A poem is when you are in love and have the sky in your mouth.
from, This is a Poem that Heals Fish, by Jean-Pierre Simeón, translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrick.
Simeón captures the effervescent effect of a poem in her delightful exploration of poetry. We discover along with young Arthur, the book’s protagonist, the many things a poem is:
A poem is when you hear the heartbeat of a stone.
A poem is when words beat their wings.
It is a song sung in a cage.
— When you put your old sweater on backwards or inside out, dear Arthur, you might say that it is new again.
A poem turns words around, upside down, and — suddenly! — the world is new.
Good poetry accomplishes this feat in a more condensed form than prose. If you don’t have time to dive into a novel, try poetry! You will get the biggest bang for your buck, and you are likely to remember far more of what you read, especially if it rhymes, and if the meter is regular. Iambic meter, with its series of unstressed and stressed syllables , is the most memorable of all. Most of Shakespeare’s Sonnets are written in iambic meter with five “feet” to the line:
When I / do COUNT / the CLOCK / that TELLS / the TIME (Sonnet 12)
Notice the tick-TOCK metronome cadence of this little poem that uses time as a metaphor. Don’t shy away from Shakespeare. His poems (and plays) are often funny, poignant, and insightful. And his use of language is unparalleled. His sonnets are a great place to start. They’re short (14 lines). Each one takes less than a minute to read.
There are plenty of other places to explore along the paths of poetry. You might find yourself trudging with Robert W. Service through the ice and snow of the Klondike with a frozen corpse, in search of a suitable crematorium:
There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.” (from, The Cremation of Sam McGee)
Or you might walk beside those carrying the casket of Emily Dickenson through fields of buttercups, as per her request — and recall this introductory quatrain from her exquisite rumination on death:
Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
Allen Tate (poet Laureate, 1943-44) wrote of this poem that,
… this poem is one of the greatest in the English language; it is flawless to the last detail.
Or, you might discover along with little Arthur, that poetry can heal a fish.
Poetry matters because, once we welcome it into our lives, it will shatter us. It will heal us.
And it will leave us wondering why we waited so long.