I did not start off liking poetry. In fact, I felt it was one of those things one should like, but never did, so outside of the Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot and Shakespeare and Blake and Dickinson we studied in school, I never really read any except Tennyson, but that was only because I was literary child in other ways, and was rather found of a certain orphaned Canadian red-head that I’d have married if she were real.
Oh sure, I wrote poems. High schooler poems, filled with black souls and depression. The stuff I’d lock in a bank safety deposit box and pretend never existed if I still had any of it… and no, I’m not going to tell you the bank I keep it at.
But something changed when Mrs. Tidwell gave us poetry packets. I hated Mrs. Tidwell. She held class meetings after school hours which I could never attend. She instilled in me my hatred of Cormac McCarthy and his dropped quotations in All the Pretty Horses. And then she had us plow through thick packets of poems.
Now, these were not the poems you’d find in most text books. It was recent stuff, stuff from the 70’s and later, and she wanted us to sit and analyze them for symbolism and structure, just like that, one two three go no prep or theory or discussion. After a particularly awful one about Snow White and sin, I turned the packet page and read, “The bonsai tree/ in the attractive pot/ could have grown eighty feet tall…“
I stopped. I held my breath. Those last lines, “the hands you/ love to touch,” punched me in the gut.
I turned the packet page again, and was faced with Barbie Doll. I had to set my nose and sop up the blood.
And that’s what a poem should do— take liberties with you, abuse its intimacy with you. It should not be kind or quiet, but more like a hard break-up, or a death in the family, or the feel of riding the tilt-a-whirl just a little too fast, uncertain whether they bolted it together right. A good poem should be more than any of these things. A good poem should make you stop short.
And the love of Piercy slowly spread out to the other verse I’d read. I finally felt kin to Dickinson, holding in my bones the knowledge that “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
Was there ever a poem like that for you?