In recognition of Valentine’s Day (and in follow up to last week’s Navel Gaze), I want to spend a little time discussing poetry. Of course, being the drunken1 cynic that I am, I’m not going to waste your time or mine with an exhaustive analysis of the “roses are red, violets are blue” variety. Rather I want to talk about what poetry should do: move a man’s spirit.2
If you’ve read much of what I’ve written,3 you know that I am a major fan of Kipling’s work. And with good reason–Kipling is known as “the soldier’s poet.” His work stands the test of time (allowing for the shift in political and social sensibilities over the last hundred and twenty years), and is as relatable today to veterans of our modern “savage wars of peace” as it was when written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In simpler words: it moves a man’s spirit.
But Kipling isn’t alone in that. Generations of Irish patriots (and, unfortunately, terrorists) have thrilled to the words of Emily Lawless:
War battered dogs are we, fighters in every clime.
Fillers of trench and of grave, mockers,bemocked by time.
War dogs, hungry and grey, gnawing a naked bone.
Fighters in every clime, every cause, but our own.
And when faced with dire circumstances, who cannot find comfort in the immortal words of Dylan Thomas?
Do not go quietly into the night;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light!
Poetry can by formulaic (see e.g. the rigid structure of the haiku or the limerick), freeform, or rhyming. The structure of the poem doesn’t matter nearly as much as its success in speaking to the soul.
Unfortunately–and here is where I follow up on last week’s post–we do a really poor job of communicating the value of poetry to children. How many of us know that the current poet laureate of the United States is a man named Juan Felipe Herrera? I know that I didn’t (I had to look it up for this post). From my own childhood education I have only a dim recollection of a few words by Richard Lovelace4:
I could not love you half so much,
loved I not honor more.
Which is a shame because it’s a really moving piece about a man who feels compelled to leave his love behind to go fight one of his nation’s wars (Hmm. That rings a bell for a lot of us, doesn’t it?). The first poem I ever learned in its entirety was The Thousandth Man, and it remains one of my favorites to this day. Here are the opening and closing verses:
One man in a thousand, Solomon says,
will stick more close than a brother.
And it’s worthwhile seeking him half your days,
If you find him before the other.
Nine hundred an ninety-nine can’t bide
the shame or mocking or laughter.
But the thousandth man will stand by your side,
to the gallows foot–and after!
And folks I challenge you to find a more stirring story than you’ll discover in “The Ballad of Both Da Thone” (another of Kipling’s contributions).
So on this Valentine’s Day, I beseech you to turn away from Twitter and Snapchat and Facebook for just long enough to pick a favorite of your own. Find just one poem that speaks to your very soul.
I think you’ll find your life all the richer for it.
1 To be clear, I am a drunk not an “alcoholic”; “alcoholics” go to meetings.
2 Yes, that’s a plug for Blood Debt. I’m shameless. It goes along with the drinking.
3 “Man’s” being shorthand for “Human’s.” If you want more politically correct language, I fear you’re reading the wrong blog.
4 From To Lucasta, going to the Wars, written in 1649