Poems Have No Past Tense

Author: Samuel Hazo '49

“Poetry is what prose can only talk about,” a former colleague of mine mentioned to me once in passing. He was right then and now. Poetry by its nature puts the reader or listener in communion with the subject in the present tense. This makes it essentially different and better than communication. It leaves us transformed as opposed to being merely informed. It is the language of felt thought or, as the Spanish say, sentipensante (sensing/thinking). That alone makes it as necessary as breath for the simple reason that there is nothing else like it.

What 10 poems or 10 poets would I recommend as the start of a poetic education? I would begin with Shakespeare — Shakespeare of the sonnets.

Granted, his plays are essentially poetic, but Shakespeare’s persona is actually in the sonnets. There you see the Elizabethan mind at its best not only in expression but in vocabulary (Shakespeare’s active vocabulary exceeded Winston Churchill’s by thousands). Take Sonnet 94, for example. The progression in the poem is as tight as a syllogism, beginning with praise for those who keep their powers in check but warning cryptically that the corruption of the best is the worst:

“For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds./Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

My second choice would be John Donne. With due respect to his elegies, I cannot name a poet who writes with more insight about heterosexual love, both romantic and conjugal. If I had to choose examples among the songs and sonnets, I would choose his husband-to-wife masterpieces, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” and “The Ecstasie.”

Without intending to subordinate John Keats and Robert Browning, I would pick Gerard Manley Hopkins because his is poetry of the spirit that comes from a true religious sensibility. There is exultation here, but there is also poetry that wrestles with despair, as in the final or “terrible” sonnets.

My next choice would be Wilfred Owen, the Welsh poet who died in battle in World War I. I recommend his poems, particularly “Dulce et Decorum Est,” for literary as well as moral reasons. As we have become a more militaristic nation (only 22 years in our entire history have we been without war, and we have become inured to it as inevitable, including Vietnam and Iraq, both of which were illegal, undeclared and presidentially chosen) there is a spiritual need to heed poets like Owen who see war for the hell that it is where the young continue to die for the “Old Lie” that depicts wartime death (“Pro Patria mori”) as “sweet.”

Among American poets my first choice would be Robert Frost. The folksy, grandfatherly Frost as extolled by sentimentalists is not the Frost you meet in his best poems. These poems often leave us poised between ambiguity and mystery. “The Road Not Taken” ends with the lines: “And I . . . I took the road/ less travelled by/And that has made all the difference.” Most students think — and I myself thought similarly — that this line referred to Frost’s having chosen the difficult road of poetry. But the poem’s title negates that interpretation.

Finally we see that the theme relates to the choice not made — the one viewed regretfully in retrospect after the time for choosing is past. This theme of choice reveals itself in Frost’s best poems. The last lines of “Two Tramps in Mud Time” are unforgettable. “But yield who will to their separation,/My object in living is to unite/My avocation and my vocation/As my two eyes make one sight./Only where love and need are one/And the work is play for mortal stakes,/Is the deed ever really done/For Heaven and the future’s sakes.”

I also would nominate Richard Wilbur, Maxine Kumin and Linda Pastan. Wilbur, now in his 90s, remains the Mozart of Amerian poetry with the talent of a master and a feel for the muscle and music of the American language. Look long and hard and in vain for a faulty line in any of Wilbur’s poems, and you’ll see why very few of his contemporaries (and none of the lesser contemporary tiddly-winkers) come close to him. Start with his “Things of This World.”

The aforementioned Maxine Kumin and Linda Pastan write with a lyrical maturity that transcends gender. My choice from the corpus of Maxine Kumin’s collected poems would be “We Stood There Singing.” For Linda Pastan the keystone poem entitled “An Early Afterlife” reveals her cryptic but fluid style in poems about marriage and mortality.

Among poets in translation, my choice would be to begin with William Butler Yeats for various reasons. As much as I admire Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” I think he would have gone down as a lyrical poet of the Irish countryside and related mythologies if the Irish “troubles” had not transformed him into a poet of international consequence. Yeats wrote of the effect of the execution of all but one (Eamon de Valera) of the original Irish revolutionaries who occupied a Dublin Post Office as an act of defiance in a moving poem called “Easter, 1916.” The re-born Yeats stands as a prototypical model of why poets cannot stand apart from the world as they find it (or as it finds them). In a major poem called “The Second Coming,” Yeats warned that the predator in man is always slouching toward Bethlehem to be born when society begins to come apart at the seams:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” This poem and others like it prove that poetry can never be regarded as a hermetic art.

My final selection among poets whose translated words I admire (Drummond de Andrade, Szymborska, Zagajewski, Seferis and Adonis) would be Constantine Cavafy. I cite a poem of his called “Waiting for the Barbarians.” The personae in this prophetic poem are those who must have an enemy (even if they have to create one) to define and assure their identities. In this the barbarians are the feared enemy — to be opposed if possible, accommodated if necessary. Cavafy concludes the poem by suggesting that the barbarians existed only in the imagination of those who needed an enemy: “And some who have just returned from the border say/there are no barbarians any longer./And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?/They were, those people, a kind of solution.”

For those who are drawn to read one or more of these poems, I would add that they should read them aloud. Better yet, they should commit them to memory so the poems become a permanent presence for them. Maxine Kumin would require her students to memorize poems, adding that she just might be preparing them for periods of solitary confinement. Not bad advice, particularly for those unavoidable moments before sleep when we are helplessly solitary.

Samuel Hazo ’49