Poetry for the Living, and the Dead

I went to a poetry reading the other night, which is not something I do very often. Not for lack of interest, but, I suppose, lack of exposure.

For instance, some people do not grow up around music. Their parent’s didn’t play instruments and did not own records/CDs and rarely listened to the radio. I find that extremely odd, as some of my earliest memories are filled with the sound of blues, jazz, classical, Broadway show tunes, and of course the score to Star Wars. What is it like to live in a house empty of music?

On the other hand, as musically inclined and as literary as both of my parents were, poetry was not a thing in our house. My parents had the obligatory Shakespeare and Emily Dickenson on hand, along with my father’s treasured collection of Robert W. Service, and a few others but nothing that intersected much with my life as their child.

The result is that it’s taken me a lifetime to learn the value of poetry in everyday life, to understand that as obscure and opaque as some poetry may be, it can also be empowering, uplifting, and inspiring. Poetry, like music, can serve as reflection and revelation.

So, when I was Poetry for the Livinginvited at the last minute to attend a poetry reading sponsored by the Favorite Poem Project, featuring a reading by the magnificent Robert Pinsky (former U.S. poet laureate), I was happy to accept.

It was as deep, meaningful, silly, and entertaining as I expected. Alongside the “professional poets”, nervous people got up on stage and read their favorite poems, revealing their hearts to a group of (mostly) strangers. My friend Kim, a wonderfully talented performer and entertainer, expressed this when she talked to me about her unusual stage fright. This was not a role or a costumed gig, it was simply herself up there talking about her life, revealing aspects of her personal story in the most vulnerable way possible. She did a lovely job of it, by the way.

What did surprise me in a number of readings was the recurring theme of death. Several people talked about parents who had died, and how poetry helped them with their grief.

Should this surprise me? Probably not. Few things in our world are as moving as the death of a loved one. It’s natural that people turn to whatever outlets they have such as music and poetry to deal with their emotions.

Religious folk I think turn to prayer and psalms for the same reason. We all seek out a way of expressing our grief that resonates personally, but speaks widely. Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd…”) is often read at funerals and memorials more because everyone knows it, than because the deceased read it or requested it, and so it serves as a balm to peoples’ grief.

Yet poetry, generally in this modern age, sits outside of religious conventions (even if a poet uses religious imagery and language). People are finding solace in words created neither as sacred text nor simple prose. Poetry, like life itself, can be short and sharp, or long and convoluted, or…or anything, really. Claiming a favorite poem is the ultimate way to express a state of being, outside of actually writing poetry.

Which makes me wonder, what poem encapsulates my life experience, or reflects my own memories best? I often say that I want Talking Heads’ song “And She Was” played at any memorial for me, because for whatever reason I have felt intimately connected to it since college. But a set of lyrics is tied to the music that goes with it – of course they can be read separately, but I assure you, a reading of “And She Was” without music is very emotionally unfulfilling, if not downright confusing. I don’t think I have a favorite poem as yet; but I also have not spent much time looking for one.

And, too, what poems speak of my parents?

For father, that’s pretty easy; his favorite poem was Service’s 1907 opus, “The Call of the Wild” which he loved as a child and was a motivating force throughout most of his early life. I memorized the first few stanzas to recite to him for his birthday, when I was a girl.  It’s a melancholy choice, for me, and perhaps for him, as the final third of his life was frustrating and miserable, spent in a bad marriage and drowning in alcoholism.

Mother is more difficult, as befits a difficult woman; she loved Shakespeare and would probably claim one of his sonnets as her poetic memorial, but the poem I remember her reading and laboring over, memorizing and analyzing, was Beowulf (specifically, the Klaeber translation). During one manic phase she taught herself the rudiments of Old English to better grasp the translation. Interestingly, she never talked to me about it. It was hers and hers alone, among a life spent in symbiotic codependency with me.

They are not alive to approve or disapprove these choices, nor do I think they exist anywhere as supernatural remnants of life. They are simply gone, as I too will be one day. Maybe I will not appreciate the poems people remember me by. But then, I think, poetry is meant for the living.