I’m spending most of today on planes, heading to Seattle and then SoCal for book business. Which puts me in the mood for something random.
When I was young, my mother used to take us to the library to check out huge amounts of books, every week. She had rules. We had to choose one nonfiction book, one play, one book of poetry, and one novel. The rest could be anything we wanted.
Oh, and then we had to read them.
I’m not, by nature, a poet. I’m not sure I would ever have checked out a book of poetry on my own. But when I was twelve, I picked up A Further Range–a 1937 collection by Robert Frost–and read it cover to cover.
Most of it I didn’t understand. But the words echoed. Next time we went to the library, I went digging for Frost, and found a cassette tape (REMEMBER THOSE?) of Robert Frost himself reading the poems from A Further Range.
I listened to it over, and over, and over.
For the next forty years, those poems lived in my head. Word by word, phrase by phrase, they began to sort themselves into patterns. The patterns began to intersect with the larger world.
Three poets have done this for me: Frost, W. H. Auden, and John Donne. (Yes, that’s a weird list.) But Frost was first, and remains foremost. (Perhaps because he was born American? And before you lambast me for having three men on this list, please remember that my favorite prose stylists are Edith Wharton and A. S. Byatt.)
I’ve learned three things from this.
First, it is a very good thing to read literature at a young age that is way over your head.
Second, you can say very difficult and complex things in a ridiculously simple style.
And third, poetry doesn’t work like prose. Yes; this should be blindingly obvious, but those of us who spend our working lives trying to clarify and distill and reduce ambiguity need a constant reminder.
Listen to Robert Frost read his own work. There’s nothing like it.
More about A Further Range.
The poem I remember most clearly from A Further Range: “Departmental.” Why? I’m still wondering.