|Art by Sean Eidder|
A trip to the bookstore during my high school years entailed a good stretch of time hunching over a shelf at the poetry section. Not because I enjoyed reading poems but because I didn’t know how to.
My long-standing love affair with poetry began as how love affairs often do: visually and with a dose of ignorance. That the lines didn’t reach the other end of the margin made me think of the poet as a rebel, defying the rules of writing we were taught to venerate. More so when I saw text arranged in unusual ways, whether syntactically or spatially on the page.
“Why cut a phrase in specific places?” I would ask myself. “How are these decisions made?” When William Carlos Williams declared, “so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow,” why had he not plainly put it in a straight line but instead delivered it as such: “so much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow”? And, while at it, where were the punctuation marks and what the hell were these things that were so dependent upon a red — not blue or white or green — wheelbarrow?
There was something about this strange order and sparseness that made me want to dive deeper both into the words and into the spaces between and around them. The poem, though it may not fill up the paper, can make it weigh more than any novel out there. A few English composition and World Literature classes later, I had a glimpse of the poem’s inner workings and, armed with new knowledge plus my friends’ and professors’ recommended titles, the trip to the bookstores (and the library, of course) became occasions to look forward to.
Somewhere, somehow, another curious but confused reader may not know where to start. I’d be the first to say I’m no expert to make a definitive guide, but here are verses from the poems that unlocked in me a passion for the craft when I first read them (and they’re best read out loud). Ezra Pound famously says literature is “news that stays news.” Each time I recall these poems (as I do now), the same sensations run through me: the shock of recognition, the rush of current in my body, and the tinge of envy right after (Wish I wrote that—).
If anyone asks you
how the perfect satisfaction
of all our sexual wanting
will look, lift your face
— “Like This” by Rumi (Book: The Essential Rumi)
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
— “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop (Book: The Complete Poems 1927-1979)
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.
— “Love is Not All (Sonnet XXX)” by Edna St. Vincent Millay (Book: Collected Poems)
Kung ibig mo akong kilalanin,
Sisirin mo ako hanggang buto,
Liparin mo ako hanggang utak,
Umilanglang ka hanggang kaluluwa—
Hubad ako room mula ulo hanggang paa.
— “Kung Ibig Mo Akong Makilala” by Elynia S. Mabanglo (Book: Mesa Para sa Isa)
Akala ko, para nang piyanong
Nasusian ang iyong kalooban
At naihagis ang susi kung saan,
Hindi na matitipa ng sino at alinman
Ang mga tekladong tuklap, naninilaw.
— “Akala Ko” by Rolando S. Tinio (Book: A Trick of Mirrors)
Six planets in her horoscope
augur well for this, her tryst:
in her hand, a glass of vin de table
(a steal at the local supermart),
her head befuddled by hope
and love, preferably a la carte.
— “Ms. Lulu Syntax at the Sexual Oyster Cafe” by Eric Gamalinda (Book: Lyrics from a Dead Language)
Only the young can be alone freely.
The time is shorter now for company,
And sitting by a lamp more often brings
Not peace, but other things.
— “Vers de Société” by Philip Larkin (Book: High Windows)
So much of the city
is our bodies. Places in us
old light still slants through to.
Places that no longer exist but are full of feeling,
like phantom limbs.
Even the city carries ruins in its heart.
Longs to be touched in places
only it remembers.
— “Phantom Limbs” by Anne Michaels (Book: The Weight of Oranges / Miner’s Pond)
“gives his opinion and then rests on it”;
he renders service when there is
no reward, and is too reclusive for
some things to seem to touch
him, not because he
has no feeling but because he has so much.
— “The Student” by Marianne Moore (Book: Complete Poems)
we’re anything brighter than even the sun
(we’re everything greater
we’re everyanything more than believe
(with a spin
alive we’re alive)
we’re wonderful one times one
— “if everything happens that can’t be done” by E.E. Cummings (Book: One Times One)
As they took him from the cross
I, the centurion, took him in my arms—
the tough lean body
of a man no longer young,
but well hung.
He was still warm.
While they prepared the tomb
I kept guard over him.
His mother and the Magdalen
had gone to fetch clean linen
to shroud his nakedness.
— “The love that dares to speak its name” by James Kirkup (Published in Gay News in 1976)
These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance
— “Some trees” by John Ashbery (Book: Some Trees)
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
— “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens (Book: The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens)
—Originally published on GIST