The poetic life

Dropped off on a downtown corner on a sunny workweek morning recently, I remarked to my fellow commuter

Earth hath not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty.

“Huh?” he said, or words to that effect. “Oh, you know, On Westminster Bridge, Wordsworth,” I said, and thought no more about it. But later in the week, while lunching with colleagues at a pub in the shadow of a mountain campus, I launched into another stanza or two of a poem learned back in my long-ago schooldays. This time, I think it was a few lines from The Passions, by William Collins. The ones that particularly stay with me are:

With eyes up-raised, as one inspired,
Pale Melancholy sat retired;
And from her wild sequestered seat,
In notes by distance made more sweet,
Poured through the mellow horn her pensive soul.

That last line has to be one of the most glorious things you can possibly say out loud and it reminds me of hearing my favourite teacher ever, Miss Collins (as far as I know, no relation to the long-dead poet), who taught me English when I was at an impressionable age, reciting it. She was a tall, gaunt spinster in droopy clothes, with steely hair and faded blue eyes, but she had a deep, rich voice and you could imagine her having had passion in her life—long ago, perhaps, before she took up teaching—or so we schoolgirls surmised.

Anyway, where I am going with this is that I am a product of an old-style school where we learned poems by heart and were expected to recite them with a degree of actorly expressiveness and with pauses that showed we understood the meaning. I don’t think this learning stuff by heart is much done any more.

What it has done for me is to provide me with a poetic background to my life and a ready fund of phrases for every occasion. When reaching a viewpoint while hiking, I am quite likely to mutter something about looking “at each other with a wild surmise—Silent, upon a peak in Darien” (On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, Keats). In the springtime, naturally enough, I declaim lines from Wordsworth’s Daffodils. And in picturesque rural settings in the summer, I can be counted on to know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare).

Musing on the mechanics of this, I imagine a kind of internal filing system of disks covered with poetry and a mental trigger that selects one and plays it back, rather like the way jukeboxes work.

Poetry that I’ve read since hasn’t insinuated itself quite so completely into my subconscious with a few exceptions. Lorna Crozier, of course: “Carrots are fucking the earth” from The Garden Going on Without Us. “Dying/Is an art, like everything else./I do it exceptionally well” (Lady Lazarus, Sylvia Plath). Many, many lines from Michael Ondaatje’s The Cinnamon Peeler. And “I am a closet New Yorker/I shoot pure caffeine to stay calm” from Sheri-D Wilson. Really, I have all the language there that I need to get through life.


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