It’s National Poetry Month, and while we could drink our way through an entire month of pure poetic delight without the well ever running dry, we (whisper) might not want to stop reading stories. Or, we might feel more at ease reading stories. Poems might be for us, as a friend of mine described recently, those things that don’t make sense.
“Grief calls us to the things of this world,” says the poet, and a love for words, for the sounds they make when pressed against each other, for the shock of surprise or recognition certain juxtapositions create, calls us to more words. Once we’ve tasted the joy of poetic language in our mouths, once we’ve heard words sing into our open ears in the voice of a beloved parent or friend, we want more.
But where does the first taste come from? One way is to fall into poems from fiction. Not just any fiction, but the sort in which the writer cares for every word and its place among its cohorts. I present you with four books. Each, while seducing you with the story it tells, will appeal to your ears and eyes, will seduce you into desire for poetic language, for more, more, more!
I believe fervently that if we want happy, brilliant, empathetic children we must read to them early and often (and talk to them endlessly, too—the studies are in). But beware the myriad dumb boring books read to kids in the misguided belief that they can’t yet understand anything more complex. They never will if that’s what you read them! Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch, by Nancy Willard and the Dillons, is a book with pictures that will thrill and delight kids of any age while their ears learn to love the sound of words and grow toward understanding the meaning behind them. What kid doesn’t want to ride to school on the back of a pickle-winged fish? In the meantime, you, the reader, get to weep and sigh over beautifully spoken truths:
They’re not what I wished for. When women are young
they want curly-haired daughters and raven-haired sons.
In this vale of tears we must take what we’re sent,
Feathery, leathery, lovely, or bent.
Once the kids are old enough for chapter books, read them Habibi, by poet Naomi Shihab Nye. Her love and feel for language inform every sentence she writes. In Habibi—darling, sweetheart, in both Arabic and Hebrew—you get not just a moving and profound story of a 14-year-old Palestinian-American girl transplanted from her American life in Saint Louis to a house between Jerusalem and Ramallah, a school in the Armenian section of Jerusalem, but writing that will make your mouth and ears happy as you read. Each chapter starts with a title, like the clang of a bell, and then a brief phrase—the resonance that carries in the air long after the bell has been rung. Her sentences are short and crisp, and her paragraphs are precise as poems.
But I’m a grownup, you say. Well, start with Pish, Posh and Habibi, anyway—you will always remember both. But for adults, with lives that we complicate so necessarily or unnecessarily, we have The Golden Gate. Vikram Seth, bless his mad heart, has written a whole novel in Onegin stanzas—sonnets with an ababccddeffegg rhyme scheme. I read it for the first time just after rereading Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, and so approached it with the question in mind: if it’s verse, can it really be a novel as Forster defines it? Yes, it has story, people and plot, fantasy and prophecy, pattern and rhythm. And such joy in language!
Directly to the morning after.
The sun shines brightly in. The birds’
Aubade replaces last night’s laughter,
Professor Pratt’s impassioned words,
The broken glasses, the emetic
Sheep music, even the splenetic
Yowls of the vengeful Charlemagne;
And all is quiet once again.
Slack, honey-humming weekend morning,
Sweet sanctuary from a world
In which we’re whipped and whisked and whirled!
John sloths in bed awhile, then, yawning,
Attends to coffee. Liz sleeps on,
Though once or twice she murmurs, “John.”
One of my persistent sensations reading John Crowley’s Little, Big: or, The Fairies’ Parliament is that if he can write this well, if he can put such care into choosing just-right words, string them into extraordinary sentences, weave those into knock-my-socks off paragraphs, arrange those into lay-me-bare chapters (you can see I am naked by the time I set the book down), then why aren’t more of us getting in bed with language in this way and having the best sex of our lives? “Like a centrifuge, with infinite slowness accelerating, spring flung them all outward in advancing circles as it advanced, seeming (though how it was possible they couldn’t tell) to untangle the tangled skein of them and lay their lives out properly around Edgewood like the coils of a golden necklace: more golden as it grew warmer.” It’s National Poetry Month. Indulge. Poetic delight!