Rising from bed the other morning, I could feel south Louisiana springtime settling into its familiar, tropical self. The room was slightly muggy, a hint of coming weeks when the air conditioner will have to run full tilt to keep us cool. I made coffee in the darkened kitchen, switched on a ceiling fan in the study to stir the still air, then waited for a call from Wisconsin, where bitter cold and heavy snow were predicted throughout the day.
The good folks at Wisconsin Public Radio were honoring National Poetry Month with an hour of talk on the pleasures of verse, and they’d asked if I could speak to their listeners by phone about my own experiences as a poetry reader.
Talk of snow and poetry reminded me of Robert Frost, whose “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” had introduced me to grown-up poems.
I read and memorized Frost’s popular poem in the third-grade, and decades later, its stanzas still stick in the brain:
“Whose woods these are I think I know. / His house is in the village though; / He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow. . .”
I also remember the small illustration that floated, dreamlike, above Frost’s words in the grade-school textbook: a tiny figure in a horse-drawn sleigh, his lap blanketed against the chill and loneliness of a New England winter night.
As a child of the South, I regarded snow as a lively abstraction, but in Frost’s poem, the whiteness and windiness of his native landscape became vividly real for me. I got lost, somehow, in the deep woods of imagination — so much so that when I finally marched my mind back to the desk where I was sitting, my classmates had long since closed their readers and moved on to a math lesson about multiplication.
The power of poetry, in its mix of words and music, to create such trances — to charm us like snakes from a basket with the peculiar sorcery of language — is what keeps me reading poetry as an adult.
Hearing my story, a Wisconsin radio listener called to share her own tale of transformation by poetry. Deep in despair, with no prospect of happiness on the horizon, she’d come across Emily Dickinson’s poem about hope: “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul, / And sings the tune without the words, / And never stops at all . . .”
In Dickinson’s words, the caller had found the courage and resolve to transcend her troubles. Reading more of Dickinson’s poems eventually led her to Frost, and both poets still rest on her bookshelf, continuing sources of wisdom when the world seems too weary and ragged.
But as I reminded listeners, poetry doesn’t have to be uniformly serious or earth-shaking. Both Dickinson and Frost are occasionally playful, and I enjoy reading the modern poet Billy Collins because of his wry sense of humor.
I read poems for the same reason I read anything else — for the chance to look up from a page and discover that I’ve quietly been changed by words.
Danny Heitman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org