As far as the poetry I like, I sometimes feel like a cranky old man. I turn to old, formal poetry, or the super-famous poetry of the twentieth century—Eliot, Auden, Yeats, et al. I don’t think time is a distiller. Poems that emerge after passing through time are not necessarily more pure or more fundamentally true than the poems that disappear. But I do think that through the evolutionary dodgeball rounds of taste and fashion, population migrations, religious movements, library fires, world wars, and natural disasters, “being a good poem” is a trait that increases the odds of survival. I do sometimes read recent poetry, especially if it’s recommended by a friend. But I don’t have that many friends reading recent poetry.
“Poetry I like” and “poetry that affects my life” are slightly different sets. The poetry important to me is random. Random in time period, topic, length, style, author, even quality. It’s not a question of liking or disliking—it’s just that there are bits embedded deep in my brain grooves.
Sometimes this poetry comes out on specific occasions. I will be out on a walk and will round a corner, and the sun will be shining down in that golden hour before sunset, and a distant bird will loose a cry, and nature will confront me with all her majestic wonder. “What a strange bird is the pelican,” I will think, “Its beak can hold more than its belly can.” I always thought this was a couplet by Ogden Nash. But it’s a slightly wrong quotation from a limerick by some poet named Dixon Lanier Merritt. Regardless, I heard it when I was a kid, and ever since, all of nature has seemed a little ridiculous to me.
Sometimes, though, an idyllic nature scene will raise deep unease. Or I’ll look out a hotel room window at a still city and get the willies. Occasional fear of silence is a fundamental human response. For me, this feeling is tied up with the phrase “As idle as a painted ship/Upon a painted ocean.” Which is a prelude, in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, to everyone dying slowly of thirst, and slimy things coming out and crawling with legs upon a slimy sea. The pelican may be zany, but the Mariner’s albatross is a little terrifying.
I once bought a book of Chinese poems because I liked the cover. (It was one of those seventies Penguin editions, not with the orange stripes, but with a beautiful wallpapery graphic.) I read this poem:
In these days I am ever befuddled with wine,
But it is not for nourishing my nature and soul.
When I see that all men are drunk,
How can I bear to be the only one sober?
I don’t know a lick of Chinese, but that translation seems stiff. Still, whenever I start complaining in my head about how everyone in the world is crazy, I see this Chinese poet, Wang Ji, totally wasted and grabbing an American stranger by the arm fourteen centuries in the future. I don’t draw a moral from the poem—it just takes me out of myself, and that’s enough.
When I was a kid, my dad paid me $7.50 for memorizing “If” by Rudyard Kipling. ($7.50 was the inflation-adjusted $1.00 my grandfather was paid by his father for the same task.) “If” is not attached deeply to my soul. I don’t turn to it in times of trouble. But I can still recite it as a party trick. (What sort of party? ok, you got me. There has never been a party where I have been asked to recite Kipling. Unless you count Thanksgiving as a party. Which it is. It is an awesome party.) But there is other Kipling. My dad’s parents would sing versions of his poems, like “The Ladies” (which has not aged well: “For she knifed me one night ’cause I wished she was white/And I learned about women from ’er!”) and “The Road to Mandalay”:
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me.
“Mandalay” moves me. That lost actual paradise—I’m a sucker for nostalgia. My dad’s family is made up of sailors descended from sailors, and the devolution of the sea from the realm of freedom and mystery to a playground for rich sporty types is an ache I’ve inherited. Generally, I’ll shed a tear for any yearning poem that mentions the sea. Tennyson is good for that, too.
I could list more. I haven’t yet got to George Herbert, or the poems of my impressionable teenage years. Or that epic of chance and loss:
Inky binky bonky,
Daddy had a donkey,
Donkey died, Daddy cried,
Inky binky bonky.
Some of this poetry is carved in quick, deep cuts. There are poems I can’t help but remember. Some are like ghosts I hear mumbling (something important?) in the next room. I have to go to the page to summon them and shut them up. It’s a mysterious mechanism, how the words stick. It feels different to me than words and music, where so much of the mystery is bound up in the music itself. And it’s different from ideas I want to pass on, or stories I want to relate, in which the words fall however they fall. I’ve thought about it. I have no idea how the brain works.