I began my poetry memorization journey in September 2018. I’ve become so enamored of memorizing poetry that I’ve learned a few extra poems By Heart that I have not written about in the monthly column. This August, I spent some extra time with two of my favorite poets, Jane Kenyon and Sara Teasdale.
Kenyon died from leukemia.
Teasdale died from suicide.
I can’t reconcile these two deaths.
If you handed me these two poems and asked me to guess, I’d say the poem about depression foretold suicide, but that’s not what happened. Kenyon’s “sorrow ignites / but does not consume / my heart.” She writes of depression and in depression and with depression with such love.
Then we have Teasdale, who describes a life full of loveliness, one that “for a breath of ecstasy / Give all you have been, or could be.” Perhaps for her that life was always out of reach, and her poetry was the way she reached for it.
Usually I don’t like to dwell on a poet’s biography. I want the poem to stand on its own, in black and white, and force me to reckon with it and it alone. But for these two poets I can’t separate word from life.
Over the following months I read a poetry collection from each author, Teasdale’s Flame and Shadow and Kenyon’s The Boat of Quiet Hours. I went looking for answers. I left with wisdom of a different kind, the kind you get from swimming in the sound and silence of good poetry.
I noticed Kenyon often focuses on the day’s transitions — evening, dusk, even twilight — while Teasdale is the poet of night, stars, and moon. “Night is the mother of stars,” she writes in Pain.
My own poems often turn to drought to express the unrelenting wearying of situations that linger with no end in sight. When I was learning these two poems By Heart, I noticed a strange loveliness as evening descended on desiccated ground.
One winter dawn I combined one of Teasdale’s lines from “Barter” with part of Kenyon’s High Water into a haiku.
I’d give all I have
been or could be for eight days
of rain, high water
Browse more By Heart
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro