I’ve always loved words and language. I haven’t always loved poetry.
In middle school and the beginning of high school, I churned out poems and songs like it was my job, even when the mean girls (and oh, there were mean girls, at least in middle school) made fun of me.
And then something changed. It was probably those damn literature classes. I clearly remember the time when my American lit teacher, Mr. Pawley, asked us to analyze “The Red Wheelbarrow.” To 16-year-old me, this was absurd, and I told him so*. Why did there have to be a deeper meaning? Why couldn’t this man just say what he meant?
I carried this mentality through AP English and into college. I could analyze the crap out of anything you put in front of me at that point, but that didn’t mean I had to appreciate it.
But, slowly, whatever had hardened my heart to poetry started to fade away.
Maybe it happened during yet another American lit course, when my professor made a side comment that if anyone wanted to read all of Emily Dickinson’s poems, he would give them an A. I stayed after class and asked him if he was serious, and he said if I wanted to turn the class into my own personal Dickinson course, I was more than welcome to**.
Maybe it was during my Shakespeare class, when that professor pointed out that the Bard had composed a sonnet for the moment when Romeo and Juliet meet:
ROMEO: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
JULIET: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
ROMEO: Have not saint lips, and holy palmers too?
JULIET: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
ROMEO: O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do.
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
JULIET: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
ROMEO: Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.
Or maybe it was when I heard this:
As it turns out, it’s a poem, “Recuerdo” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, set to music written by Jeff Blumenkrantz.
This all comes to mind because, of my own accord, I attended a poetry reading held at the Folger Shakespeare Library today in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I was moved by the words spoken by the poets and actors and fellow audience members, to the point that I might have to venture to more of these events.
16-year-old me wondered why poets couldn’t just say what they mean. 25-year-old me thinks that maybe they are saying exactly what they mean in the best way they know. And it’s beautiful.
*I was THAT kid in Mr. Pawley’s class. Constantly asking questions and challenging what he said and begging to have class outside and coming up with premises that he considered ridiculous (“But Mr. Pawley, couldn’t Nick be gay for Gatsby?”). A fellow classmate described it as me being the bane of Mr. Pawley’s existence, but at the end of the year, he told me that I was more like the daughter he did not want to have. It’s sweet, I promise.
** I took him up on that offer and I did get that A.