W. S. Merwin's entire poem “Separation” consists of only three lines:
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
Don't you love the way a good poem can nail its meaning to the mast like that with just three simple strikes of the hammer?
But there's more to poetry than mere economy. Though my father survived World War II and James Tate's did not, Tate's poem “The Lost Pilot” captures better than any novel I've ever read or any movie I've ever watched my own feelings about that conflict and all the young men who vanished in it. “The Lost Pilot” gives me a way to think about the war—a way to understand it and, at the same time, a way to be completely baffled by it—without feeling stupid. My dad's gone now too, but his life still, occasionally, orbits my own. As do certain lines from Tate's poem.
But if poetry gives us a language for our lives, it can also, at times, give us a little chuckle. Consider Dorothy Parker's famous advice: “Should they whisper false of you, / Never trouble to deny; / Should the words they say be true, / Weep and storm and swear they lie.” Or Edna St. Vincent Millay's classic “My candle burns at both ends / It will not last the night; / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— / It gives a lovely light.”
Still, for those of us who can't throw a 50-yard pass or play “Johnny B. Good” on electric guitar, what poetry's really good for is impressing girls. From my fifteenth year to my twenty-fifth, I must have written ten poems a year, each devoted to my latest one true love. In my twenty-fifth year I met Melissa, and I've been writing her poems every year since.
Which will tell you something about just how patient and understanding my wife is.
So, if you're like me and can't really write a good love poem to save your life, the Talbot County Free Library is going to celebrate National Poetry Month this year by sharing several of the world's best with you. Please feel free, in turn, to share them with your one true love.
On April 18, at 6:30 p.m., I will host a discussion at the Easton library of Billy Collins' “Love,” Philip Larkins' “The Whitsun Weddings,” and Wendell Berry's “They Sit Together on the Porch.” You can find copies of these poems on the library's website. If you have a favorite love poem you'd like to share with the group, please e-mail it to me at email@example.com (I'm especially interested in finding one about the simple daily pleasures of married love). And if you write poetry of your own, be sure to enter the Friends' 21st Annual Poetry Contest (deadline: April 22). Then join us for some great love poetry on the 18th. I look forward to seeing you!