By Todd R. Nelson
“Poetry,” said Elizabeth Alexander, Mellon Foundation president, has an “under-recognized ability to communicate with outsized power.” Amanda Gorman’s poem written for Joe Biden’s inauguration, “The Hill we Climb,” confirms it. Every day needs such an inspirational fillip or thought provocation.
Alexander was announcing a $4.5 million dollar grant to the Academy of American Poets last year, which delivers a daily poem to subscribers. Nothing gives equivalent meaning like a regular diet of poetry — a daily vitamin, tonic, injection of second sight.
Poetry is balm and inspiration.
I’ve been stashing my daily poem discoveries for a long time. It’s my language pantry — provisions, a larder, nourishment. Todd’s Favorite Poems — the compendium I share with my kids each Christmas — could be an English major’s gleaning run amuck. Or, it could be a vital, soulful practice.
“Poems are companions for life,” I tell them. Only time will tell, as I share the companions that have been vital in my life.
Poets synthesize life’s beauty, joy and tribulations; distill experiences, observations and feelings. Poems are the most astute commentary on sailing all waters.
Former Poet Laureate Billy Collins said, “The history of poetry is the only surviving history we have of human emotion. It is the history of the human heart. There is no other one. Without poetry, we would be deprived of the emotional companionship of our ancestors.” Collins has been holding a daily poetry meet-up on Facebook since the start of the pandemic, like home delivery of hot soul food.
My growing anthology includes poems I’ve been harboring since high school, college and my teaching career, plus new daily additions. It is the poems I have taught, or that have taught me; that I have shared, or have been shared with me; that gave me the insight and love, truth and beauty, of which only poetry is capable.
Does this poem reward for having been read? Is it immediately valuable? Does it sound good, or feel good, or go swiftly into my memory vault? I add it in.
Each poem links to a time and place, a person or experience; a laugh, a slant of light, an inspiring thought — “Fern Hill,” “The Silken Tent,” “Feedback,” “To have told you so,” “A Wedding toast,” to name a few. My anthology is where my thinking comes from; scaffolds my world view; forms an almanac of emotional experience. Collecting turns into a life syllabus … and a syllabus for life.
On a good day, it works like this. My artist daughter shares a lithograph. It’s a leaf. It summons a poem. “You need to read ‘Year’s End,’ by Richard Wilbur,” I write. “It’s in The Anthology.” We both look it up.
Poems reenact their movement in fresh ink on paper in a daughter’s art studio off in Scotland. Poems flatten the world. Poetry pervades.
My anthology documents such encounters — new poems to me … or old friends reappearing. It is my record of harvesting emotional companionship — the poems that crossed my threshold or sailed over the transom this year.
Poetry is a practice, seeking, selecting and archiving words coming down river. There’ll be some spry turn of phrase, point of view, revelation, beauty or truth; a spark noticing the surrounding world of language in its complexity, rawness, surprise, and wonder. “Poetry is what we turn to,” said Joy Harjo, current U.S. Poet Laureate.
Good poems can make you ornery. They are irksome. They demand answers. They get under your skin. What is this reaction I’m having to the experience, emotion or rhetoric of this poet? Wry amusement is fine; guffaws too. A pretty poem will stand the test of time. But I include poems that rankle, demanding a reckoning. You’ll know when the words are working.
Paul Valéry said, “whereas a good poet sees the difficulty in the poem, a great poet makes the difficulty part of the poem.” Sure, you could have my anthology. However, it’ll mean more if you make your own. Only collect. A poem a day. Outsized power is yours. Today, I’m adding Amanda Gorman’s poem to my anthology.
Todd R. Nelson is a retired English teacher and school principal.