What was your gateway to poetry?



In the Waccamaw Journal, poet Nicky Beer wrote:

In thinking about my own gateways to poetry, I find myself restlessly considering any number of occasions throughout my life in which there was a feeling of “entering” the art. At the age of eight or so, seeing a PBS promo for a special on tigers, in which the announcer intoned the opening stanza of Blake’s “The Tyger,” the hypnotic, trochaic lilt of those lines making the very sound of my own language seem strange and dangerous. Watching an episode of Fat Albert in which a friend of “the gang’s” writes poetry shyly and embarrassedly, only to win the respect and admiration of all by the episode’s end—Who wouldn’t want that? I’d thought, seriously overestimating poetry’s power to help me ascend the elementary school social scale. My eighth grade English teacher surreptitiously loaning me her copy of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and me thrilling at the intimate, forbidden nature of the transaction (not to mention that Millay referred to cigarettes in one of her sonnets). In high school, at the poetry slam where a local tree surgeon (or “branch manager,” as he’d referred to himself) extolled his job with audacity and humor (“I am the tree man!”), and me wanting to be as joyful as him about…anything, really. Browsing the poetry section of The Strand Bookstore, overwhelmed by its volume, finding a book called Death of the Plankton Bar & Grill and buying it for the sheer weirdness of its title, loving the feeling of choosing poetry, of owning it, of being able to carry it around with me like a protective charm. That feeling again in college in a used bookstore, opening Roethke’s Collected Poems on impulse, and, when confronted with the dark traceries of music on its pages, knowing it was meant for me. The memory of being in J.D. McClatchy’s workshop, and hearing him read poetry aloud in a voice that made me think of green sea glass: lustrous, prismatic, and yet somehow opaque; I should write poems for that sound.

What I love about poetry is that there’s a perpetual feeling of entrance, of arrival; the gates of poetry through which we walk always lead to more, and we travel its blessedly purposeless labyrinth as if we’re characters in a Borges story. I think that’s why I love teaching it so much, too—to see my students passing through their own gates, seeing those early glimmerings of excitement and discovery. Though I try to put together lively lesson plans and challenging assignments, in the end, I know that the best thing I can do for a student is to put something in her hands and say “Here—read this. I think you’ll like it.” Or rather, to really say: Here is a door to all your unforgettable doors. Walk through.

What was your gateway?

Mine was a set of two faux-leather volumes of The Viking Book of Poetry of the English-Speaking World that rested among the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books that dominated my parents’ bookshelves. You can tell which of the volumes I enjoyed more; the second volume is considerably more battered. Volume 1 begins with Beowulf and ends with Robert Burns. Volume 2 takes off from their but peters out with Richard Wilbur (who was born the same year as my father). I dog-eared some pages: Thoreau, Whitman, Hopkins, Thomas. The edges of the pages with Yeats’ poems are darkened by my fingers those years ago. There is a smudge on Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” But the book itself opens flat to one poem only, “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas.  And so I give it to you here, but what you cannot see is that in my book, the last line of the poem is underlined with unsteady young hand in pencil.

Fern Hill

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
     The night above the dingle starry,
          Time let me hail and climb
     Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
          Trail with daisies and barley
     Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
     In the sun that is young once only,
          Time let me play and be 
     Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
          And the sabbath rang slowly
     In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
     And playing, lovely and watery
          And fire green as grass.
     And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
     Flying with the ricks, and the horses
          Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
     Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
          The sky gathered again
     And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
     Out of the whinnying green stable
          On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
     In the sun born over and over,
          I ran my heedless ways,
     My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
     Before the children green and golden
          Follow him out of grace,

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
     In the moon that is always rising,
          Nor that riding to sleep
     I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
          Time held me green and dying
     Though I sang in my chains like the sea.


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