Oop50: In Praise of Poetry


I’ve been thinking about poetry—and how it can change your life or at least change the way you view your life.  What got me started thinking about this today was remembering a story that my sister told me years ago about a teacher of hers in Germany, a man who, during World War II, was forced to spend years in a hard labor camp.  He told her class that one of the things that kept him sane in that horrible situation was reciting to himself all the poems he had memorized as a child in school.  That story has stayed with me through the years—and made me want to memorize poems whenever I could.  (It was always in my thoughts when I was raising kids, making me worry about how seldom they had memorization assignments.  Memorizing poetry seems to be a lost art, except in poetry slams!)

But thinking about that story today also made me think about the poems I have in my head that have carried me through difficult times and wonderful times.  There is, for instance, W. H. Auden’s“In Memory of W.B. Yeats,”  which helped me deal with the death of a beloved high school English teacher with such lines as, “What instruments we have agree /The day of his death was a dark, cold day”, and “Earth, receive an honored guest: / William Yeats is laid to rest. / Let the Irish vessel lie /Emptied of its poetry.”

W. H. Auden

Or there is Anne Sexton’s “The Fortress,” whose lines kept coming back to me when my children were little:  “Child,/ what are you wishing?  What pact/are you making?/ What mouse runs between your eyes?  What ark/can I fill for you when the world goes wild?”

Louis MacNeice

Or there is Louis MacNeice’s incredible long poem, “Autumn Journal,” which I could never hope to memorize, but parts of which have come as close as anything to shaping my philosophy of life, such as this one:  “None of our hearts are pure, we always have mixed motives. / Are self deceivers, but the worst of all /Deceits is to murmur ‘Lord, I am not worthy’/ And, lying easy, turn your face to the wall.”

Anne Sexton

Nowadays, as I feel myself getting older in body but trying to stay young in spirit, I find myself turning more and more to e.e. cummings’ wonderful “you shall above all things be glad and young,” with those incredible last lines:  “I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing/than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.”


I’d love to hear from you readers about poems that have meant something to you.

4 thoughts on “Oop50: In Praise of Poetry

  1. My favorite is from Wendell Berry: “I go into the peace of wild things/who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.”

  2. Alan, thank you for this. It made me feel like we were back in Greenlaw, having a good old time! I love the idea of thinking about Piers Plowman on my deathbed, although I think I will want Roethke and D. Thomas instead! Love to you and Kathy! My baby is getting married this summer. Help!

  3. Hey, Jane. I loved reading your musings on the poetic muse. It reminded me of a story George Kane told us about visiting E. Talbot Donaldson on his deathbed. He asked him how he was keeping his mind occupied, and Donaldson said he was going over lines from Piers Plowman in his head.

    Of course, Donaldson was thinking as a scholar and wondering which lines he’d edited correctly, not looking to the poetry for beauty or comfort, but now, as I’ve gotten older, I tell my students that one reason to appreciate literature is “the deathbed factor.” What will you want in your head when you’re lying on your deathbed?

    Donaldson had editorial questions about Piers Plowman. Paul Erdos (“The Man Who Loved Only Numbers”) wanted interesting equations. Richard Burton probably was thinking about lines in Hamlet’s soliloquies he could have delivered differently (he used to wake up in the middle of the night thinking “THAT’S the way I should have said it,” so I assume he was doing it at the end). None of them was thinking about how much money they had made or could have made.

    I hope my students will be thinking about “that best portion of a good man’s life, his little unremembered acts of kindness and of love.” But also of Wordsworth for writing those lines. I want to be thinking about Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Keats. With Beethoven playing softly in the background.

    I hope this doesn’t sound morbid. I don’t feel it to be.

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