets from the Portuguese. That one has long been a favorite of mine, and I’m not alone. The poem remains popular more than a century and a half after it was published.
So we’re sitting there, the bride and the groom, and we’re talking about Bible passages to read and selecting a poem. I told Rebecca and Joshua I had a couple ideas. So they asked me to read Sonnet 43 and the other poem in the running, also a sonnet. I wrote the other poem, “When Thunder Whispers”, and it’s in my book A Poetry Break.
I didn’t need Browning’s book to recite her poem. I memorized it as a girl. So I recited it, and for a few moments, there was just silence. But the look on both Rebecca and Joshua’s faces said it all. Everything had just stopped for a moment as we took in those timeless words.
I did need the book to recite my own sonnet. I thought that was funny. I remembered most of it, but I knew I’d stumble without the book. There was a quiet moment when I finished. And I knew exactly what they were thinking.
So I told them, in so many words, obviously, the decision goes to Sonnet 43. Browning’s sonnet is so very accessible, yet very complex. But it falls on the ear like a favorite tune whether you’ve heard it once or a thousand times. I pointed out to the happy couple who were willing, I think, to sacrifice the poem they really wanted in order to please me, because they love me, that if we read my poem, there might be some there who had no idea what the word purloin means. I love that word, by the way. My poem, simply put, wasn’t as accessible. I am, admittedly and objectively speaking, no Ba Browning.
So I reassured them and told them Sonnet 43 it must be. I was profoundly touched that they didn’t want to hurt my feelings by choosing another’s poem over my own. Rebecca even suggested doing both. I nixed that, though. One is enough. I’d have done the same thing. I will always savor the love those two showed me that day on the deck as we worked on their wedding plans.
I read a biography of Browning when I was very young. I fell in love with her story and her work. She was the original emancipated woman, with help from Robert Browning.
I’ve seen the power of poetry captivate audiences all my life. Whether I was sitting spellbound listening to Richard Wilbur read to a packed house, or Billy Collins reading to an incredibly packed house, the response in the audience was much like the response at a rock concert. I can honestly say Collins was the “funnest” interview I ever did with a poet. Collins’ poem “The Country”, is in my opinion, one of those universal poems touching the human condition with non-kid-glove hands. I love that poem, and burning down the sophist poetry class is exactly what Collins did. Magic.
James Dickey’s classes and his readings were that way—they were magic and so was his voice, at least before his health and writing began to suffer. I’ll never forget hearing him read poems like “Adultery” and the controversial work “The Sheep Child.” Both those poems are beautiful, complicatedly primitive.
Browning’s poem isn’t the only love poem we talked about as we planned the ceremony, other than my own. I suggested considering E.E. Cummings’ well-known poem, “[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]”, one Rebecca knows well. Many know that poem because it was used in a romance film—the name of the film escapes me, but the poem will be with me forever.
In the end, we all voted for Sonnet 43. It’s stood the test of time and I think that’s what we all want when we make a commitment to someone for life.
It’s sad that poetry has become so obscure most Americans rarely read it. The trick with poetry is just like the trick with any other genre. You have to find the right works for your aesthetic. And above all, you have to find the good poets. That’s harder to do now because there’s a circular process in poetry education whereby professors recommend each others’ books and most of their work is remarkably forgettable.
Browning’s poem is eminently memorable.
[Featured photograph is of a fairy garden created by Carolina designer Valerie Geiger Lumpkin. When I look at the image, I feel the same way I do when I gaze at the hawks, songbirds, and other critters in my backyard.]
(Kay B. Day/Sept. 25, 2018)