Open Your Heart to Poetry

“A poem begins with a lump in the throat; a homesickness or a love-sickness. It is a reaching out toward expression, an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the word.” –Robert Frost

April is National Poetry Month, and although I am not an expert when it comes to poetry–in fact, I barely muddled through my college literature classes–I have a euphoric love for certain poems. As poet Nikki Giovanni explains in her poem “Art Sanctuary”: “Art offers Sanctuary to everyone willing/ to open their hearts as well as their eyes.” (Please read complete poem here.

East Side Books has an exceptional Poetry section that is overflowing with volumes of poems that will crack your heart wide open. Whether you’re into Shakespeare and Milton, or prefer Dickinson and Whitman, or don’t really know a thing about poetry, you are sure to be moved, inspired, and changed by exploring the amazing breadth of our poetry shelves.

In the movie “Bright Star,” about the intense but brief love affair between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, there is a brilliant exchange between the two on the subject of reading poetry.

Fanny Brawne:  “I still don’t know how to work a poem.”

John Keats: “A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore, but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of the water. You do not work the lake out, it is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.”

Keats died tragically at the age of 25, when he was just beginning to produce work that allows readers to reach beyond thought and accept that which was previously unknown or unseen.  As Robert Frost, one of the most well-known and well-loved American poets, said, “Poetry can make you remember what you didn’t even know you knew.”

Frost calls his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” his “best bid for remembrance.”  After staying up all night to work on a poem entitled “New Hampshire,” Frost wandered outside and waited for the sun to rise.  He suddenly had an idea and rushed back inside to write the lovely lines; “Whose woods these are I think I know./ His house is in the village, though;/ He will not see me stopping here/ To watch his woods fill up with snow.” (Please read complete poem here.  Frost completed the rest of the poem without pause, “as if having a hallucination.”  What was it in that June summer morning over 90 years ago that inspired Frost to write the lines that so easily plunges readers into the depth of winter?

W.S. Merwin says that “If a poem is not forgotten as soon as the circumstances of its origin, it begins at once to evolve an existence of its own, in minds and lives, and then even in words, that its singular maker could never have imagined.”

Sharon Olds and Mary Oliver are two poets who create poems that take on an existence of their own in my life. For years I have kept a copy of “Wild Geese” by Oliver on my bulletin board, and turn to it whenever necessary. The first lines begin:  “You do not have to be good./ You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting./ You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves./ Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine./ Meanwhile the world goes on.” ( Please read the complete poem here.

Poet Charles Bukowski agrees that we only have to love what we love. He says, “There is nothing wrong with poetry that is entertaining and easy to understand. Genius could be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way.”

A poem that displays simple genius most beautifully is “Oranges” by Gary Soto. “The first time I walked/ With a girl, I was twelve,/ Cold, and weighted down/ with two oranges in my jacket./ December.” (Please read complete poem here. ) Soto’s description of adding an orange to his nickel on the store counter when the chocolate bar the girl picks out cost a dime is pitch perfect writing.

I also love, even though I can’t say exactly why, the poem “This Is Just To Say” by William Carlos Williams. It is just a few lines that read like a note taped on the refrigerator about why he ate all the plums, but it is perfect. “Forgive me/ they were delicious/ so sweet/ and so cold.”  (Please read complete poem here. Williams was not only a poet, but a pediatrician. He said that he could not have had “one without the other,” and that his two professions complimented each other.

Poetry does compliment our lives, whether we are reading it or writing it. I am a huge fan of The Writer’s Almanac on National Public Radio. Every morning Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion fame reads a poem. Since my early hours are now busy with getting lunches packed and children off to school, I often miss hearing the Writer’s Almanac, but have discovered that I can have it delivered daily by email. (Go to

Now, each morning, I turn on my computer to find a new poem waiting for me. Sometimes I skim the first line, feel like I am back in my college lit class, and hit the delete button. But more often, I find myself reading the first few lines and then returning to the beginning, to read the whole poem through more carefully. As I sip my coffee and the first light of the day touches the windows, I savor lines such as these:

“If you stare at it long enough/ the mountain becomes unclimbable./ Tally it up. How much time have you spent/ waiting for the soup to cool?” (“Against Hesitation by Charles Rafferty.

“But I didn’t know I loved the clouds,/ those shaggy eyebrows glowering/ over the face of the sun.” (“Things I Didn’t Know I Loved: After Nazim Hikmet” by Linda Pastan

“You are a warm front/ that moved in from the north,” (“You and I” by Jonathan Potter

“I don’t know why so much sweetness hovers around us./ Nor why the wind blows the curtains in the afternoons,/ Nor why the earth mutters so much about its children.” (“The Blind Old Man by Robert Bly

“I love mankind most/ when no one’s around./ On New Year’s Day for instance,/ and I’m driving home on the highway alone/ for hours in the narrating rain” (“Be Mine” by Paul Hostovsky

Billy Collins, crowned by the New York Times as “the most popular poet in America,”  says that “I don’t think people read poetry because they’re interested in the poet.  I think they read poetry because they’re interested in themselves.”

Come on into East Side Books and find yourself in our Poetry section. If you need help finding any of the above mentioned poets, please ask our staff for assistance.

Oliver concludes in “Wild Geese”: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,/ the world offers itself to your imagination,/ calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–/ over and over announcing your place/ in the family of things.”

2 thoughts on “Open Your Heart to Poetry

  1. In college, before I gave up on a second major in nutrition, I found myself in two quarters of Organic Chemistry that were nearly the death of me academically. The little C’s in patterns made no sense to me whatsoever. I survived because the sweet professor read Robert Frost to us, and sometimes his own poems as well, everyday before class. I cannot explain why that made the difference, but it is yet another reason for me to love poetry. Thanks Melissa

  2. Bukowski was my inspiration in college, along with Ferlenghetti and a few other Beat poets. I had a go-around with Ezra Pound until I read some of his insane speeches from Italian radio during WW2. Billy Collins, though, may be our most facile poet in decades. The guy has guts too. He takes the opening lines of atrocious poems by great poems and completes the poem to what he believes is a better version. He has a way of making everything brilliant. Here is one of my favorites by him, from his 2008 book, Ballistics (Random House):

    Hippos on Holiday

    is not really the title of a movie
    but if it was I would be sure to see it.
    I love their short legs and big heads,
    the whole hippo look.
    Hundreds of them would frolic
    in the mud of a wide, slow-moving river,
    and I would eat my popcorn
    in the dark of a neighborhood theater.
    When they opened their enormous mouths
    lined with big stubby teeth
    I would drink my enormous Coke.

    I would be both in my seat
    and in the water playing with the hippos,
    which is the way it is
    with a truly great movie.
    Only a mean-spirited reviewer
    would ask on holiday from what?

    Thanks, Melissa, for getting me to open up a poetry book again. It has been a few months.

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