It has been my good fortune, in this life, to live as a poet. To read poetry, to write it, to teach it. And to have found long minutes in which to sit in meditation with poetry. What does this mean?
Call it the “afterglow.”
Or, the “sublime.” When Longinus used the word “sublime,” he meant all that is noble and grand, generous and affecting.
As with love, the feeling of having read a good poem induces a certain inner radiance. The poem sinks in and transforms itself from words on a page to a deep interior shift.
Yoga teachers speak of a “rootedness.” I think that is a good word for what I am trying to describe. One feels anchored to the earth in a new way.
The Harvard scholar Helen Vendler speaks of “reflection” as a proper response to poetry. And I agree with her. Quiet reflection is how I have often responded to poetry. I like the reading of poems, and I also like the states of mind in which they leave me.
Louise Gluck, in her essay “Education of the Poet,” says, “I loved those poems that seemed so small on the page but that swelled in the mind.” Poetry, then, is a lovely fever.
Every so often, I reread Basho’s poetic travelogue “Narrow Road to the Interior,” in part to be reminded of first things – friendship, awareness, the act of putting one foot in front of the other. I read Sam Hamill’s translation, from Shambhala. His version is pared down. Each little chapter reads like a prose haiku, or tanka.
And, then, to look up from the page, and to gaze out at the muscular limbs of the pear trees that enclose my balcony – it is like taking a deep drink from a cold mountain lake. It is bracing. In the afterglow of Basho’s words, I feel at peace with the world, and a little bit moved beyond myself.
Poetry may leave us, as it did Wordsworth, amid thought “too deep for tears.” And, those just might be tears of joy!
Poetry educates the emotions, so we are freed from having to assess (drear word) or prove anything by it. The feeling that stays with us is the first important thing.
Kentucky Poet Laureate (2017-18)