Good Grief

Poetry has to me never been what I have so often heard called a problem, and that was so for the simplest of reasons: It was never presented to me as a problem until I was advanced in school, after which it was reformulated as a target of incomprehending odium by students whose insensibility had been reinforced by their “education.”  But back in the day, poetry was presented to me as the experience (not the label) of delight and wonder.  A considerable portion of my mother’s library was poetry, and an aunt recited poetry by Housman, which she had effortlessly memorized.  An uncle of mine thought nothing of citing and quoting Milton’s sonnet on his blindness—I mean Milton’s blindness, not my uncle’s, and by the way, Milton was the poet’s last name—and he was a mathematically gifted navigator in the Air Force (my uncle, I mean, not Milton).

A teenaged peer of mine revised the last line of that same poem as a new poem, “At the Buffet”: “They also wait who stand to be served.”  I heard all sorts of poems quoted and recited, Shakespeare, Lovelace, Herrick, Pope, Browning, Tennyson, Dickinson, Kipling, Eliot, and so on—this, as I said, not only from adults but also from youthful peers.  Later, I understood that poetry was in effect a mnemonic device, and that made sense.  And I began to understand that history is the story of...

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