Some poems you read once, maybe twice. You like or dislike them, you share them – or you mean to share them but never get around to it. Sooner or later – for me, lately, it’s sooner – you can’t remember much about them. The striking features you were drawn to – the metaphors that stopped you in your tracks, the music of the words, the phrases you never imagined bumping up against each other – fade from your memory, though you know you liked many of them when you first read them. You have only a vague sense of what the poem was about – An animal, I think? A duck? You have only an inkling as to the author. Female poet, early 20th-century…British? Canadian? Down the line you hear the poet’s name and it sounds familiar to you – I read something by her not too long ago and liked it. You try to find the poem in a book, but you can’t find it – Maybe it was in a book from the library. Or maybe in the New Yorker? The Threepenny Review? – so you look through old copies of your magazines, you try to track the poem down online, but it’s gone. The poem was liked but, as the salesman Willy Loman would warn us, it wasn’t well-liked.
Of course, any kind of “liked” is better than “disliked,” but a poem of that kind – forgettable – is not going down on your list of Poems to Memorize In Case of Shipwreck on a Desert Island. Imagine the circumstances of that shipwreck: all you end up with is your body and what rests securely in your mind – no boat, no matches, no clothes, no shelter, no food. no friends, no wireless connection, no social media, no phone, no pen, no paper, and no books to read. What keeps you going? I mean, besides the coconut-laden palm trees and the sun up in the blue sky, the bright turquoise water, the waves breaking on warm, white sand….Sorry, where was I? (I have an excuse – it’s winter in Seattle. Enough said.) Ah, yes. The question is this: What keeps you going?
Well, maybe, like me, you remember a few movies and much of the dialogue in them, so acting them out could keep you going for awhile. I, for one, have seen the six-part BBC production of Pride and Prejudice often enough to let it loop scene-by-scene through my head while I wait to be rescued from my island. Fiction turned into film script turned into a one-woman performance, minus an audience. Ditto quite a few Jerry Seinfeld shows, though those scripts don’t deepen or change on each re-construction.
For further entertainment, I would have a boatload of songs to sing – Beatles, Dylan, Beach Boys, Motown, Aretha Franklin, The Letterman, Tony Bennett. It’s step-by-step on this beach, and with songs I move closer to poetry; lyrics are, after all, a subset of poetry. So sooner or later – definitely sooner – the memorized poems, the well-liked poems, rise to the surface during times of stress (see: shipwreck, above.) They comfort me, make me smile, make me cry, make me wonder. They connect me with people and places I love, they challenge me to question something, they engage my imagination – and they please me on most days at least as much as fresh coconuts and a blue sky.
Pleasure. That’s what great poetry is all about, isn’t it? Especially if ambiguity resides within the circle of what you find pleasurable. You’ll do well with poetry then, because ambiguity lies at the heart of most great poems. We read and re-read; the poem stays the same, but we change, and we read with those changes exerting their new influence. What puzzles me, though, is not the what, where, when or why of pleasure but the how. How does a well-loved poem actually work on us?
To help readers answer similar questions, Mark Yakich (editor of The New Orleans Review and Professor of Creative Writing at Loyola) offered up “Reading a Poem: 20 Strategies” in the December issue of The Atlantic. His”guide for the perplexed” addresses anyone struggling to understand where the pleasure in a certain poem resides. Basically, Yakich offers up twenty modest proposals in an attempt to steer poetry-phobes away from panic and toward pleasure, with a “step-by-step guide.”
His twenty suggestions are good ones: Don’t wait for a poem to change your life, don’t force it to”relate” to your life, but do meet it on its own terms and pay close attention to how it says things; do read poems aloud, do approach them with a Buddha-like patience, don’t try to paraphrase, do look for subtleties, don’t forget the poet is not always the speaker of the poem, don’t avoid marginalia (it’s fun), do try to understand what “irony” means (it doesn’t mean disbelief), and don’t worry if you don’t understand it at first – usually, understanding comes, but reading a poem doesn’t take much time or energy, so little is lost. Meanwhile, there is potential for growth, for new thoughts or “an old thought seen anew.” In other words, what can it hurt? And it might actually help.
Of the twenty suggestions, I like #12 best: “A poem can feel like a locked safe in which the combination is hidden inside. In other words, it’s okay if you don’t understand a poem. Sometimes it takes dozens of readings to come to the slightest understanding. And sometimes understanding never comes. It’s the same with being alive: Wonder and confusion mostly prevail.”
As an experiment, let’s look at George Herbert’s Love (III) with Yakich’s suggestions in mind.
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
……….Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
……….From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
………If I lacked anything.
“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”:
………Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
………I cannot look on thee.”
.Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
…….“Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
………Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
………“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
……….So I did sit and eat.
……………………………………George Herbert (1593-1633)
It’s a poem which pleases me every time I read it. I memorized it years ago, mostly due to the last line – “So I did sit and eat.” That grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go; it has played in my head like birdsong during many odd, sexy, delicate, memorable moments of my life, none of them relating to food, none of them religious, at least, not in the institutional sense. Ditto the line “Who made the eyes but I?” And that’s what I often want from a poem – to have a line of it come to me under surprising circumstances. When I first read it at nineteen, I was in love and I liked the sexiness of the poem. Almost fifty years later, I still do. But I’m a little more aware of the pressure Love is putting on her guest.
Look at that Roman numeral in the title – “(III)”. It announces to the world that Herbert has tried before to tackle this topic and never managed to nail it down. But he’s not a quitter. He keeps trying, and don’t we all, or almost all, when it comes to figuring out love? It’s a big topic, a mighty one, so no wonder the poet keeps working at it. Pleasure from a Roman numeral? Yes.
Of course, George Herbert (1593-1633) wrote almost entirely as a religious poet, so a savvy reader might read this poem as one more of the poet’s many examinations of religious devotion. Love (I) can be read either way, and Love (II) can, too. But Love (III) – well, I don’t see or hear God in it. I prefer to think the speaker in the poem turns from Heaven to Home this time (as the Impressionist painters did – from myth to the picnic table, from Venus on a clam shell to the artist’s sister sitting at a window) and he writes a love poem to celebrate the fact that he is welcomed in.
Who does the welcoming in? It’s Love. Is she flirtatious? Gentle? Fierce? Lusty? Passionate? Tremulous? How would she have said the word “Welcome” to him when he appeared at her door? Would it have been throaty? Intimate? Whispered? Is it gestural and unvoiced – a bit of body language? After many readings, I don’t know yet, but when saying the poem aloud I can make her sound any way I imagine, as long as her voice builds up honestly to the adverb “sweetly” in Line 5. So the tone – especially for the modern reader – can be sweetly tongue in cheek, sweetly seductive, sweetly insistent, sweetly tender, sweetly concerned. It can be all of the above.
In any case, the soul of the speaker in the poem draws back from Love, since he is “guilty of dust and sin.” To be guilty of sin, that’s common. But to be “guilty of dust”? I have no real idea what the phrase means – dust as in dust-to-dust, as in mortality, the way “dust” is used in Love (I and II)? Dust as in metaphorical dustiness – age, timidity, priggishness, repression? Not knowing the answer isn’t a problem. I don’t need to understand completely, because I love the mystery of the phrase: guilty of dust.
There is something fluid to how a poem seeps into a reader – and as Yakich says, “wonder and confusion prevail.” To recall being guilty of sin under these circumstances – Love inviting you into her house to eat – certainly hints at a history of physical passion. Lady Love on the other hand is “quick-eyed” and doesn’t miss a thing, not even the fact that the speaker has gone “slack” as he enters in. Am I just imagining how embodied – how physical – this poem is? I don’t think so. Almost like a geisha, Love approaches, raises her eyes, presses herself up against the speaker – well, that’s my imagination – and asks whether he needs anything.
Frank Bidart once wrote a poem using the phrase “guilty of dust” as its title; there is no hint of religion in Bidart’s poem either, unless you believe that Fate is an aspect of religious belief. Instead, Bidart addresses a man’s many “baffled infatuations.” The voice in the speaker’s head claims with some certainty that “WHAT YOU LOVE IS YOUR FATE.” But the speaker considers “the parade of my loves” and thinks of that parade as one full of “PERFORMERS comics actors singers.” The “love and fury and guilt / and sweetness” they produce seems to be in “DIVIDED CEASELESS / REVOLT AGAINST IT.” There’s no doubt Bidart took the phrase from Herbert’s poem, and Bidart is equally nonplussed by the way love insists itself upon the choices we think we make freely.
As I begin with Herbert’s poem, I’m aware there’s a rhyme scheme, I’m aware of the meter, I’m simultaneously thinking about form and content. Those formal elements march along – left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. My English professor might have asked us to scan the poem metrically and to look up the biblical reference: Luke, Chapter 12, Verse 37: “Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.” Someone suggests the same approach for teachers at The Poetry Foundation website. So a new reader might be encouraged to read the poem with certain formalities and inspirations in mind. But six lines in to this particular poem, don’t most readers put formalities and sources aside? By the time the eyes are mentioned, aren’t we aware only of the man’s nervous breathing, his protestations about being unworthy, and the woman’s warm invitations?
In the last stanza, I’m not sure why Love asks who bears the blame, nor why the speaker offers at that point to serve. Does he mean he’ll serve the metaphorical meal? Or does he mean “I will serve,” meaning “I’ll do.” I have to engage my Buddhist-monk patience for those lines. As Yakich says in the Atlantic article, “A poem has no hidden meaning, only ‘meanings’ you’ve not yet realized are right in front of you. Discerning subtleties takes practice.” I am still trying to discern the subtleties of those lines. But then we arrive at the remarkable final couplet, ” ‘You must sit down,’ said Love, ‘and taste my meat.’ / So I did sit and eat.” Perfect ending. In the penultimate line, the first stress falls on the word “must” – she insists! – and the final stress of the line on the word “meat.” Love, in other words, is going to get her way. That man is going to sit down. He’s going to eat (the gulf between “my meat” in the biblical Book of Luke and the more suggestive “my meat” for a contemporary reader is wide and deep.)
The poem ends with a thought which allows the iambic pattern of the shorter line to fall apart, just like the man surrenders to Love – “So I did sit…..[hear the pause?]….and eat.” Following the regular iambic pattern, the line would sound like this: “So I / did SIT / and EAT.” But doesn’t that “did” beg to receive the stress? “So I / DID sit…/and EAT.” In that booby trapped space, we fall into the caesura – the long pause between “sit” and “and eat.” Formalities takes a tumble. We take a tumble. And Love triumphs.
It’s an exciting poem and, to the ear of a 21st-century reader, undeniably erotic. Whether its author meant it to be – whether his religious nerve endings vibrated to something suggestive or not – is another question, but once the poem comes into me, it belongs to me. “Love (III)” – third times a charm, George Herbert. I have the poem memorized, just in case Fate takes me to that desert island and I find a parrot or two to share it with.
Julie Larios contributes her Undersung essays to the pages of Numero Cinq, along with an occasional review and poem or two. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, an Academy of American Poets Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for inclusion in the Best American Poetry series. This is her first “Closer Look” essay for NC. A full bio and links to all reviews, poems and essays for Numero Cinq can be seen here. You can find more of her thoughts about poetry (for children and adults) at her blog, The Drift Record.