I come to my love of poetry with a certain willful ignorance. Though I occasionally dip into books about poetic forms and conventions, I never really get very far: as I like to joke, I still can't tell a dactyl from a pterodactyl. I'm also appallingly unfamiliar with the history of poetry and the range of the poets that ever have been or are. I guess what it boils down to is that I'm part of that often (I suppose rightly so) disparaged mass of folk who don't know much about art (in this case, poetry) but do know what they like. Make of that what you will, for though I intend to continue to slowly expand my scope of poetry knowledge as I carry on with my life, I'll likely never be scholarly nor disciplined about it.
Yet I do love poetry. I love how the right combination of words -- a deceptively small set of them --- can turn your whole mind. A poem, through the power of its images, or through its sounds, or through the intoxicating synergy of both at once, can be a powerful pivot point, one that sometimes feels like a gift, sometimes like a soaring, sometimes even like a punch. A really good poem can alter you at the very moment you read it; and a great one, stored deep in an interior pocket, can change you much later.
For whatever reason, the poems of Carl Sandburg -- collectively and individually -- have long had a profound resonance for me. I love the sound of them, and reading them out loud is a joy. I also love the images, the characters, the scenery. And what I find most moving is the skill with which the poems have been assembled: they're powerful, without feeling overdone. Amazing stuff. And so it is that this year I set out to read aloud Carl Sandburg's complete poems, a little bit day by day. And though at the rate I've been going, it might take more than a year, I'm still thoroughly enjoying it.
This week I read "Onion Days." Amazing how well one knows Mrs. Gabrielle Giovannitti, Mrs. Pietro Giovannitti, and Jasper by the end of it; and how the shift at the end, from the scene itself to the looking at the scene, to the trying to comprehend it and incorporate it, is both unexpected and natural.
I also read "Population Drifts." So much we know about this woman, her ribs "with the power of the hills in them," and about her family. The information is carefully presented, like a tiny painted thumbnail portrait, and the contrast between their city immigrant life and that of the windblown plain is clear.
And "Cripple." What a movingly beautiful poem. The carefully rendered portrait of the dying man is followed by the simple glory of a sunflower, "rain-washed and dew-misted, mixed with the poppies and ranking hollyhocks," watching each and every night "the clear silent processionals of stars."
The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg sits atop my bookshelf, in its own particular spot. Perhaps you, too, will consider adding it to your collection.
And just for the record: in a dactyl v. pterodactyl grudge match, my money's on the dactyl. The pterodactyl may be bigger, but the dactyl isn't extinct.