John Adams once said, “You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.”
In reading Marilyn McEntyre’s book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, one of the practices she commends is the reading and memorizing of poetry. In a later chapter, she writes about the delights of wordplay, including wordplay in poetry. In her chapter “Practice Poetry” she writes:
“What the discipline of poetry requires most of all is caring about words and caring for words. I do not believe we steward language well without some regular practice of poesis–reading poetry, learning some by heart, and writing–if not verse as such, at least sentences crafted with close attention to the cadence and music and the poetic devices that offer nonrational, evocative, intuitive, associative modes of understanding” (p. 145).
Reading this chapter made me realize the relative lack of poetry in my life. Apart from the Hebrew poetry of the Psalms, which I find myself regularly turning to, to give words to my prayers, I have little poetry in my life. You may notice I have not reviewed works of poetry here.
In college I first came in contact with the poetry of T. S. Eliot. As bleak as “The Wasteland” was, I felt it captured an essence of his time, and our own, in words that resonated deeply. I thrilled to the mysterious question in this stanza toward the end:
Who is the third…I wonder still?
Another memory of a poem shared was the time our Dead Theologians reading group, between books, spent a morning parsing preacher and poet George Herbert’s “Love (III),” one of many in a collection known as “The Temple.” He wrote,
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.
It left me with a deepened sense of wonder of the “Love that bade me welcome.”
There was a time when people memorized both the scriptures, and poetry, two things very akin to each other, it seems to me. There was a day when both the psalms of the Bible and the sonnets of Shakespeare were things we carried around with us, either in our pockets, or in a pocket of our minds. I wonder if it led to a different sensibility, and as McEntyre suggests, a care for words?
In researching this post, I learned that there is a Poem in Your Pocket Day each year during April, National Poetry Month. This year, it falls on April 27, 2017. I discovered that the day was initiated by the Office of the Mayor of New York City in 2002. I found this poem posted at the Mayor’s website (I’m not sure if it was from that first day):
It was plainly intended to be cut out and placed in our pockets. I wonder what would happen if this practice were adopted by more of our political leaders?
I also discovered that Everyman’s Library has a collection of more than sixty “Pocket Poets” books, allowing us to have a somewhat more durable and attractive way to carry poets in our pockets.
I wonder if it might not in fact be time for me to have some poetry in my life. Maybe some of you are further along this way than I. I would love to hear your suggestions of poems that have been life-giving to you, or at least taken you deeper into a care for words. If I receive some suggestions, I’ll post them on Poem in Your Pocket Day!