Thoughts That Breathe, Words That Burn

A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep. ~Salman Rushdie

My mother fed me poetry as a little girl. I vividly recall the illustrations of The Sugarplum Tree, The Purple Cow, and The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat. There were some she recited by heart. These were my favorites. Especially The Raggedy Man. I hear it even now in her voice. She opened a space in me for words that sing. Words with rhythm. Words that conjure vivid images. Words that capture longing.

As I have grown older, I have found poetry to be nourishing, healing, troubling, provocative, stimulating, and delightful in turns. Charles Baudelaire contended that a healthy man might go several days without food, but not without poetry. I rather think he might be right. In honor of National Poetry Month, I will be sharing, in the coming days, favorite poems. Today, I would like to introduce you to a few much beloved poetic voices. I invite you, yay verily I implore you, to share your favorites with me.

A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. ~Robert Frost

I have only come to know the work of Mary Oliver over the past year. My, what a gift she has been to me! Her keen observations of the world around her and her fascination with all things living are a delight. And her raw explorations of the inner world have caused me to feel less alone…more understood.

Poetry… should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance. ~John Keats

When I read the work of Rainer Maria Rilke, I sometimes feel like he has been inside my head, inside my heart. Unspoken anguishes, cries, longings in me find a voice in his words. Some have become prayer for me.

Poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet believes to be interior and personal which the reader recognizes as his own. ~Salvatore Quasimodo

Thomas Merton wrote a number of poems. But his was such a poetic soul that even his prose often sings like poetry. His chasing after God, his desire to be wholly devoted, and his frustration with his failings all resonate with me. It is my own story. He too is a lover of God’s glorious creation. His evocative descriptions carry me into the scene. I hear the drops of water, I feel the breeze, I smell the sea.

The poet doesn’t invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau

Billy Collins writes poems that are whimsical and engaging. He writes about the most ordinary things, but he looks at them askance. And I see them as if for the first time. And sometimes, just when I think I am simply having a rollicking good time, he plants a bit of truth inside me that I was not expecting.

Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history. ~Plato

The first Taylor Mali poem I encountered was a piece called “What Teachers Make”. It was enough. I became a devoted fan. Mali is a lover of language, and he wields it like a rapier. He will make you laugh. He might make you uncomfortable. He will definitely make you THINK. Mali is writing a poem a day for the month of April. You can read them here. You simply must visit his Youtube channel and allow him to deliver his poetry to you in his own voice. It is a remarkable experience.

A poet looks at the world the way a man looks at a woman. ~Wallace Stevens

For John Keats, beauty and truth are indistinguishable. His words pierce me with their loveliness and yearning, and make me glad of the wound. If you are also a lover of Keats, you might enjoy the artful film, Bright Star, which treats of his enigmatic relationship with Fanny Brawn.
A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language. ~W. H. Auden
The phrase “word play” takes on new meaning when you read the works of Shel Silverstein. My children and I have spent many delightful hours with his poetry. It is at once whimsical, ironic, and just when you least expect it, poignant. I especially commend to you The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends.
Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup. ~Wendell Berry
Perhaps it is Wendell Berry‘s southern sensibilities that appeal to me. He sings of the agrarian culture I grew up in with much the same sense of wonder in which I perceived it myself. The images he conjures up might seem romanticized, unless you have known cool southern nights with dew on the grass or warm, freshly tilled earth. Then you know that no words will ever be romantic enough.
Poetry is thoughts that breathe and words that burn. ~Thomas Gray