By Allan Cross, Reference Department
Poetry isn’t the simplest thing to appreciate. At a passing glance, it may not have the same immediacy of film, music, and visual art. When placed alongside other forms of literature, a book of poems can struggle to match our latest bestsellers in accessibility. For all these reasons, some of us might dismiss poetry as a medium for high-minded wordsmiths, rather than a readership of less heady taste. But exceptional poetry has endured for millennia, and verse as a creative avenue stretches onward still. Why, then, do so many others read and derive worth from it today?
The convenient answer nowadays might be to quote Dead Poets Society. Mr. Keating, an English teacher played by the late Robin Williams, inspires his students (and unceasing scores of audiences) with his speech about why people read and write poetry. One of the film’s great strengths lies, of course, in its poetry readings. These, combined with well-chosen samples, bring forth the emotional meaning that fuels successful verse. The film serves as a great access point to poetry, emphasizing the importance of reading it aloud. When we readers encounter a given poem, we can better involve ourselves by audibly speaking the work. By doing so, we should enhance the piece with our individual voices, each one conducive in its own distinct way.
Testing this in light of three widely known poems seems a good place to begin. The trio we have selected consists of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” Rudyard Kipling’s “If–,” and Shel Silverstein’s verse children’s book The Giving Tree.
In the third stanza of “The Road Not Taken,” Frost writes:
And both that morning equally lay/
In leaves no step had trodden black./
Oh, I kept the first for another day!/
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,/
I doubted if I should ever come back.
Andrew Spacey, a commentator for Owlcation, points out that Frost’s work reflects on the many choices we make in life, and how we tend to regret those decisions after committing to them. It is also commonly read as a statement in support of individualism, and the promotion of opinions that contrast with majority views.
Below is an excerpt from Kipling’s “If—”:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;/
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;/
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/
And treat those two imposters just the same;/
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken/
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools/
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,/
And stoop and build them up with worn out tools:
The theme of Kipling’s work, which regards the importance of thought, but not to the point where it impedes action, seems like a stirring antidote to Frost. It acknowledges the significance and moral need for regret, but urges the reader not to allow past mistakes to obstruct the path to future growth.
The Giving Tree addresses similar concerns, as shown in some of its final lines:
“I am sorry,” sighed the tree./
I wish that I could give you something…/
But I have nothing left./
I am just an old stump./
I am sorry….”/
I don’t need very much now,” said the boy./
“just a quiet place to sit and rest.”/
I am very tired.”
Rivka Galchen, in her 2014 review for The New York Times, argues that there is an unavoidable dilemma in The Giving Tree, it being whether we read it as a statement on thoughtless acquisition or unreserved giving. The two characters, the boy and the tree, do what is most fundamental to their natures. It’s up to the reader to then decide how to feel about the situation, including the conclusion about whether it turns out morally right.
The takeaway from all of this, in spite of all the people who attempt to influence our points-of-view, is that we allow ourselves to read and study works on our unique terms. As mentioned earlier, it may prove worthwhile to read these pieces and others to ourselves (at the risk of seeming foolish), in order to bring out their inherent humanity. We should remember that reading can be, in its way, a roomy type of interpretation. There’s a mysterious element of poetry, one we cannot entirely rationalize and so must trail behind. Rather than strain for full understanding, this is the process we might instead come to accept.
- Weir, Peter, director. Dead Poets Society. Touchstone Home Entertainment, 1989.
- Wikimedia Commons
By Howard Shirley, Teen Department
It’s National Poetry Month.
There. You have a year.
That’s when it started.
The American Academy of Poets.
That’s who started it.
Not much else factual to say.
But poems aren’t about facts.
Poems are about themselves.
They say whatever they say.
You hear whatever you hear.
That’s a poem.
They’re not about rhyme (though they can be)
They’re not about time (though they can be)
They’re not about meter (rigid or free)
Or fanciful words like “lugubrious.”
Which no one uses any other day.
Or any other way.
Poems are just whatever you want to say.
The way you want to say it.
Your poem is yours.
It can be no one else’s.
It’s National Poetry Month.
So go write a poem.
I just did.
— Howard Shirley
Now it’s your turn! If you are a teenage resident of Williamson County, age 12-18, you are invited to submit your own poems to our Teen Poetry Contest. You may submit up to three poems. Poems are welcome in any form on any subject—the choice is yours (as it should be). A poem may be any length and any style—haiku, sonnet, ballad, limerick, free verse; however your muse takes you. All poems must be your original creations.
All poems must be typed on plain white paper in an ordinary font. Poems with multiple pages should be stapled together. All poems must include the poet’s name, age, school and grade, and contact information (e-mail or phone) at the top of the first page.
We are accepting poems through April 30. You may turn your poem in at any Williamson County Public Library branch, or upstairs in the Teen Room of the Main Branch in Franklin. Contest winners will be announced in May during our Teen Poetry Slam as part of our Summer Reading Kick-off event.
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
You’ve all heard of Limericks, I’m sure
Whether racy or actually pure
They’re funny old rhymes
From good old times
And the good ones are rarely demure
They all start in jolly old Britain
Whose poems were occasionally written
In lyrical styles
To bring forth some smiles
And the poets were instantly smitten
The name, it comes from good green Erin
The Maigue Poets used to declare in
the city, Limerick.
Those bards got a kick
from the poetry style used there in.
The transition to bawdier verse
(Or something ocassionally worse).
The decade was roaring
and not a bit boring,
still, reactions were quite terse.
There once was a man, name of Lear
Who wrote them, though not very clear
His meanings were nonsense
With ridiculous contents
And his fame stretches from then to here
Some people delight to change form
From the meter and scheme as a norm
They sometimes depart
On whole, a la cart
But can do so in in whatever manner they choose and still leave it mildly humorous
So let us praise the limerick this way
On this, the Limerick’s Day
They bring joy and delight
And the length is just right
Except like now when I’m carried away!
As one last PS I must add
A very hard time I have had
To not use Nantucket
Or mention a bucket
But I know that would really be bad.
By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
Most people encounter poems as a child first and poetry books for kids are fun and often silly. Kids love being read to and many poems are made to be read aloud. It’s when we grow up and forced to study specific poems and poetry that we lose interest. That’s why April has become “poetry month,” to encourage everyone to find their enjoyment of poetry again. And poetry really is for everyone. Or rather, there is at least one poem out there for each person that will touch them in some way. You just have to find it.
In order to help people find their enjoyment of poetry again, I hope to introduce you to a few good or unusual poetry books. Of course, if you just want to browse through our poetry books, in our Nonfiction section, which includes poetry, our library organize by the Dewey Decimal System, where American poetry is usually found in the 811s and British poetry is usually found in the 821s.
To refesh your memory about fun children’s poems, have a look at these:
- Falling up: poems and drawings by Shel Silverstein (J 811.6 SIL )
- A bad case of the giggles: kids’ favorite funny poems (J 811.08089282 BAD)
- Where the sidewalk ends by Shel Silverstein (J 811.54 SIL)
- A light in the attic by Shel Silverstein (J 811.54 SIL)
- I’ve lost my hippopotamus by Jack Prelutsky (J 811.54 PRE)
- My dog ate my homework! a collection of funny poems (J 811.54 LAN)
- Stopping by woods on a snowy evening by Robert Frost (J 811.52 FRO)
- Dirt on my shirt: selected poems (J E Fox)
- For laughing out loud: an anthology of poems to tickle your funny bone (J 808.81 FOR)
- Pizza, pigs, and poetry: how to write a poem (J 811.54 PRE)
Want to get back to poetry or rediscovery your love for it? Try these books:
- How to read a poem: and fall in love with poetry (808.1 HIR)
- How to haiku: a writer’s guide to haiku and related forms (808.1 ROS)
- Essential pleasures: a new anthology of poems to read aloud (808.81 ESS)
Most all adults have read Beowulf, one of the oldest extant English poems. Seamus Heaney won awards and rave reviews for his new translation of this epic poem (829.3 BEO). If Beowulf is too long, maybe you should try this book of Old English (Anglo-Saxon) poems with a mouthful title, Ten Old English Poems Put into Modern English Alliterative Verse (821.1 MAL).
If you really want to get adventurous, try listening to the Iliad or The Odyssey. It’s easier to listen to, somehow. Perhaps because it was recited for centuries!? And maybe try The Aeneid for the same reason. Virgil wanted to write a great Roman epic and he definitely succeeded.
- The Iliad by Homer (883.01 HOM)
- The Odyssey by Homer (883 HOM)
- The Aeneid by Virgil (873.01 VIR)
For something completely different, try reading haiku, or maybe writing them. They are short and usually describe a nature scene. There is a definite pattern for haiku: the first line has five syllables, the second line had seven syllables and the third line has five syllables. The best things about haiku are they are short and they don’t have to rhyme!
- Haiku landscapes: in sun, wind, rain and snow (808.1 ADD)
- Haiku love (895.6104108 HAI)
- Haiku: an anthology of Japanese poems (895.6104108 HAI)
And for a different kind of haiku, try these:
- Haiku for the single girl (811.6 GRI)
- Redneck haiku: Bubba-sized with more than 150 new haiku! (811.6 WIT)
If you are feeling patriotic or want to celebrate patriotic holidays, this is the book for you:
- A patriot’s handbook : songs, poems, stories, and speeches celebrating the land we love / selected and introduced by Caroline Kennedy (810.8 KEN)
For poems written from another culture’s point of view, check out these books. Hah, check out these books!!! A little library humor for you.
- The Southern poetry anthology, Volume VI, Tennessee (811.50809768 SOU)
- Angles of ascent: a Norton anthology of contemporary African American poetry (811.09 ANG)
- Voices of the rainbow: contemporary poetry by Native Americans (811.54080897 VOI)
- S O S: poems 1961-2013 by Amiri Baraka (811.54 BAR)
- Reflections: poems of dreams and betrayals by Adebayo Oyebade (811 OYE)
- No enemies, no hatred: selected essays and poems by Liu Xiaobo (895.1452 LIU)
For those trying to say something romantic, nothing is as good as a poem. Here are a few books to get inspiration from (or to copy and give your beloved, showing how much you care.)
- Rumi : the book of love : poems of ecstasy and longing, translations and commentary by Coleman Barks (891.5511 RUM)
- The essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks (891.5511 RUM)
- Art & love: an illustrated anthology of love poetry (808.81 ART)
- Ten poems to open your heart by Roger Housden (811.6 HOU)
- Sonnets from the Portuguese and other love poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (821.8 BRO)
- Twenty love poems and a song of despair by Pablo Neruda (861 NER)
- Love poems and sonnets of William Shakespeare (822.33 SHA)
- If there is something to desire: one hundred poems by Vera Pavlova; translated from the Russian by Steven Seymour (891.715 PAV)
For those who want to explore military themes, and get a real feeling of battle and the letdown of safety after, here are some from older wars and present conflicts.
- “Words for the hour”: a new anthology of American Civil War poetry (811.0080358 WOR)
- Some desperate glory: the First World War the poets knew by Max Egremont (821.912 EGR)
- Poets of World War I: Rupert Brooke & Siegfried Sassoon (YA 821 POE)
- Visions of war, dreams of peace: writings of women in the Vietnam War (811.54080358 VIS)
- Lines in long array: a Civil War commemoration: poems and photographs, past and present (811.008 LIN)
- Here, bullet by Brian Turner (811.6 TUR)
In case you think poetry is just a “girl thing”, here are a few books for men:
- Poems that make grown men cry: 100 men on the words that move them (821.008 POE)
- The Bar-D roundup a compilation of classic and contemporary poetry from CowboyPoetry.com (CD 811.54 08 BAR)
- Lessons from a desperado poet: how to find your way when you don’t have a map, how to win the game (811.54 BLA)
- Poetry for guys– who thought they hated poetry (811.008 POE)
A few offerings of humorous poems for grown-ups
- O, what a luxury: verses lyrical, vulgar, pathetic & profound by Garrison Keillor (811.6 KEI)
- Ogden Nash’s zoo (811.52 NAS)
- How did I get to be 40: & other atrocities and other poems by Judith Viorst (811.54 VIO)
- I’m too young to be seventy: and other delusions by Judith Viorst (811 VIO)
Other poetry books to consider that are recent and don’t really fit a category:
- It’s probably nothing, or, How I learned to stop worrying and love my implants by Micki Myers (811.6 MYE)
- Words for empty and words for full by Bob Hicok (811.54 HIC)
- Horoscopes for the dead: poems by Billy Collins (811.54 COL)
- Mr. Collins was a US Poet Laureate – a big deal!
- Firecracker red by Stellasue Lee (808.810082 LEE)
- Ms. Lee is a local poet
This book is in a category all by itself – and funny!
- I could pee on this: and other poems by cats by Francesco Marciuliano (811.6 MAR)
By Stacy Parish, Children’s Department
One day several years ago, when my children were small, it occurred to me that perhaps I was letting them watch too much television. I had this particular epiphany after an episode of Teletubbies led me to idly speculate what sort of expensive pharmaceutical usage had led to the invention of the aforementioned pudgy nonsense-spouting creatures, and if the ensuing commercial success of the Teletubbies then enabled the program’s creators and producers to be able to afford more of whatever controlled substance had been instrumental in bringing Dipsy, Po, Laa Laa, and Tinky-Winky into existence. And then there’s Caillou. (Which translates to “small smooth pebble” in French. You’re welcome.) Do not get me started on that whiny, round-headed little twerp. * Even hearing his name all these years later makes me immediately start casting around for a sharp object. If an animated children’s television show inspires such sinister thoughts, it’s probably not a great idea to let your kid watch a ton of it.
I’ll tell you the story of Jimmy Jet—
And you know what I tell you is true.
He loved to watch his TV set
Almost as much as you.
I’ve always been a bookworm, and I read to my kids (okay, technically I suppose I was reading to my burgeoning midsection, but you know what I mean) even before they entered the world, but maybe it was time to step it up a notch from Eric Carle and Lucy Cousins to something a little loftier. Poetry? What a great idea!
Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
That is known as the Children’s Hour.
–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
So. Where to begin? At the library, of course, after a brief detour to the local ice cream parlor. (It’s merely a suggestion. If you prefer active culture frozen yogurt with organic mix-ins, go for it. Just don’t judge me.) Here we go–Shakespeare, Silverstein, Seuss. Nesbitt and Nash. Milne, Moore, Millay. Prelutsky and Poe. In case you’re wondering, and I really hope you aren’t, those beautiful, haunting verses created by Edgar Allan Poe may ignite a fire in your adult soul but are generally not appropriate for– or amusing to– your average preschooler. That old saw about knowing your audience definitely holds true when diving into the poetry pool with your child. In other words, if you decide to make a foray into poetry with your kiddo, don’t overthink it. Whether you choose The Giving Tree or Green Eggs and Ham, or something else entirely, enjoy the exploration of a new genre with your child. And . . .
When called by a panther/Don’t anther.
Suggested sources for children’s poetry, in no particular order:
- Where The Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
- A Pizza the Size of the Sun by Jack Prelutsky
- The Pocket Book of Ogden Nash by Ogden Nash
- Shout! Little Poems That Roar by Brod Bagert
- Here’s a Little Poem collected by Jane Yolen
- Treasury of Poetry selected by Alistair Hedley
*Opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and in no way reflect the philosophy or preferences of the Williamson County Public Library, its staff members, their families, friends, or pets.
By Brian W. Christman, professor and vice chair of Vanderbilt’s Department of Medicine as well as chief of medical service at the Veteran Affairs’ Tennessee Valley Health Care System
It is always a bit of a challenge to explain why a physician, a person so intensely interested in the well-being of other people, would move away from the world and craft a few lines about a scene, an observation, or a thought. Sometimes it comes from a sense of obligation, the feeling that someone should think a bit longer about a solitary widow taking a shaving bag home, or a veteran patient smoking and telling stories at sunset, or the obvious but unspoken respect of a granddaughter for the recuperating patriarch. It seems to me that doctors are privileged to be with people during critical episodes in their lives and should not remain unmoved by events and interactions.
Occasionally there is just a snatch of nature, like the endlessly erasing shoreline at sunrise, begging in an undescribed language for translation. Often there is just a phrase, or part of a story, that resonates with a previous experience and sculpts a partial memory into something new.
But this explanation claims too much high ground. Sometimes I just like to noodle around with words and phrases about a topic until something comes together with its own rhythm, rhyme, and silence. It feels good to distill.
By Douglas Landon Hester, an anesthesiologist whose academic work focuses on airway management and resident education
I suspect I’m a poet and a physician for the same reasons. In both, small details define major issues. In both, precision matters. In both, the right word in the right way can help someone. In both, I believe I’m using talents as a steward. In both, there is a wonderful tension between science and art.
In both, relationships are ultimately the bottom line. Whether I am offering a specific drug or procedure or I am trying to connect with a reader I have never met, it is the common humanity between us that allows me to be a physician and a poet.
Medicine and poetry are, for me, about people. I’m blessed to do both.
By Irene Planchard Mathieu, a writer and medical student at Vanderbilt University
Being a medical poet has often meant poetic isolation, immersed as I am in the intense educational world of medicine. I have felt very isolated jotting down lines between patients during busy days in the hospital or writing in my apartment after long nights of studying. Last summer, I had the opportunity to attend my first poetry workshop, a two-week immersive experience in Rhode Island. It was like opening the door to the little closet in which I’ve been writing alone and seeing that my small room is part of a sprawling, underground mansion where so many beautiful souls live, each one in a different room, who decorate the mansion’s rock walls with studded jewels and feathers and scraps of cloth.
On the last night of workshop a fellow poet asked me about the parallels between medicine and poetry. I began with the response that I have explicated elsewhere, but as I spoke I realized that my answer had evolved significantly as a result of the past two weeks. It isn’t just that poetry and medicine both offer a window into the totality of human experience, an intimacy with the human condition that few other professions offer.
Just as there are an “art and science” of medicine, there are both art and science in poetics. I often describe the role of science in medicine as analogous to the role of language in human communication. The point of learning another language usually isn’t simply for the love of language itself (although certainly that love is real and important and can be part of the motivation). Usually the primary purpose of mastering language is for communication, just as a deep understanding of science allows us to use medicine in the service of other people. The memorization of medications and amino acids does not a competent physician make. But this fund of knowledge is the language we use to navigate disease and to describe health and illness. Similarly, strong vocabulary, understanding of literary symbols and devices, and grammatical knowledge are the tools of meaning-making in poetics.
There are systematic ways to approach reading and writing poetry. I can dissect a poem in order to understand or edit it. There is basic anatomy that must be grasped before we can understand poetry or create great work. In poetry, anatomy consists of form, literary devices, symbols, and metaphors. These and other components provide the framework for the poem’s content. As physicians, we must understand the parts of our patients’ bodies – how individuals’ organs do or don’t function, what is “normal” for each person. But we also must remember that a person is not simply her or his body. A person has a body. Who a person is is analogous the content of the poem.
In medicine and poetry, in order to break the rules effectively we have to learn them thoroughly. Learning medicine in a classroom and practicing medicine in a clinic or hospital are two very different things. In the classroom we learn basic rules, mechanisms, and protocols. But rarely do patients fit our textbook definitions. And when they do, their diseases rarely occur in isolation. In clinical settings we have to account for patients’ other ailments and medications, medical history, age, sex, body weight/size, psychosocial conditions, values and goals, etc. Given this, what are the chances that we can do exactly the same thing the same way for every patient with ostensibly the “same” disease? Good physicians learn the textbook rules so they can understand when and how to adapt the knowledge to individual circumstances. Good poets learn the rules of poetry – about structure, form, use of literary devices, grammar – before they can break them to great effect.
Poetry and medicine are both a practice. They must be done consistently to be done well and require lifelong learning. In order to become a better poet you have to become a better reader. In order to improve as a doctor, you have to keep studying and learning about developments in the field. This is the duty of the committed poet or physician. It’s one aspect of professionalism. Professionalism also requires love of the field – a commitment to the evolution of scientific knowledge or of poetics. It requires being a team player – as a medical colleague, an editor, or a mentor to trainees in medicine and in poetry. It requires integrity; in both fields, this means checking our egos frequently and thoroughly.
Of course, poetry and medicine have many differences. I do believe poems have the power to heal and that poetry can be a matter of life and death; why else would so many brutal governing regimes around the world exile prominent poets time and again? Why else would words be censored in times of unrest? But poems are not people. Art imitates life, or vice versa, but art isn’t synonymous with life, and relating to patients is a completely different experience from relating to poems. While I have spent the last several years learning how to do the former, my poetry workshop was an intense course on how to do the latter. For a physician, patients must always come first. For me, poetry happens to come second. I believe the discipline, objective analysis, commitment, integrity, and heart required in each field can fortify my practice of the other.
You’re a doctor. What is this poetry-writing thing? People wonder, though are usually too polite to put the question quite so baldly. Poetry? A pretty pointless way to spend one’s time, isn’t it? Shouldn’t you be out saving lives? Or something?
What good, really, is a song, or a painting? Why pick a blue-glazed platter when a cheap plastic one will do? All I can really say is that beauty, arranging things in an interesting way, creating useful or intriguing patterns, is simply something humans do, an essential part of being who we are.
As physicians, we are extraordinarily privileged, instantly taken into the lives of patients, their friends and families, often in very sad and tragic times. We see human bodies, inside and out, and hear how people make do, how they tell their stories, how they cope—or don’t—with loneliness or disability. We have our own stories to tell, inside the hospital and at home, living in this brilliant and fractious world.
So why do doctors do creative stuff? Because that’s what human beings do, and, lord knows, we have a lot to be creative about. So why poetry? Well, for no good reason. I just like words, the jangling sounds and rhythm of words, the meanings we stretch between them. I just do.