I’ll admit straight away that I am not a great connoisseur of poetry. At one point in college, I considered the idea of majoring in literature and had to take a poetry class. Within the first month or two, after hours and hours of deconstructing pages and pages of flowery ambiguity, I arrived at two conclusions. First, some people take poems way too seriously (I believe I mocked Emily Dickenson for being unnecessarily obtuse – I learned that day what the phrase “If looks could kill…” really means). Secondly, I realized that the key to interpreting poetry is simply to babble off incoherent nonsense, just use big words and complex sentences. A fun drinking game, no doubt, but not my idea of an intellectually stimulating curriculum.
However, not being a total philistine, there is some poetry that I do appreciate. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Fire of Drift-wood” is an aching meditation on friendship and loss.
And all that fills the hearts of friends
When first they feel, with secret pain
Their lives thenceforth have separate ends
And never can be one again
As someone who’s spent his entire life moving about, this ‘secret pain’ of two friends drifting apart is all too familiar.
I also have a soft spot for the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe. His poems can be a bit over-the-top melodramatic, but there’s a power in them. “Annabel Lee” is the ultimate angsty teenager’s ballad, over-flowing with death, darkness, jealousy, professions of undying love. “The Raven” is a brilliant depiction of how despair can drive someone utterly insane. Not to mention the wonderful rhythmic syncopation. There’s a recording out there of Christopher Walken reading this poem – his quirky vocal cadence is a perfect fit.
What I also admire about Poe is that he approached poetry with a craftsman’s sensibilities. Poems aren’t something that can be simply pulled from the ether. They require work, revision, editing, careful thought and deliberation. He documented this in his essay, “Philosophy of Composition,” which takes the reader through the entire creative process of writing “The Raven.”