The bookcase in my hall holds three shelves of poetry books. Sometimes I wake in the morning and reach in to grab a random book, hoping for some wind to send me sailing into the day. Today I chose an anthology and started leafing through the pages.
And there they are, the same poems that have hoisted my sails or thrown an anchor into my restless soul or bathed me in dazzling light after a run of cloudy days. But today, those same lines seem like a jumble of mere words, lifeless, inert, powerless to move me. The same words that once sang in gospel shout or bossa nova gentleness, that stirred me awake and set my strings thrumming, now seem flat and out-of-tune. Some time before, they leapt off the page, now they lie there asleep, drowsy, bored, listless, mere block dots on white paper. Their once vibrant rhythm and glittering rhyme now a dull grey. Phrases that once I caught like a life-raft when drowning in my own self-pity now feel deflated and have lost their power to hold me aloft. What’s going on?
Turns out that the poem and the reader need to need each other in a particular way. Some days you read or recite as if your life depended on it, others you might as well just leave the book alone, go make your oatmeal and go off to work. The heightened intensity of the poetic life is indeed a gift, but not easy to sustain in the daily round. Sometimes life is Shakespeare and opera and the blues. sometimes it's just mundane and matter-of-fact.
The poems in the books are patient. They can lie there unread for months on end without complaining. Like the leaves on the trees that keep fluttering in the wind regardless of whether the heads-down-phone-texting-passerbys notice them, the poems are content to wait until you need them. They’ll be there, reliably etched on the tangible pages of the book’s technology, nestled in “Leaves of Grass” and sometimes, like my Whitman collection from 1969, with that comforting smell of old paper.
Me, I got invoices to send and curriculum statements to write today and Maxine Kumin, Theodore Roethke, Jane Kenyon and William Stafford will just have to wait. They’ll be there when I need them and that is comfort enough.