Next Steps on this Poetic Journey

How poetry came to be to me

From love poems to horses to angsty free verse poetry to rhyming poems about the faith, my journey into poetry began at a young age, slept during the years of fiction and college essay writing, and awoke only briefly in my AP English class in high school. “The Gray Squirrel”, a bit of Shakespeare, “Little Elegy” all from one teacher. If there were more I cannot remember them. I encountered none in college.

In college, G.K. Chesterton introduced me to Gabriel Gale and taught me the definition of a poet in The Poet and the Lunatics. “Genius oughtn’t to be eccentric!” he cried in some excitement.

Cover of The Poet and the Lunatics by G.K. Chesterton

“Genius ought to be centric. It ought to be in the core of the cosmos, not on the revolving edges.” The poet sees not only the material before him, but sees into its inner meaning and its connectedness to the rest of the world. It is musing on this and inner light of things that brings about the burst of words called poetry.

Next steps in poetry

This year I learned who Dana Gioia is. Former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts and California poet laureate, Gioia is teaching me about poetry through articles and podcast interviews. Gioia made the case in a 1991 article for The Atlantic “Can Poetry Matter?” that, for various reasons, poetry became to be seen as the purview of the elite, something the regular man or woman could not “understand.” It was a pedagogical error that most approaches toward poetry were based on analytical, asking always, “what does this mean?” “What concepts does the poet express?”

Gioia explained,

“But, poetry is not conceptual thought. If you are writing a poem, you’re using language fundamentally differently from how an economist would use it. You are using things in a semi-abstract language to make it absolutely clear about a general case. But, poetry, even if it’s about big issues, is always about a particular case. And so, a poet uses words in such a way that they don’t address primarily your intellect. They simultaneously address your intellect, your emotions, your physical senses, your memory, your intuition in a way which does not ask you to divide them.”

 It is not intended to be unfolded into an essay, but for the listener to step into the moment of wonder or musing with the poet. Gioia explains elsewhere that the muses, referred to as one’s inspiration, stem from the idea of goddess of inspiration. According to Hesiod’s account, the Nine Muses were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (i.e., “Memory” personified).

The poem captures a moment and a sense or feeling like calling up a memory, if not a connection of our own, than one of humanity.

For the past year or two I have been buying up poetry books in the hopes that I would then begin to read poetry. I occasionally encountered a poem that moved me, but little else in the collection around it. “My Heart and I” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for example, or “Lead, Kindly Light” and “The Two Worlds” by John Henry Newman found in A Newman Reader.

A Newman Reader, which includes poetry by John Henry Newman

And now, introducing Czeslaw Milosz

I tried The Collected Poems of John Donne, apparently in the original English lacking standardized spelling, another vintage compilation of Gerard Manly Hopkins’ poetry, Poems Every Catholic Should Know, and more, but nothing stuck.

I listened to Professors Jennifer Frey and Thomas Pfau discussed the work and world of Czeslaw Milosz on the podcast “Sacred and Profane Love”, Episode 36. More and more I heard about this man who lived many years in Berkeley. To be honest, the first time I remember hearing his name was in the film Under the Tucson Sun.

The protagonist tells a Polish contractor,

“Czeslaw Milosz – I like him”

In the podcast interview, they read and referenced his works and I was spellbound.

I owned the book already, 1931-2004 Selected Poems Czeslaw Milosz having discovered it in the stacks at Lightly Used Books.

Cover of Selected Poems by Czeslaw Milosz

It took me back to the poetry that moved my heart and stirred my imagination in middle school. Milosz captures something, lets the words glaze over and over the center, piecing together the whole picture.

One life. One life is not enough.

I would like to live twice in this sad world.

My senses have to be fully alert to understand any of it. As I read, my eyes light up as sparks flit in my brain, dancing from image to image of the poem, stringing the meaning together into one coherent whole.

I understand why I could not read this stuff when I was drunk tired from life or baby care. It wasn’t the season.

Now tides have changed and I welcome it. One more step on the journey. One new area to learn about. One new step unfolding the mystery of all there is to discover here in life.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.