My brutish love of poetry, part 1

I never studied poetry the way I studied other subjects. But I love it, poems stick in my head for years, I can recite a few, and sometimes reading a poem colors my thoughts for hours. Since I don’t know or understand many underlying references and details, I love poems like a brute, like an oaf, much as I imagine Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky loved his wife Adrienne, whom he said he would “take upstairs and violate like a parking meter.” When I stop to consider how parking meters are typically violated, I feel that Rocky is a bit of an enigma. But like Rocky I want to express my love, at the risk of apparent inaccuracy.

Here is a famous one from William Carlos Williams:

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

I read this poem in English class when I was seventeen. I read it in a flash, and found it dry as a bone. WCW had word-smithed a few images according to syllables. Pretty. That was it. I sat as our teacher read it aloud to us, slowly, savoringly. I have to remark that she uttered “beside the white chickens” with uncharacteristic tenderness. This was a woman who came to school each day in a severe suit and spectacles – think chanel meets military dress uniform. She asked us, what was it about? What was WCW getting at? And hinted there was more to it than images and syllable counts. But she never said what, and we never knew. What a tease.

A short while later I read a novel by Doris Lessing called The Golden Notebook. This book is very long, and a big commitment, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the life of a left-wing female writer in the UK in the 50s (which I assume is a pretty small audience). As you might guess, it’s not a long drawn out ha-ha. One thing this novel has is a concrete description of depression. The main character is jolted into an awareness of her bad mood by the observation that ordinary things have become awful. The feel of the carpet under her bare toes, normally a tidy at-home feeling, has become repulsive. The thick white paint on the doorframe is curdled and dead.

Suddenly the red wheelbarrow swam into view. It’s the picture of sanity, the litmus test. When things go south, the wheelbarrow is backyard detritus and the chickens are sleazy egg dealers. So much depends upon being able to see a cheerful red wheelbarrow, renewing rain, and innocent chickens. That’s what that poem means to me.

Here’s another WCW poem I read first at seventeen. This one I loved immediately:


They call me and I go.
It is a frozen road
past midnight, a dust
of snow caught
in the rigid wheeltracks.
The door opens.
I smile, enter and
shake off the cold.
Here is a great woman
on her side in the bed.
She is sick,
perhaps vomiting,
perhaps laboring
to give birth to
a tenth child. Joy! Joy!
Night is a room
darkened for lovers,
through the jalousies the sun
has sent one golden needle!
I pick the hair from her eyes
and watch her misery
with compassion.

I think for me it was a welcome counterpoint to sex education. Make no mistake:

I am strongly in favor of sex education.
I am strongly in favor of family planning.

When I was a teenager, though, there was an almost one hundred percent emphasis on Unwanted Pregnancy. It seemed like the worst outcome in the world. Somehow, as a person with a uterus I was a carrier for potential tragedy. There was no joy in it.

I was very moved by the mention of joy in this poem, just as I was very moved by a scene in another novel I read around the same time. I won’t say the title or author because I don’t want to give a spoiler, but in this novel a man is about to marry a woman he has loved for years who is already pregnant. Another character says, “but you know the child she carries is not yours.” And the man replies, “All children are welcome.”

Thumbs up, dude!

Blaming newborn babies for who their parents are is a heinous crime. I love the idea that all children are welcome. In some circles that’s treated as a contradiction to family planning. I say no. Like WCW’s poem, there is somewhere to go beyond black and white thinking.

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