A week in review: I want to talk about poetry, fall leaves, and supermassive black holes. I do not want to talk about flies. I know in the minority yet I can explain. Last week the Nobel Prizes were announced from Stockholm and the celebrations of this news filtered into my social feeds like staccato bursts of light.
Each year my favorite prize announcements are Literature and Physics. I also deeply enjoy learning about the astonishing work from Chemistry, Economics, and Peace. Truly, the work of any Nobel recipient is worthy of immense study. (Many other great achievements are happening that do not receive this award too.) I can’t understand it all in one afternoon. Though a quick glance at the social media comment box suggests that many try.
I often question the point of celebrating human achievement when our day-to-day progression feels like uphill climbing with an occasional avalanche. I had these same thoughts this summer as new space flight achievements were made. On the ground, the streets were hot with unrest. It was hard to process that both were happening simultaneously.
I keep reminding myself that we are in a global pandemic and times are tough. This affects everyone I know and many people I do not know. Like every historic moment, one day, it will pass.
If I could, I would spend my days mentally tap-dancing across event horizons, reimagining our universe in strange ways. I wanted to celebrate this Physics Prize news with my few friends who would forgive me for geeking out. I wish I could spend my days wrestling down the incomprehensible, and what could be more mysterious than a supermassive black hole?
But when I feel repeatedly slammed into my body by life on Planet Earth, I am reminded that I need Poetry.
This year’s Nobel recipient for Literature was the American poet, Louise Glück, ”for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” This summer I also spent a few moments reading her book “The Triumph of Achilles”. What follows is a very short story of what poetry means to me. In short, I think you should Louis Glück and many other poets too.
Hold on again. I can explain.
This is the short answer of how I got into poetry.
It was a secret.
I cannot say exactly when or why it grabbed me. But I remember feeling shame. I was a fresh military veteran in my early 30s. My head was full of common ideals on what guys should and should not do. No one ever said it outright, but poetry was not one of them.
I began sampling a poetry podcast that led me down a rabbit hole and into a conversation between Bill Moyer and Jon Litigot. The Iraq War was at its height, even though I had turned in my rifle and was trying my best to start my new life. The conversation between these two men was about war and poetry. I understand much about the former, very little on the latter.
One of them read The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner – a WWII poem by Randall Jarrell in 1945. It brought the conversation to a halt, for both men were in tears, and I was too:
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
This is the first poem that struck me in a deeply personal way.
My second formative experience came when I got caught in my secret love for poetry.
I am a huge library patron, and in the old days, you gave your stack of books to the librarian. They would check them out and hand the book stack back to you. Now, everything is moving to automation.
In short, I was embarrassed about what others thought, so I buried a poetry book between other books about home improvement, sports, and astronomy.
On this day, the book in question was La llama doble or The Double Flame by Octavio Paz, a Mexican poet and Nobel Laureate for Literature in 1990.
The librarian and I exchanged usual greetings as I handed her my book stack with Octavio Paz buried decisively in the middle. She quietly scanned them one-by-one, her eyes trained on a computer monitor to verify that each book was being properly processed.
As she reached for the poetry book, I tensed, pretending my attention was elsewhere. Then, in a very fluid yet unmistakable motion, she definitively placed the poetry book on the very top of my book stack.
She said nothing more than “Have a nice day”, yet the message was loud and clear. I fought back a smile, knowing that I was found out. My habit of concealing my love and interest in poetry ended that day.
What does it mean? Why does it matter?
I am just a writer and (sometimes) poet. I would defer to the Swedish Academy to pontificate why this literature matters in times like these. I think simply experiencing poetry is more essential than listing explanations. So I would simply encourage you to dive in.
Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets are great websites to get started. Attending an open mic night, even virtually, is well worth your time. You are bound to hear something that resonates with you. The experience can be quite similar to finding a favorite music band you have been waiting for your whole life.
You will know it when you hear it.
Follow the light.
The Red Poppy by Louis Glück published in 1992
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