Last year, during the season of Lent and Easter, I read a poem each day from the collection The Heart’s Time. I loved using this as an opportunity for reflection and contemplation.
In late 2018, poking through a bookstore bargain table, I came across 365 Poems for Every Occasion, a compilation from the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day project. And I thought, why not try reading a poem every single day of the year? Though this project can be viewed online, and there are email lists and web posts of daily poetry, I find that I prefer reading poems on paper. So this little book seemed perfect.
For their Poem-a-Day email, the Academy selects one contemporary, unpublished poem each weekday and a classic poem on weekends. This collection reflects that mix, with many of the poems coming from people I’ve never heard of, and others from well-known names. All the poems fit on a single page of the small, squarish format, and there is no other information or commentary included beyond the name and birth and death date of the poet.
No monthly themes are explicitly identified, but they emerge in the reading. Many of the poems attached to January are appropriately wintry, often evoking dark, cold, or icy landscapes and soul experiences, but also new beginnings, rebirth as well as death. February focuses on poetry of love and loss. It will be fun to see what else is covered through the year.
The classic poems, I have to say, have so far been more successful for me. There have been well-loved old chestnuts, and others that I’d never come across, like this sonnet by Robinson Jeffers:
The things that one grows tired of — O, be sure
They are only foolish artificial things!
Can a bird ever tire of having wings?
And I, so long as life and sense endure,
(Or brief be they!) shall nevermore inure
My heart to the recurrence of the springs,
Of the gray dawns, the gracious evenings,
The infinite wheeling stars. A wonder pure
Must ever well within me to behold
Venus decline, or great Orion, whose belt
Is studded with three nails of burning gold,
Ascend the winter heaven. Who never felt
This wondering joy may yet be good or great:
But envy him not; he is not fortunate.
The contemporary poetry is not so much to my taste. Sometimes a line or a whole poem will speak to me, but more often I find myself annoyed by language that is either extremely flat, unmusical, and prosaic, or overly convoluted and obscure. Sometimes I think contemporary poets are simply throwing words together because they can, imagining that utterly random combinations make them appear cool and edgy.
I guess I’m old-fashioned enough to think that communication is the purpose of language. And although the meaning doesn’t have to be all on the surface, — there can be layers that I need to work for or that remain in the realm of feeling rather than intellect — if practically nothing is getting through other than random, fragmented noise, it’s not a very satisfying reading experience. It’s nice to give some new voices a chance, but I wonder if the greatness of the poets tested by time is not even more evident alongside some of these newer, weaker offerings.
Or is this horrible winter just making me surly and curmudgeonly, resistant to innovation and creativity? Let me not be too much of a stick-in-the-mud! I do appreciate the poets who work with language in original and surprising ways, but are still able to connect up with my own experience and mental landscape. So I shall keep looking for those, and letting each poem have its day. I hope to make some exciting discoveries.
Does the idea of reading a poem a day appeal to you? Have you ever tried it?