I had been thinking recently about my 12th-grade English teacher, Mrs. Timothy, and the poet Billy Collins. Mrs. Timothy introduced me to great poetry, and helped me learn to love it, and somewhere, Collins wrote that “everyone is born a poet, but life crushes the poetry out of you.” When I asked my children what they thought of this idea, my teenager Gray literally shouted: “I knew it!” — as if one of life’s great mysteries had finally been solved.
But how does life crush the poetry out of you? And is it even possible to keep the poetry going — to remain a poet beyond the enchanted world of childhood? Our days are filled with long “to do” lists, or as Robert Frost would say, we have “miles to go before (we) sleep, / And miles to go before (we) sleep.” Sometimes, it feels like there is scarcely time to do all that we “must do,” but I would argue that keeping the poetry alive is essential for creating a life worth living.
Keeping the poetry alive, which I interpret as living in the moment, appreciating beauty and embracing life’s opportunities, may even help us retain some of the gold of youth.
Children have a natural gift for being in the moment, noticing the small, beautiful details of life, much as poets do. The poet William Carlos Williams often described the beauty of daily life, such as when he wrote that “so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow / glazed with rain / water / beside the white / chickens.” Williams sometimes wrote short, visually rich poems, like snapshots in words, about the beauty in everyday life — moments like eating a perfect plum or seeing the flowers in bloom.
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Many of my favorite Frost poems honor the beauty of nature, too, like “The Road Not Taken,” where “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” Frost reminds us of nature’s perfection and the deep truths in life — the importance of choices, the fragility of life, the passage of time. These themes also appear in Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” In only eight, profound lines, Frost contemplates themes from the cycles of the seasons to the loss of innocence: “Nature’s first green is gold, / Her hardest hue to hold. … / So Eden sank to grief, / So dawn goes down to day. / Nothing gold can stay.” Frost encourages readers to embrace what is “green” and “gold” while we can.
But the great poets can also remind us of that danger of letting the poetry die.
Rather than seizing the moment, T.S. Eliot’s protagonist J. Alfred Prufrock took quite the opposite approach to life. Squandering time, opportunities and love, Prufrock drifted unconsciously through life, paralyzed by indecision and self-consciousness. Prufrock realizes too late that he did not live while he had the chance, and now he has “seen the moment of (his) greatness flicker.” In the conclusion of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Prufrock walks alone on the beach, filled with regret about the chances he lost by never trying. He imagines that he can “hear the mermaids singing,” yet, because of his cowardly approach to living, he knows that such creatures will never “sing to (him).”
Like Prufrock, we adults sometimes become preoccupied with the “busy-ness” of life, and we forget to notice the beauty — the poetry — in every day. Even more, we fail to embrace the golden opportunities that life hands us before those chances are eclipsed by time.
Ever since I heard that poem in Mrs. Timothy’s class about the mermaids singing, I have tried to use time well and to ensure that I became the kind of person J. Alfred was not — that is, the kind of person to whom the mermaids would sing.
Dr. Love is dean of the College of Arts at Lander University; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.