Poetry is best read outdoors, I've discovered. Preferably aloud and around a campfire, at night, beneath a canopy of trees. Also, among a gathering of open-minded – and open-hearted – people. Why do I feel this way? Outdoors, away from normal routines and settings, the head more easily gives way to the heart. And the heart is what poetry touches.
Campfires, night skies, and forests – what a wonderful and magical alternative to the stuffy high school English classrooms where I and probably most Americans of my baby-boomer generation were introduced to poetry.
Led – or more commonly forced – down the path of poetry understanding by overzealous and perhaps misguided instructors, I was faced with the daunting question: "What does it all mean?" I was asked to dissect and analyze. "Think, boy. Figure it out." Heady stuff, that; not of the heart at all.
But I, a successful analyzer of math and science problems, couldn't for the life of me figure out this poetry stuff. I failed, utterly and miserably. Or so it seemed to me (although sometimes I fooled my teachers).
So rather than soaring, my spirits sank – and withered. Poetry? Ugh. Not for me, I figured.
I figured wrong, of course. After too many years of being shut off from the magic of verse, rhythm, and rhyme – and most important, to the ideas, emotions, visions, and spirit contained within – my heart is again reopening to poetry, just as it has reopened to many of life's wonders.
For that I thank the likes of Robert Bly, Gary Snyder, John Haines, and especially mythologist Joseph Campbell, who understood the cultural importance of poetry – and so brilliantly and capably made his message clear.
I thank, too, the friends and peers who've nurtured my poetic renaissance through their own passions and talent.
Although this reawakening has no doubt been a long time in the making, three events of recent years stand out as milestones in my new relationship with the muse.
The first occurred in October along a lake shore in south-central Alaska.
On a cold and clear night, with stars sparkling in an ink-black sky and a thin coat of ice covering darkened lake waters, three men gathered around a campfire. A friend named Mike gave a reading of his poetry. His images spoke of earth and sky, of humanity and self, and of the soulful connection of all.
It was, in retrospect, an autumnal unveiling. And, if only for brief moments, I experienced a clarity that comes with listening from the heart.
The second epiphany occurred in mid-May on a camp-out with 15 other men – again, a campfire and trees (spruce, not birch, this time). Men sitting in a circle sharing truths and connecting through hearts. There was little analysis, thank goodness, but lots of poems – and, yes, deep emotions. It was so freeing, so rare.
Finally, a May weekend at Denali National Park also helped reawaken me to the joys of poetry. This time I was camping alone.
Awakening on a calm and sparkling clear morning, I sat down at a picnic table – in the company of squirrels and jays – to sip coffee and read Robert Bly. I didn't always understand the mix of words, but I didn't necessarily care. Instead, I was being touched by the feel of the poems (or in some cases, not) and taking away kernels of insight, grains of truth.
That's enough for now. It's a start. Or rather, a restart.
What was lost in school has been rediscovered around campfires, in the company of men and Earth and sky.