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Tony Gentry

A Very Personal Perspective on Poetry Month

Updated: May 17

Nice that they call April Poetry Month (also Autism Month and Occupational Therapy Month among who knows how many other designations). In high school, long ago, I had the good fortune to discover Robert Frost and tried to assemble pithy, rhyming poems in his style (the notebook I scribbled them in was chewed up by mice to make a bed for their brood, which is, when you think about it, a perfectly Frostian fate).

In college, when my classmates were studying economics or biochemistry, I fell hard for poetry. Corny as it seems, it was the stodgy British Victorians who spoke to me, fighting it out with Christianity, as this Southern Baptist-raised son of rural Virginia was doing a hundred years later in my own little life. Tennyson, Arnold, Browning, Hardy: rock stars in their day who are rarely read now, they wrote tellingly about the end of things, tried to figure out how the human heart might survive inside the machine that the modern world was becoming. Worked for me.

It’s funny to write this next bit, not because it was comical to me, but because the very idea that reading a book can be life changing is so old-fashioned and silly. But that’s what happened when our class dipped into the first edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It helped that my section advisor fashioned himself a latter-day Whitman. He tried to look like the frontispiece picture, lived large, contained multitudes, and read from the book with gusto. I never went that far into hero worship, but to me Whitman offered a way of seeing the world and living in it that embraced rather than lamented it all. As it has for many lost souls, Leaves of Grass became a sort of bible to me, and to this day I can quote as many of its lines as I can of the Biblical verses learned so devotedly at Vacation Bible School in childhood.

Of course, there were other guideposts and inspirations: the young Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits (I did try to dress like them, in my thrift store suit and floppy stocking hat), then the gloriously scabrous punks and that wicked old soul Henry Miller. For a semester, I worked as a guard at the Fogg Museum, where all day, every day, one of Van Gogh’s scowling self-portraits dared me to wake up, his mad eyes dogging my every step. Yes, I know. Was there no one in that fancy college who might have grabbed me by the collar and given me a good spank, sending me off on a path to riches and import? Well, I’m sure there were, but to read this you have to register what a spacey romantic I was. The last thing I cared to hear was common sense. (Frankly, I’m still that way.)

That said, when people asked, I said I would be a lawyer. Even took the LSATs (then, that afternoon, went to see a new movie, something called Star Wars). But I never applied to law school, and never regretted that decision. My life has been lived elsewhere, but always with poetry in hand.

I’m picky, though. Just as saccharine pop music irks me, I cringe at the certainty of famous poets like Mary Oliver or Billy Collins. Give me the gnarly, questioning poems of William Bronk, the bracing zen of Gary Snyder, the piercing pop art of Tony Hoagland, any translation of Du Fu. The folks who understand how limited is language in the face of whatever is, yet tinker as best they can.

It’s Poetry Month again. Across a strip of America this morning solitary souls are sitting with their coffee scratching out words to describe the eclipse, trying other words to somehow express how that odd experience thrilled and mystified. People writing verses that few will ever read. I’m one of them, maybe you are, too. Maybe poetry changed your life, as it did mine. I hope you’re glad about that. I sure am.

Follow-up: Though not my favorite poet, turns out that Mary Oliver had a similar life-changing experience (more productive in her case, ahem) in first reading Whitman. My friend Randy Fertel sent me this quote today from her memoir Upstream, which oh my so beautifully articulates it all: “The Whitman poems stood before me like a model of delivery when I began to write poems myself: I mean the oceanic power and rumble that travels through a Whitman poem – the incantatory syntax, the boundless affirmation. In those years, truth was elusive – as was my own faith that I could recognize and contain it. Whitman kept me from the swamps of a worse uncertainty, and I lived many hours within the lit circle of his certainty, and his bravado. Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs! And there was the passion which he invested in the poems. The metaphysical curiosity! The oracular tenderness with which he viewed the world – its roughness, its differences, the stars, the spider – nothing was outside the range of his interest. I reveled in the specificity of his words. And his faith – that kept my spirit buoyant surely, though his faith was without a name that I ever heard of. Do you guess that I have some intricate purpose? Well I have. . .for the April rain has, and the mica on the side of the rock has.”

Lagniappe: The New York Times occasionally does these fascinating interactive articles about artists. Here’s their new one reflecting on one of Frank O’Hara’s love poems.

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