In science, one tries to tell people
in such a way as to be
understood by everyone,
something that no one
ever knew before.
But in poetry,
it’s the exact opposite.
― Paul Dirac
Slice of Cake:
There is a special place in my heart for math poems.
In A.E. Housman’s poem Loveliest of Trees,
the entire 2nd stanza is a math problem.
(‘Stanza’ is what poetry calls a paragraph.)
The poem says: Threescore years and ten…
and that means what?
If a score = 20,
then 3 score = 60.
So, three score year and ten would be 70 years.
(3 x 20) + 10 = 70
And 70 is important because that’s our average life span.
(Or was back in 1896, anyway—the year this poem was written.)
The poem goes on: Take from seventy years a score…
∴ 70 – 20 = 50.
Then the poet decides (with a wisdom beyond his 20 years)
that if he wants to look at things in bloom,
the fifty springs he has left in life really aren’t that many—and so off he goes!
(Clip clop clip clop.)
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
– Loveliest of Trees
by A.E. Housman
from A Shropshire Lad (1896)
One more thing—
wouldn’t you say the title of this poem throws down a bit of a botanical gauntlet?
…“Loveliest” of trees??
Is there some beauty pageant of trees?
with cherry trees awarded First Prize?
Hmmm. Should we contest that ruling?
I mean… Has the poet seen a California Redwood?
…Or a giant saguaro?
I think we can all agree that trees are lovely, especially in spring,
and we can thank Mr. A. E. for the reminder that it’s good to get outside and
look at things in bloom.
** Happy 160th Birthday **
A. E. Housman
– born March 26, 1859
in Fockbury, Worcestershire, England
To me, poetry is somebody
standing up, so to speak, and
saying, with as little concealment as possible,
what it is for him or her to
be on earth at this moment.
– Galway Kinnell
I’ve been thinking this week about about the reputation of …
poets as odd, poetry as difficult,
and neither having much truck with ordinary life.
When my kids were in pre-school, I heard a rumor (told to me, a bit breathlessly,
by someone who clearly was both impressed and intimidated),
that one of the other moms had—dun dun dunnnn!—
published a book of poetry!
I remember feeling… what? Surprise? Awe?
I definitely felt that she had suddenly become slightly alien, and that
I would now feel embarrassed to talk to her.
An actual, published poet? What would I possibly say to her??
This despite the fact that I had been writing poetry since I was 14 years old! I loved poetry.
Not to brag, but I’d even won a prize (3rd place) for poetry in a county-wide writing contest
when I was a teenager.
But for some reason I couldn’t bring my personal experience with poetry into the estranged feeling I had for this formerly-fellow-pre-school-parent now turned strange-and-successful poem-writer.
Ntozake Shange, in her poem Advice, talks about the suspicious and disapproving reaction she receives from her friends and family about her being a poet:
they tell me think straight & make myself
somethin/i shout & sigh/i am a poet/i write poems
i am a poet/i am not a part-time poet/i am not an amateur
poet/i don’t even know what that person cd be/whoever that
is authorizing poetry as an avocation/is a fraud
– Ntozake Shange
from her poem Advice
Billy Collins, who became U.S. Poet Laureate in 2001,
(and who also has a birthday this week!)
wrote about the frustration he felt about his students’ attitude toward poetry.
In his poem Introduction to Poetry, Collins invites his students to:
walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch
Instead his students:
tie the poem to a chair
begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.
I believe what works best in poetry, both as a reader
and a writer, is when the words carry us away and we forget everything around us
and live inside the world the words create.
As the pre-school-mom poet writes about writing,
(because, yes, I may not have braved talking with her, but I did go out and
buy her book!):
That something flows.
The liquid of language, that liquor,
the familiar warmth, the watch melting off my arm, body
disappearing into timeless space: a sound, a rhythm, an urge
to follow. That I am flying here, and floating there, and rising
– from In Praise of Single Mothers
by Kate Daniels
I would feel dead if I didn’t have the ability periodically to
put my world in order with a poem.
– Richard Wilbur
I believe that good poetry can be as
ornate as a cathedral or as bare as a pottingshed,
as long as it confronts the self with honesty and fullness.
– Mona Van Duyn
A good place to look up poems online is Poetry Foundation.org
That’s where I found Billy Collin’s poem, ‘Introduction to Poetry’
A couple of highly accessible, user-friendly poetry books I’d recommend are:
Short and Sweet: 101 very short poems
edited by Simon Armitage (1999) Faber & Faber
She Walks in Beauty: a woman’s journey through poems
edited by Caroline Kennedy (2011) Grand Central Publishing
A poem appears in the distance,
A squiggle of a thing from one angle,
A bit of a tune, almost, from another.
Ignore it. It can’t see you from there.
Poems have notoriously poor vision.
It will probably wander away.
Whatever you do, don’t provoke it
Or tease it or offer it food,
Where there’s a poem, there’s a poet,
And you don’t want to suffer
An encounter with a poet.
Perfectly wonderful people
Become unbearable in that skin,
And those who inhabit it full time
Tend to derangement and hunger.
It was a poet like that who birthed
The notion that wolves were the ones
In sheep’s clothing. Of course.
The better to sneak bad ideas
In wooly language by.
It’s the poet who blamed the snake,
The toad in the garden, the sphinx.
Ok. You caught me. I’m very sorry,
But I’m going to have to bite you now.
a poem by Mark Jeffreys
used by permission of the author
Thank you for reading!
— Kelly J Hardesty
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© Kelly J Hardesty 2022