Now that hugs have become virtual, and meals with friends take place on Zoom, it’s an opportunity to rediscover the solace of poetry. Poetry can be an endless source of comfort and inspiration.
And I won’t be seduced by the thought of my native language, its milky call.
How can it matter in what tongue I am misunderstood by whoever I meet.
Eugenia Ginsburg was imprisoned in Stalin’s Gulag for a horrendous 17 years. She was a teacher, and what helped her survive was reciting poetry—sometimes to herself, sometimes aloud, with other prisoners. Her favorites were Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaevna. Poetry speaks to the heart: how many displaced people wouldn’t identify with the lines above.
I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind?
Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers
And walk upon the beach
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each
I do not think that they will sing to me.
T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
I am of a generation who still had to learn poems by heart, and even though we all complained at the time, this has since been a source of endless pleasure.
I think educational methods have vastly improved since my time, with endless learning by rote, dusty lists of dates and translations from the Latin and Ancient Greek being replaced by more interactive systems, and more emphasis on thinking and creativity. However, I find it a pity that learning poetry by heart has mostly been discontinued.
A 12-year-old boy of my acquaintance whose English teacher at school made the class write poems produced some lovely stuff, something which he would never have thought of doing on his own. Poetry can be very modern, and fun for kids.
WE REAL COOL. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
—Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Real Cool”
As it happens, thousands of people still write poems, so this practice has not been discontinued at all. And I assume that those who write poetry, also enjoy reading it.
My favorite poet in my teens was T. S. Eliot, and he remains a favorite to this day, amongst many others. One I must mention today is Constantine Cavafy, the Alexandrian, Greek, poet-historian who was drawn to what was lost: forgotten Byzantine kingdoms, beautiful boys briefly glimpsed and never seen again. I think poetry is best read in the original, since a certain particular flavor or music is lost in translation; but the two poems below are quite close to the original.
Imagined voices, and beloved, too,
of those who died, or of those who are
lost unto us like the dead.
Sometimes in our dreams they speak to us;
sometimes in its thought the mind will hear them.
And with their sound for a moment there return
sounds from the first poetry of our life–
like music, in the night, far off, that fades away.
Voices, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn
This room, how well I know it. Now
they’re renting it, it and the one next door,
as offices. The whole house has been taken
over by agents, businessmen, concerns.
Ah but this one room, how familiar.
Here by the door was the couch. In front of that,
a Turkish carpet on the floor.
The shelf then, with two yellow vases. On the right―
no, opposite―a wardrobe with a mirror.
At the center the table where he wrote,
and the three big wicker chairs.
There by the window stood the bed
where we made love so many times.
Poor things, they must be somewhere to this day.
There by the window stood the bed: across it
the afternoon sun used to reach halfway.
…We’d said goodbye one afternoon at four,
for a week only. But alas,
that week was to go on forevermore.
The afternoon sun, translated by James Merrill
Most of us have the Oxford book of English poems or some other anthology lurking on our shelves, but most poetry nowadays can also be found on line. These days of confinement, dipping into them would make a change to bingeing on Netflix.
As for those stuck at home with children, kids love words that rhyme. I cannot count how many times I’ve read Room on the Broom, The Owl And the Pussycat, or Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. And for people who can’t be bothered with doing it themselves, there’s a site called poetrygeneration, where someone reads aloud a different poem every day. A great selection of poems, beautifully read.