Understanding poetry has been a lifelong struggle for me. For most of my life I thought I was hopeless.
In the English classes of my school days, poetry was treated like the red-headed stepchild. I gleaned that if it rhymed, it was poetry. Otherwise, it was a pretender.
Thus, limericks with their complex rhyming scheme were poetry, and some nursery rhymes made the cut. No one mentioned sonnets, haiku, epic poems. Free verse seemed prose in which the length of the lines was nearly equal, without regard to the size of sentences or phrases—as if the writer had a secret deal with the typographer.
I did notice that what was proclaimed to be poetry often had a musical quality: rhythm, flow, picturesque language, and evocative words. Since most great prose has all the same qualities, I couldn’t distinguish poetry from prose, the main difference being word count.
Over time I have found lines written by those who self-identified as poets. The lines stuck with me for the beauty of the thought within.
“Revelation must be terrible with no time left to say goodbye,” a first line of a poem by David Whyte, has stayed with me for years—because I pondered on it for so long before I got it.
Haiku combined extreme economy of words and precise choice of language to express grand visions or notions and became my only form of poetic expression.
I had never heard of Jack Gilbert, whose first book of poetry was nominated for the Pulitzer. He passed away in November 2012 at the age of 87. Luc Saunders, an associate editor of The Sun magazine, impressed with Gilbert’s obituary in The New York Times, researched further. The July 2013 Sun devotes five pages to Gilbert’s poems, plus an introduction to the man’s history and the vitality of his work.
Gilbert’s poems speared their way through my infantile understanding of poetry and left me appreciative for perhaps the very first time.
I will not soon forget “Failing and Flying,” a poem with opening line, “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.” Twenty-two unrhymed lines later, the poem concludes, “I believe Icarus was not falling as he fell, but just coming to the end of his triumph.“
And I thank Jack Gilbert for his interpretation of the Icarus myth.