What Men Die for Lack Of
Lately I’ve found myself consuming less and less news, which is a radical departure for me. When I was a child, public policy was my father’s job, so politics was often dinner table conversation. But right now I prefer to steep in other things, the kinds of things “men die miserably every day for lack of” — poems.
What if we inhaled poetry the way we consume up-to-the minute news? What if we took it on a schedule, like medicine? It might not keep us from dying but it might make us less miserable.
Summer is generally not my happiest season, but this year a friend gifted me with Abigail Carroll’s collection Habitation of Wonder. It was like having Valentine’s Day in August. This poem caught my eye because of the title and epigraph, drawn from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” by William Carlos Williams.
The poem’s first line comes from Wordsworth. But what about the next? And the next?
What Men Die For Lack Of
It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. – William Carlos Williams
Daffodils—ten thousand at a glance.
A globed fruit, palpable and mute.
Pockets full of lichens and seeds.
Apple-bent mossed cottage trees.
Lamb-white days, a lilting house.
Winnings risked on pitch and toss.
Boatmens’ songs, mechanics’ songs.
Rose moles on the skin of trout.
A cherry hung with bloom, a cherry hung with snow.
The flow of Julia’s silks, the liquefaction of her clothes.
An angel robed in real linen, spun on a definite loom.
Bald and wild, the O-gape of the moon.
Telephone poles holding out their arms to birds.
A hammock, a field of sunlight between two pines.
Nine bean rows and nine and fifty swans.
A leaping tongue of bloom spared by a scythe.
Magenta pokeweed sprung in a vacant lot.
The oily, rainbowed deck of a rented boat.
White chickens, a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain.
Marbles and puddles and whistling far and wee.
Truth told slant, truth that dazzles gradually.
– Abigail Carroll
Each line of Carroll’s poem is a line that nods to a line (or lines) from another poem. On my first reading I guessed a few of them, but not all. I won’t give you the key because part of the fun is matching line to poem and poet. I wrote out a cheat sheet that links each line with the poet who originally wrote it, and that helped my stroll down memorization lane.
Two of the lines reference poems I have previously learned By Heart, the Wordsworth one and one from William Butler Yeats. Some lines are by poets who have written other poems I’ve memorized, so their words sounded somewhat familiar, including Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, John Keats, Robert Herrick, William Carlos Williams (the good doctor, himself), and Walt Whitman. Other poets I could recognize from coming across their “news” in my general poetry diet: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mary Oliver, Carl Sandburg, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The rest surprised me. (I love poem surprises.)
Less news-reading has meant more poetry-writing, especially while reading Carroll’s collection. I even wrote my own ‘Make Me’ poem in response to hers. Without news cycle tyranny, I’ve been more free to notice what’s around me and to turn that into poems. To dwell a bit more in wonder.
By Heart for September
For the next By Heart gathering, September 24, we’ll learn “Somewhere or Other” by Christina Rossetti.
Somewhere or Other
Somewhere or other there must surely be
The face not seen, the voice not heard,
The heart that not yet—never yet—ah me!
Made answer to my word.
Somewhere or other, may be near or far;
Past land and sea, clean out of sight;
Beyond the wandering moon, beyond the star
That tracks her night by night.
Somewhere or other, may be far or near;
With just a wall, a hedge, between;
With just the last leaves of the dying year
Fallen on a turf grown green.
– Christina Rossetti
Browse more By Heart
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