Poetry is that which is sublime and nameless without attribution, the movement that is exceptional within the ordinary, the well of emotional intelligence that exceeds our capacity in all directions.
Poet and poem I’ll use for this entry:
“Perseus” by Robert Hayden
Her sleeping head with its great gelid mass of serpents torpidly astir burned into the mirroring shield— a scathing image dire as hated truth the mind accepts at last and festers on. I struck. The shield flashed bare.
Yet even as I lifted up the head and started from that place of gazing silences and terrored stone, I thirsted to destroy. None could have passed me then— no garland-bearing girl, no priest or staring boy—and lived.
Why do you like this poem?
The simplicity and universality of the themes of Hayden’s poem are what resonate with me. We’ve all encountered something at one point in time so terrifying that it left us paralyzed with fear. Conversely, we’ve all also slew those fears and thus fed on the rush of endorphins that accompanies this type of achievement.
Name: Cailey Rizzo Hometown: Buffalo, NY Current City: Paris Occupation: Au Pair / Freelance Journalist Age: 21
What does poetry mean to you?
Poetry is the highest art form. Correct me if I’m wrong—I really don’t think I am—but there’s something magical about elevating words (things we use every day; the most mundane, utilitarian tools; the roots of speech) to music. Putting a thought to rhythm is the most enviable skill. And, as a journalist, I sit in the corner and glower at poets for their ability to elevate my tools into art.
Poetry holds a god-like status for me. I, a mere mortal, could never handle the mythic power of a poet; I burp at the dinner table and end sentences with prepositions. But it wasn’t always like this. I learned to be afraid of poetry, to revere it as something greater than religion, and to leave it to the professionals.
The irony is that I became a published poet at five years old. The poem, called “My Furby,” appeared in a school district newsletter with a selection of other young artists’ works. I don’t remember much about the poem, but I’m pretty sure it was an intense, postmodern, lyrical examination of my relationship with my favorite toy, the eponymous My Furby. (Just disregard the fact that at the time, my mother had not yet bought me a Furby, so this poem was just degenerate self-gratification—a common theme in poetry, I would later learn.)
Fast-forward eight years to a middle school English class and the month of April. Thanks to a great teacher, I discovered Poe and Shakespeare and Yeats (it would take a few more years before I discovered the great female poets) and the joy of a rainy afternoon spent bent over a book of poetry. For years, poetry remained this hidden thing. I was passionate about scribbling my own secret rhymes into locked journals and sweating the lyrical prowess of Walt Whitman. I turned 20 and had a Bell Jar-style breakdown, interning at a Bell Jar-style magazine in a skyscraper in a Bell Jar-style Manhattan. Poetry turned into an escape. I started to examine the adult lives of adult people in tall, shiny buildings; and the crazy lives of crazy kids smoking cigarettes, leaning against walls in the outer boroughs; and how it all ends—this self-destructive behavior pattern known as “being a New Yorker.”
“We’re all killing ourselves slowly because suicide is boring,” I scrawled on the page after one particularly rowdy college party. I smiled at my clever line and sent the half-poem off to poetry reviews under a pseudonym. It was never published. But that’s not the point.
The point is that I love poetry, even if I’m no good at it. I love falling and fawning over the open pages of a poetry anthology; I love the catharsis of rhyming and rhythmitizing my thoughts. The point is that it’s possible to love something as vast as poetry without putting it on a pedestal, and without debasing yourself. I’m slowly learning that you don’t need to be a master poet to appreciate poetry, or even to write it. Publication is not the final validation. The feeling you derive from words in stanzas is much more potent. And there’s something awfully poetic about all that, isn’t there?
The Rainy Day
The day is cold, and dark, and dreary; It rains, and the wind is never weary; The vine still clings to the mouldering wall, But at every gust the dead leaves fall, And the day is dark and dreary. My life is cold, and dark, and dreary: It rains, and the wind is never weary; My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past, But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast, And the days are dark and dreary. Be still, sad heart! and cease repining; Behind the clouds is the sun still shining; Thy fate is the common fate of all, Into each life some rain must fall, Some days must be dark and dreary.
I must be upfront: this is not my favorite poem. I think it’s cheesy, heavy-handed, and obtuse. But, it was the first poem I ever loved. Longfellow’s “Rainy Day” spoke to my angst-ridden 13-year-old soul with a passion that I hadn’t yet realized I could get from art. This was the first poem I ever memorized, the one I recited to myself each day on the walk to and from the mailbox after school. “Thy fate is the common fate of all,” I would mutter to my teenage hormones, “into each life, some rain must fall.”
And to this day, reciting Longfellow’s poem—no matter how much the imagery and rhyme scheme may make my skin itch—is one of the only things that can lull me after an intense sob session. My thoughts still cling to the mouldering past, but because of this poem, I am confident that somewhere there is the sun, still shining.
Runners up (because it’s so hard to play favorites):
I think poetry is vital, and one of the most beautiful forms of communication we have. If I want to learn about other countries, other eras, even other states of mind, I go right to the poetry of the place. If a poem works, it’s a direct address from one human heart to another. I find this to be a small, daily miracle.
The best of what’s out there is not at all limited by space or time, only the lack of translations. This is why I admire literary translators and think their work is so important.
Too, I think poetry is a better teacher of history than any other method known to us. This is an idea I picked up in college as a philosophy nerd. In Aristotle’s Poetics, you’ll find this:
“Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.” - Aristotle
My favorite poet is Adrienne Rich, and my favorite poem is “A Form of Women” by Robert Creeley. (When I have the difference figured out, I’ll tell you.)
Why do you like this poet/poem?
There is an emotional intensity to this poem that gets me every time. I first read it as a youth in New York. The beauty of its romanticism, and the direct address from another human heart stopped me in my tracks. I decided to memorize it so as to have it with me always.
With age, the poem means even more to me. I understand it on levels other than the immediate poetic declaration and plea of the envoi. With the great poems, as with the best works of fiction, I think there is a sense in which we grow into them. They become part of us and help us learn what it is to live.