This week’s four poets are all from the twentieth century (two of them just barely), so I won’t reproduce their poems here. I’m including things by friends of mine they’ve given me permission to post, but otherwise regarding as public domain only pre-twentieth-century poems.
I had the same kind of horrible poetic education most Americans had … I should say “have,” because despite a tendency to (very uncritically) encourage student writing, mostly along the lines of slam or performance poetry, I don’t think the actual poems students are presented with have changed all that much, and everyone my age remembers how lifeless and boring those poems were. I recall being made to read some harmless Frost and cute Dickinson—not that these poets are either harmless or cute, but an effort was made not to introduce us to their poems of power. Emily in particular isn’t someone a child should be exposed to—because she demands of her readers an inner life a child just doesn’t possess. When there was a question of a poet being shocking or unsafe, like Whitman, our English teachers made sure we only knew accessible (and wildly untypical) things like “O Captain! My Captain!”—which could give the impression that Whitman rhymed. I recall Wordworth’s skipping, pleasant poem about the daffodils, but none of his pantheistic sublimity. It’s as if there was a secret meeting where it was decided that the sooner students could be made to turn away from poetry entirely, the better, and anthologies were constructed to that end. I feel privileged to have run into a living community of working poets, people who read, when I was still young enough to discover poetry in myself.
The one exception to this inculcated distaste for poetry was Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman,” and I was appalled, when I went to the university library to look through lower-school English anthologies, to find that it had been eliminated since my day. Probably the rationale was political correctness: a woman shouldn’t sacrifice herself for her lover, but if she happened to, the lover shouldn’t then be shot “down like a dog” within a day. Maybe it was just that our teachers decided children shouldn’t be exposed to blood and gore. News flash: kids love blood and gore, and not just the boys: but Bess the landlord’s daughter is the hero of the poem, and she is as strong and fearless a woman as any latter-day Disney princess. Then there’s the unhappy ending and the suggestion of a continued ghostly presence at the end, and kids also love tragedy and spookiness. The reason we don’t think they do is we take pains never to expose them to those moods. Phil Ochs liked the poem enough to set it to music. (So did Loreena McKennitt, but I’m not a fan.) I don’t think I’m forgetting anything important when I say that this swoony adventure poem was the single poem that gave me even a glimmer of how overwhelming a force poetry could be in one’s life—if only one were presented with better examples at an early age: as Housman would say, we should be trying to make children’s hair stand on end!
Sharon Olds is unafraid to think about things. After thinking, she is unafraid to talk, with a kind of detached passion that allows her to be part of her poetry and outside it at the same time. “The Pope’s Penis” reminds us that male power isn’t always unambiguous—that the most powerful male in religion might as well be female, for all the good his genitals do him. Olds sees them as a tiny, soundless clapper in a huge ceremonial bell. “I Go Back to May 1937” is Olds’ fantasy of what she would say to her parents on the eve of their marriage. “I want to say Stop, don’t do it … but I don’t do it. I want to live.” Her attitude toward her parents is one of pity, not anger. “They are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are innocent, they would never hurt anybody.”
The poetry establishment—I take the position that there is one, and that I am not a paranoid—doesn’t know how to react when one of their own—a poet who passes as great by their own standards—becomes popular. Popularity is supposed to equal lack of skill or talent. That can’t be said of Mary Oliver. Her chosen theme is “nature poetry,” and perhaps that makes her accessible to a more plebian class of reader (though I don’t see why it should), and like the “nature poets” of the Romantic era she suggests that nature holds the answer, or a large set of effective answers, to human problems. I like most of her poetry, but I was led to her via the same poem everyone knows, “Wild Geese.” If that poem has a message above and beyond what it “says,” it is that all living things consitute a community, even a family, and that acceptance of that fact can remedy despair and loneliness. I don’t know whether this message is true, but in a way, that makes this humble didactic poem all the more appealing.
Wilfred Owen’s bitter response to Horace’s saying Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country) is well known and impossible to refute, though most nations make a show now of deploring poison gas. A soldier can admit both the noble motivations for going to war—in the case of World War I these were often brave and sincere—and the horrid details of struggle and suffering which make any appeal to patriotism a lie. You think about the person next to you, an ex-Army friend said to me. If you’re as towering a poet as Owen was, you can step back later in your mind and note the contrast between what the soldier undergoes and what the politician preaches. It isn’t an “anti-war argument.” Owen wants us to look at what we do to one another, and see whether there’s anything “sweet” or “fitting” about it.