By J.S. Porter
for Susan McCaslin
One of the most intimate poems with which I’m familiar is by the American poet William Carlos Williams. A husband addresses a wife:
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
To be intimate with a poem you need to learn it by heart. Ingest it. Metabolize it as you would with any other food. Say it to yourself over and over. My poet-friend Susan McCaslin says, “In an age when we are inundated with masses of information, taking time to memorize words we love can become a kind of spiritual practice. It takes work and patience to allow words to penetrate and rest in the heart.”
Susan says, “A poet’s words are like little perfumeries that release their essence as you reenact the process of their making. Being with the poem in this way can be a form of communion. In memorizing, there’s a sense of co-creating, a joining of your voice to the poet’s and to the voices of all those who have read the poem aloud or silently since its conception.”*
Williams’ wife left him a note one day and he turned the note into a poem. We know this because Williams’ wife Florence wrote her own poem, and published it, about what she really put on her husband’s list. Plums – what to do with them or not-to do with them—were not part of her list.
In any case, the plum poem is intimate because of its everydayness, its attention to small details, the gentle humour and the mock-heroic diction of “forgive me.” Weighty language to lay upon a small act of household thievery. The poem celebrates an endearing act of a wife –the writing of a personal note, intended for a reader-of-one—and an equally endearing act of a husband disobeying orders.
The poet reveals himself, lets himself out. He’s not afraid of making a private thing public. This kind of intimacy can be rare in love poetry, which too easily slips into idealization or romanticizing. The poem celebrates “old” love, not young love, seasoned love rather than idealized love. P.s. Williams must have liked plums. He wrote another plum poem called “To a Poor Old Woman” in which the woman munches on plums because “they taste good to her.” The phrase is repeated four times.
My daughter and I used to be able to recite a half-dozen poems together, short pieces by William Blake, Robert Frost and W.B. Yeats. I think I’m down to one now: Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” the poem my mother committed to her heart at age eight and is still a part of her memory and Irish heritage at age ninety-nine. I’d like to learn the Williams’ poem by heart as well.
In poetry, someone speaks. A voice sounds. I read for that voice, for intimate sounds in my ear. A writer who has enhanced the music of my inner voice is Dennis Lee, the former Poet Laureate of Toronto. He claps with both hands, the hand of a child, and the hand of an adult. Astonishingly over six decades, Lee has held “the slaughterhouse world” and “the luminous presence” in equipoise. The world-weary man is always open to reconstruction and rejuvenation by the child.
Dennis Lee puts joy on the page. And the line between poem and prayer often blurs, as in “A Song of Ookpik” from Nicholas Knock and Other People. The poem begins,
Ookpik, which means “snowy owl” or “Arctic owl” in Inuktitut, is associated with wisdom, which, in turn, is associated with the feminine. Why does this poem feel intimate? Because it sounds to me as if Dennis is knocking on the universe’s door, asking for companionship and guidance. It’s a deep cry from the heart masked in playfulness.
Dennis Lee writes songs of innocence and songs of experience, songs of summer and winter, and songs in-between. I want to pull a Holden Caulfield, a trick by that cheeky narrator in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and phone Lee up one day and say, “Hey, Dennis, it’s John. I want you to meet my youngest grandson. His name is Blake. His mother is a reader and writer of poetry. With a name like Blake, how could he not love your work?”
To steal a phrase from Hemingway, “a moveable feast” is what reading is, what books are, what poetry is. Wherever you go, you can hold what you love in your hands, or recite it in your mind.
*Susan McCaslin, “Perfumeries of Words: My Memorization Practice,” Dialogue Magazine. Ed. Janet Hicks King. Summer 2017. Vol. 30, No.4, 40-42.