So much depends upon ... poetry

Philanthropist Ruth Lilly's gift to Poetry Magazine last year raised not only eyebrows, but also spirits in many households other than my own. It was like a poem itself - wildly unpredictable and piercingly relevant.

At least that's the way my favorite poetry strikes me. I imagine the most original of poets doing what they do without word maps or conscious intent - yet arriving at constructs so unprecedented and true that the authors must startle themselves as well. The Chilean poet and Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda wrote in his memoir of how, at a very tender age, he penned a note to his mother that struck him at the time as being a bit weird - yet it perfectly captured his intense feelings for her. He recognized it later as his first poem.

Emily Dickinson's poetry was not considered worthy of the name by many contemporary critics - she found her first shy attempts at publication to be painfully discouraging.

Yet the unabashed abundance of unique and powerful verse that this 19th-century recluse left folded away in her bureau drawers posthumously revolutionized the field - or is it the prairie? - of poetry. Who else could have written:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee -
One clover and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.

Ruth Lilly's gift may help us recognize and support the poets who are still among us, actively writing.

Last year, I mentored a high school student and neighbor in an independent study course. Sitting on our porch swing one summer's day, Ariel and I devised an ambitious syllabus of exercises in scene description, nature essays, short subjects, even a stab at a children's book. Not to mention her favorite medium, poetry.

We began with poetry, and when I found her first assignment on the table just inside our door, I suddenly questioned what I'd gotten myself into. How might I spare her feelings if the poetry were ... well, bad? More to the point, could someone who doesn't write poems herself faithfully evaluate them?

Yes, I told myself. Otherwise poets would have precious little feedback beyond what they got from each other.

Ariel's poems laid waste to my concerns about sparing her feelings. I was suddenly more focused on my own. How could she have already become a poet? Would I ever learn to write verse like that? Was it even a matter of learning? The young Pablo Neruda had never taken lessons.

Ariel faltered on the next, nonpoetry assignment. The due date passed and there was nothing on that table. A whole week went by and then another. Then it appeared - a bright new sheaf of poems, with a note of apology. I don't recall her exact words, but they persuaded me to overhaul our syllabus and concentrate on what came unbidden to her - poems, poems, and more poems. I offered minor suggestions, checking lines that I thought lacked the vitality of their domain, and passed the sheets back to her with a string of A-pluses - the only grade I could consider for an emergent new voice.

Ariel left in September for college - but I'm hoping to see more of her poetry when she visits home for holidays. This past Christmas I was not disappointed. I got to read not only Ariel's latest verse, but also a slim memoir of British poet Rupert Brooke, whose "Pine-Trees and the Sky: Evening" had buoyed me up and out of a young heartbreak I suffered long ago. I knew Brooke's memoir would be under the tree because I'd found it and held it in front of Charlie's nose at a fall book fair we attended, and slowly, deliberately intoned, "Christmaaaaaas Preeeesent." He returned the gesture by slipping a first edition of Robert Frost into my arms with suggestively raised eyebrows.

I find poetry to be one of life's necessities, especially in January, when the day is all too short, the night raw and cold. Instead of fretting for spring we open our books - or tune into "Writer's Almanac" on Public Radio International. Garrison Keillor always ends this five-minute segment by reading a poem or two, some classic, some contemporary. The words almost always startle and move me. And I love to imagine the poet's inward thrill arriving at them.

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