Do You LOVE Poetry?

a reminiscence by Max Reif

A long long time ago I was in Kitty Davy’s office, and she brought her face up close to mine and gestured with her eyes shining for me to look at a book she was holding. It was IN DUST I SING by Francis Brabazon, just out—the copy, quite ratty but intact, that I still own. Her well-wrinkled face went into a smile and in a voice that had an enthusiasm which to this day I’ve rarely heard anyone embody, she asked me:

“Do you LOVE poetry?”

I didn’t know what to say. Did I?

Francis’ book STAY WITH GOD had certainly touched me where very little else human had ever touched me; but that had been around 3 years before. Life had been a hard slog most of the time since then, and I was just trying to get by. Poetry seemed something of an emotional luxury at the time.

Well, Kitty gave me the book as a gift. Forty one or so years later, I have it on my bed table and lately have been reading a few of the ghazals before turning out the light. I may type and post one of these poem-gems a day for various Internet groups that are interested, after I get finished posting the ones from Francis’ other book of ghazals, THE BELOVED IS ALL IN ALL.

Last night my wife asked me, for I think only the second time anyone ever has in those exact words, the same question Kitty had asked: “Do you love poetry?”

This time I didn’t have to think! I’m not always open to any poem at any time—sometimes I’m busy with processing reacting to something. Not available, as they say. But poetry as a whole—what it is—helps sustain me! I can say that wholeheartedly. At it’s best, it’s like the visible breath of God. How can something so…humble…made of words, for heaven’s sake, in its visible part, at least, communicated often by the little black marks we call type…actually help sustain life and spirit?

I love the essay about this by Garrison Keillor, in the Introduction to his poetry anthology, GOOD POEMS FOR HARD TIMES. In part, he writes:

“People complain about the obscurity of poetry, especially if they’re
assigned to write about it, but actually poetry is rather
straightforward compared to ordinary conversation with people you
don’t know well which tends to be jumpy repartee, crooked, coded,
allusive to no effect, firmly repressed, locked up in irony,
steadfastly refusing to share genuine experience—think of
conversation at office parties or conversation between teenage
children and parents, or between teenagers themselves, or between
men, or between bitter spouses: rarely in ordinary conversation do
people speak from the heart and mean what they say. How often in the
past week did anyone offer you something from the heart? It’s there
in poetry. Forget everything you ever read about poetry, it doesn’t
matter—poetry is the last preserve of honest speech and the
outspoken heart.”

There are other passages in this essay that are every bit as eloquent about a subject which may seem simple, but which—when it really comes to putting it across—has not been addressed that well, by that many people, in all the years poetry has been going on.

I think you can read the whole essay here:

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