Words Are Free,
Sunsets and Blue Sky Abound:
An Odyssey Through Poetry

By Lawrence Biemiller

Washington -- On the giveaway shelf outside the laundry room I found a paperback copy of William Carlos Williams's Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems. Its cover was dog-eared, as though it had been well loved, but now it sat unwanted among plump romance novels and travel guides 20 years out of date. I leafed through it, scanning first lines in the dim light of the basement hallway -- "It is far to Asissi,/but not too far"; "women your age have decided/wars and the beat/of poems ... " Eventually I carried it up to my apartment, thinking as I climbed the stairs that I owed Professor Russell an apology.

Chronicle photograph by Lawrence Biemiller

A stone angel in Washington's Rock Creek Cemetery: "All this could be jotted down in a notebook in little more than a moment, and made into a draft of a poem."
Professor Russell would have taught me about poetry -- about reading it as well as writing it -- if I had ever taken a poetry course in college. Had I but signed up for his classes, I might have known what an "aubade" was when I first happened on Susan Montez's "Aubade in Modified Second Asclepiadean" ("Cross out vodka and husband as/sunrise starts of the day ... "). I might have heard of Elizabeth Bishop and Jane Kenyon years ago. I might have known at 19 that the best way to enjoy verse is to read out loud (try it with any section of Tennyson's "Ulysses" -- "There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;/there gloom the dark, broad seas"). I might even have dared to write poems myself, instead of jotting down first lines and then abandoning them, certain that I didn't have whatever it took.

But I never enrolled in Professor Russell's poetry courses. From second grade through college, and for years thereafter, I read as little poetry as possible. I had gotten only as far as tackling A.A. Milne on my own ("Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!/Christopher Robin is saying his prayers") before it became obvious that poetry was something guys stayed away from. In Baltimore in 1967, a boy who admitted liking poetry might as well have told the whole playground that he held tea parties for dolls.

Staying away from poetry wasn't hard, as it turned out. I'm sure we must have studied at least a few poems in high school, but I honestly remember nothing about them. I recall reading Dickens and Twain and Hemingway, but if we read Keats or Tennyson or Auden, they left no impression. I do remember that Mr. Shivers invited a poet named Daniel Mark Epstein to talk to our English class several times one semester. During those classes my friend Cathy and I passed each other notes white-hot with teenage scorn. (In an all-poetry bookstore a year or two back I noticed a book of Mr. Epstein's, The Boy in the Well, bought it, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I was glad he survived us.)

Then came college. The British-literature survey was full of poetry, of course, but not the kind that might resonate with anyone between the ages of 18 and 22. Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Pope -- we raced through each, our eyes dimmed by antique constructions -- "Eftsoones the Gard, which on his state did wait,/Attacht that faitor false, and bound him strait." Did you guess Spenser? The Faerie Queene? What this taught me was that poetry should be hard to read and about esoteric topics far removed from real life. Poetry was no longer beneath me; now it was beyond me.

But even Spenser failed to prepare me for "The Waste Land," a poem I still resent having been assigned. Many of T.S. Eliot's poems I enjoy -- I e-mailed "Portrait of a Lady" to a friend just last month -- but those are Eliot poems that you can make sense of on your own. They aren't laced with lines of Greek and German and Italian, or burdened with obscure references to Ovid and St. Augustine and Hindu metaphysics. My battered Norton Anthology of English Literature allots nearly as much space to footnotes for "The Waste Land" as to its text -- and the footnotes are in much smaller type. No doubt "The Waste Land" is a stunning piece of poetry, but is the average survey-course student even remotely prepared for it?

Nor, I should say, did my survey-course professors seem to have much enthusiasm for poems. No one read us Yeats's "Leda and the Swan" aloud ("A sudden blow: the great wings beating still"), or acted out Robert Browning's "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's Church." Meanwhile, in the Shakespeare class, Professor Wickstrom climbed memorably up on the desk to play Falstaff for us, clutching a pillow atop his head for a hat; we roared with laughter. Poetry was a duty, obviously, not a pleasure. Outside of the classroom I never even heard it mentioned, though nowadays students at my college organize readings and draw decent crowds.

Me, I graduated none the wiser. Maybe I wasn't ready -- maybe nothing Professor Russell could have told me at 20 would have opened my eyes. But now that I'm nearing 40, I'm sorry not to have given him the chance.

Fifteen years passed. Every so often a poem attracted my attention -- especially Maya Angelou's "Inaugural Poem" ("You, created only a little lower than/The angels, have crouched too long in/The bruising darkness"), and eventually something must have snapped. I bought Elizabeth Bishop's Collected Poems, sat in on a lively poetry class of Richard Howard's, picked up Ms. Montez's Radio Free Queens to read on the train, went to Vermont to interview John Engels, found out about Debora Greger and Jorie Graham and Carl Phillips -- "And the sky meaning,/more nakedly than usual, only the usual/(try, you will never match it, this blue)."

And what have I learned? Poetry need not be boring, need not be removed from real life ("The night his heart stopped," writes Mr. Epstein, "and my father/Drove the Cadillac haywire into a shadow,/Nobody knew where he'd been"). Poetry is the most economical, the most perfect, of art forms. It blends meaning with image and rhythm in a way that can inspire or sadden like the grandest Verdi opera or the loveliest Vermeer painting, but it requires neither museum nor mezzo-soprano. It needs no batteries, no easel, no foundry or sound stage or corps de ballets. To write it, all you want are paper and a pencil and a few minutes' peace. Reading it is just as easy: Seamus Heaney's Field Work, which won the Nobel Prize in literature, costs $9 in paperback and can be enjoyed as easily on a subway as on a scenic hilltop.

For Christmas I got a camera, a fine digital model whose images you download directly to your hard drive. Naturally I've taken my new toy out to play -- to photograph favorite bridges and search out serendipitous juxtapositions of gravestones. What I've found is that a photograph is accurate only as far as it goes -- it cannot record, as a poem could, how sometimes the aroma of fresh doughnuts drifts through Georgetown from a bakery hidden by the old canal, or how distant train whistles echo over Washington when the clouds hang low and heavy. Worse, when I get done downloading I invariably find that an unseen shadow has spoiled a shot, or that the subtlety of the sunset cannot be captured, that the blue of the sky cannot be matched.

And all the while I've been so busy looking for camera angles that I haven't stopped to think about what I'm taking a picture of -- an angel, say, winged but carved in stone no wings could lift. All this, of course, could be jotted down in a notebook in little more than a moment, and made into a draft of a poem in not much more time than it takes to download and convert a single image file. Maybe it is not too late to start. Maybe -- "The Waste Land" notwithstanding -- we all have at least a little of what it takes. Words are free; paper and pencil are easy to come by; ideas and sunsets and blue sky abound.

Copyright (c) 1998 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published January 23, 1998.