You’re like no other.
That, my friends, is the first poem I ever wrote.
Unfortunately, it was not the last.
In my teens, I fancied myself a poet. One year I lugged around “The Collected Works of T. S. Eliot” and pretended that I got it.
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
And I wrote poetry. I have a folder with my mother’s handwriting on it that says “Sandy’s Poetry.” What I found inside:
His hair is grey and badly weathered,
Patched in places, and even severed,
And though the wind blows day by day,
He never seems to wear away.
Oh dear. Even now, I blush. Why did nobody discourage me?
Fortunately for the world, I eventually lost interest in poetry.
In adulthood, I became a newspaper editor and would not accept poems for publication. It was bad enough that I had to read them; I was not about to subject my readers to that.
Then recently I was thumbing through The New Yorker, which publishes some poetry. I had always glossed over these poems in favor of the cartoons, but recently I decided that my relationship with poetry had to change.
I didn’t want to go through life completely ignorant about something that was apparently important. Somewhat ignorant is OK, but not completely.
So I picked a poem from the magazine at random, “To Be Young,” by L.S. Klatt. I read it. I read it again. And again. And again. And I had no idea what L.S. Klatt was trying to say.
The man has a mill in mind where the wood
Is valued, where gold runs out into the river
With the sewage. You taste the fizz of Royal Crown Cola.
And the rain, the rain, the rain. At you, spitting.
I sent the poem to two people who are smarter than me. They didn’t get it either.
So we founded the Young Men’s Poetry Association and had a FaceTime meeting and spent an hour parsing L.S. Klatt’s poem. And we made some headway.
I assigned a book I had heard about called “Don’t Read Poetry,” by the poet Stephanie Burt. Her point is that poetry “is not one thing,” although it’s taught as if it were. “That’s like hearing Beethoven, or hearing Kendrick Lamar, and not getting into it, and then deciding you don’t like music,” she writes.
Instead, she advises, “find ways to encounter kinds of poems and learn different reasons to read poems, realized in various ways by various poems.”
Later I listened to Krista Tippet interviewing the poet/ornithologist Drew Lanham on her wonderful podcast, “On Being.” Lanham finds joy in poetry and in birds.
In the interview, Tippet reveals her shame at not being able to remember the names of birds, a problem that she and I and many other people share.
Lanham recalled that his mother called cardinals, a name she couldn’t always recall, “redbirds.”
“There is no shame in not knowing the name of a bird,” Lanham says. “If it’s a redbird to you, it’s a redbird to you … the birds know who they are. They don’t need you to tell them that.”
So call a crow a cawcaw. A Robin a brisket. A snowy owl a pillowbird.
This seems to be analogous to arguments about understanding art or poetry or music. We don’t need to be experts to appreciate a poem.
“Over time,” Lanham continues, “when we relax into a thing and maybe just being with a bird, then your brain kind of relaxes, it loosens, and things start to soak in.”
Being with a bird. Being with a poem. Simply being.
These days, that’s a pretty good place to be.
Andrew Marsters is an award-winning journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.