The power of verse

Ira Lacher: “Today is not for turmoil. Today is for the tranquility.” -promoted by Laura Belin

The adulation bestowed on 22-year-old Amanda Gorman for her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” read at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, moved me to dust off my old college copy of The Norton Anthology of Poetry (third edition) to see what I’ve been missing.

I may be called a philistine for saying this, but I’ve never been a fan of poetry. Where once all literature, at least in the Western sense, was in verse, prose has become the staple of the written word for at least the last 200 years. Ernest Hemingway is reported to have said, “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”

Well-written prose is left-brain: thoughts are organized and set down to be absorbed, and acted upon. Poetry is right-brain, accomplishing the reverse, eschewing action for contemplation.

Many believe that poetry isn’t for everybody. That copy of Norton has been buried in my lowest basement bookshelf for decades, well past the point when it was required reading in my college first-year literature class. And indeed, when I hauled it out, my first instinct was to look for the poems that were easy for me to digest, then and now: “The Highwayman,” by Alfred Noyes; “Macavity: The Mystery Cat” by T. S. Eliot; “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” by Robert Frost. Those are poems that tell stories, and I could appreciate them — far more than I could poems that obscure their intent.

But the last four years, and especially in the previous year, with its overbearing onslaught of negative news, should impel all of us to forgo words as faithful renditions of reality. So I sought out advice on how to appreciate poetry, and found it in Slate, from Stephanie Vardavas: “[T]he very first thing you have to do,” she wrote, “is try to tamp down your desire for literal certainty when you encounter poetry. Just read it quietly, then read it aloud, let the words roll around in your mind for awhile, enjoy it as an artistic experience even if you can’t extract meaning from it, and don’t beat yourself up.”

So I have done below. Please don’t beat me up.

Winter 2021

In my country, a snow scrim has descended,
Devoid of bitter winds, of unmanageable drifts.
Just a curtain of calm,
Supplanting the years-long hurricane
That pummeled us with its deafening din, its hail of hate,
its smothering sky’s gargantuan grayness,
and the thunder and lightning of its venal violence.

Is it a lasting, blanketing, beguiling benevolence
Silently ceasing the sensations of the world for all time?
Or simply the storm’s eye
A calm before gale-force winds return to uproot the mighty trees
On which we have long relied to build our homes
And for shade from the relentless sun
Which shriveled the gourd under which Jonah sought comfort.  

Today, a cottony comfort of evenness upon the land.
Tomorrow?
The enervation of a cloudless cobalt sky, a brilliant sun
Reflecting off a dare-unhoped-for brightness?
Or exhaustion
Born of the endless heavy lifting of shovels against concrete

Stubborn resistance of the heavy layer that lies beneath
And the hesitation in our steps as we
navigate around black ice.

But

Today is not for turmoil.
Today is for the tranquility.

For the evenness that has banished the brownish gray leaves.
Today is for the newness.


Top photo of Ira Lacher provided by the author and published with permission.

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