A household word

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There are some who can say, quite honestly, that they've always loved poetry. From their earliest whimpering, it seems, they thought in rhythms and saw a world hung about with symbols.

I've always been in awe of such people. I had an unexceptionally boyish upbringing, doing boyish things among the barns and slingshots and model airplanes of rural Massachusetts. Poetry, which came into my life sideways and rather late, never really had a chance. I must have looked at it pretty much the way a grazing cow looks at a rock: without annoyance, but feeling that without it there might be a little more grass.

Or so I have always thought. Recently, however, I have begun to wonder why, in soil so ill-prepared, my interest in poetry should ever have taken root. Strange to say, I think it has something to do with the fact that I had to walk to school.

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Our house lay some three-quarters of a mile from the chunky brick school buildings up near the center of the town of Amherst. For all that distance, however, it was but nine doors away. Going up the hill from our house, you passed five of those doors within two blocks. From there on only four houses remained. By the time I came along, their owners had let trees and hedges grow up along the road, making a kind of extended woods running most of the way to school.

And did I, like Wordsworth among his daffodils, wander lonely as a cloud through these groves, composing in my head the mighty line? I did not. I scampered through them with my third-grade pals, hurling horse chestnuts at unsuspecting second-graders and whacking tree trunks with sticks plucked up from among the leaves.

No, we never thought much about language. But it was there. The fluffy stuff that drifted from trees and blew about like tangled yarn we called ''wiggilotti,'' probably because it reminded us of wigs. And the best of the sticks -- the stoutest and most readily wielded -- we dignified with the mysterious name of ''cudgels.'' It glorified our afternoons, that language, even if we couldn't have said how.

And always there was the most intriguing house -- brick, tightly hedged, and perched atop a hill. Surrounded by gardens, it was bathed in an aura of its own, something that made us hold it in certain reverence.''That,'' we had been told from our earliest infant stroller-ings, ''is the Emily Dickinson house.''

In those acorn days, I hadn't an idea who she was. Our teachers never took us there, never went out of their way to tell us about her uniqueness or her reclusiveness or the brilliant cameos of insight in her poems. A prophet is not without honor, as my father used to say, save in his own country. We lived with her as with the hitching posts still planted here and there throughout the town -- mindful of their antiquity, but heedless of the bygone culture they reflected.

So it was not until I was in graduate school, immersed in poetry, that I drifted into an aquaintance with her. My parents, having sold our old home and not yet moved into another, lived for a year in the Emily Dickinson house. I remember visiting them one winter weekend. Climbing the stairs to my frosty corner bedroom, I mapped my way among literary coordinates grown almost to the proportion of myth: Richard Wilbur's poem about Emily Dickinson's cupola, her own poems about books like frigates and liquor never brewed, and, next to mine, her room, sparsely furnished and with her own dress still hanging in the closet.

And I saw once again, on that visit, how poetry works.It was not just her accuracy, not just that she had touched on the same robins and roses, the same clouds and winds, that still covered my boyhood a century after she saw them.Nor was it simply that her words had found in them a life, a significance, which as a boy I had dimly sensed but never articulated.

It was, rather, that she proved something of the value of that very act of wordsmithing. I saw it most clearly, I remember, as I stepped out into her garden after lunch on that gray Sunday. The sun, having fought clouds since it came up beyond the Pelham Hills, had nearly given up, and the day was darkening. Her words, echoing the New England Calvinism of her age, fairly glowed in my memory: There's a certain slant of light, Winter afternoons, That oppresses, as the heft Of cathedral tunes.

The light was there, and the mood, and the age -- all wrapped up the words and the garden. And there, too -- inexplicably, as poetry so often does it -- was the delight. There, in the face of oppression and heaviness, was a statement so exact, so powerful, that it registered for me not sorrow but an odd and paradoxical joy -- joy in the fact that language works, joy in the fact that I had seen it work, joy in the sudden discovery of why that house had always held for us its special aura. And joy that, after so many years, I had at last met the long-lost neighbor up the street.

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