I don’t really read poetry. Even before, as an English teacher, poetry was my least favorite genre. There were a few poems that I liked and that I returned to again and again, but even then (and even now), I felt (and feel) a self-consciousness about liking them. I remember being haunted by certain lines from a handful of poets—Auden, Keats, maybe Edna St. Vincent Millay.
A long time ago, I even made a shirt printed with lines from “Ulysses” and gave it as a gift to a friend. After giving it, however, I felt weird and awkward. (Tennyson? On a t-shirt? Really?) It wasn’t that I printed lines of poetry on a t-shirt, it’s just that it was Tennyson. Shouldn’t I have picked somebody more obscure, more contemporary, more difficult? Somebody … cooler.
But I was never interested enough to seek new ones or to understand the difficult writers. I liked “Ulysses.” Until now, I like it. Some teachers of poetry say that you should like what you like, that what’s important is to read poetry. Kind of like wine experts who say, preempting those who hem and haw about wanting to drink wine but say that they don’t know anything about it, that you should drink what you want to drink—pair a malbec with salmon, for god’s sake, if that’s what you have and that’s what you like.
Recently, I’ve been getting hits of poetry in the least likely places—in the subway, in the newspaper, and, of all places, in my Twitter feed. I guess it’s exactly because they’re in these forms of media that they’re accessible, easy to appreciate. I find that I like them. I like them especially when I encounter them unexpectedly, as if—exactly!—I’m given a malbec that is excellent with my fish.
It started in 2012 when the MTA started displaying posters with poems and interesting graphics in subway cars in a campaign called Poetry in Motion. I found many that were arresting because of the graphics—a winged horse and carriage against stars on a cerulean background, the constellations golden against aquamarine, a setting sun in between brick apartment buildings—but I didn’t like many of the poems. Except for one.
Displayed under a painting of one of those familiar New York apartment buildings, “The Good Life” by Tracy K. Smith gave me pause the first time I encountered it in the subway. I loved its metaphor for money as “a mysterious lover / Who went out to buy milk and never / Came back.” I loved its nakedness about food and hunger and satiety, the resonance of its images of living hungrily on “coffee and bread,” of dining on “roast chicken and wine” on paydays. Standing in a crowded subway and reading the poem, so compact and so direct, I felt as if a space had opened up around me, a strange stillness in the lurching car.
The New York Times publishes poems weekly in its Sunday magazine and in T, its occasional style supplement. Most of these poems are the cryptic, difficult kinds though, the ones I don’t like. Every now and then, they would have a spread with several poems about a certain theme. Again in 2012, they published poems about the end of the world because, as the editors said in the introduction, the world was about to end—at least according to some versions of the Mayan calendar. There were six poems in the spread and I liked them all, but one in particular stood out for me. “Going Down” by Maxine Kung is about, of all things, climate change, an unpoetic topic if ever there was one. But it describes the inundation that’s coming with hypnotic lyricism and ends with these haunting lines: “Despite outcries of pure angst / dikes won’t save the playing field / so blow a kiss to this drowned world. / The gods have spoken: yield.”
Finally, a few weeks ago, my Twitter feed began filling up with tweets about Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones.” The poem became popular last year when Waxwing published it. It went viral after the Orlando shootings and after the November election, has been endorsed by celebrities and recited by Meryl Streep, has been translated into Spanish, French, Hindi, and Korean. Last April, it was featured in an episode of the TV show Madam Secretary, which was why it exploded in popularity on Twitter once again.
An exploration of the darkness in the world, it’s particularly meaningful for mothers. It reminds me of the time when my older daughter was around eight or nine and she would hug herself and tell me, her voice filled with joy, “I love myself, Mommy!” It is, of course, a normal thing for kids to love themselves and the world. And yet, when my child showed that abundance of joy about being in the world, I felt such gladness, such relief. My younger daughter shows the same sturdy happiness. I congratulate myself on this, that I am able to, in Smith’s indelible words, “sell them the world.” As my two kids grow up and their love for the world is tempered by hard (but, thank god, still not that hard) realities I cannot (should not?) protect them from, I feel more and more like the realtor in the poem. I try to convince my kids, “This place could be beautiful, / right? You could make this place beautiful.”
After I found her poem, I promptly began following Smith. The other day she tweeted a question to her followers, “Poems that bring you joy? Make you glad to be alive?” This resulted in a thread with poem recommendations like, among many others, “Advice to Myself” by Louise Erdrich, “What the Living Do” by Marie Howe, and “Otherwise” by Jane Kenyon.
These poems can be described as joyful, but it’s equally accurate to describe them as mournful, even dirge-like. (Someone suggested Keats’s “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be” and no one objected.) But I guess that’s the essence of poetry, right? That it can condense complexity and express contradictions, that it can call the world a shithole, as Maggie Smith did, and you read it, again and again, with wonder and astonishment, slayed by the language.
Hey, look at me, making pronouncements about poetry!