At the end of Elif Batuman’s memoir The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, she writes—and I promise this won’t spoil the book should you choose to read it:
“If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.”
This may, for me, have been the best line in a book full of great lines, and I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate ending for her memoir, which weaves literary analysis with artfully crafted, incisive portraits of writers, scholars, literary landmarks, and personal experiences.
Maybe answers are possible through literature because of its ability to make us feel deeply, which in the practical world can cause pain and so we try to prevent ourselves from doing it. And literature can prompt understanding of otherness by plunging us into the other’s experience, which can also be scary and painful and thus something we may try to avoid.
Despite my deep faith in literature to prompt empathy and insight, poetry and I have never been the closest of confidantes. Lately, I’ve taken to thinking of poetry as I would an acquaintance admired from afar, that one inscrutable person who, when you speak with her or hear what he’s been doing, you’re impressed. But somehow, you can never get past the surface pleasantries when in that person’s presence.
I’m thinking about this today because it’s National Poetry Day. Out of deference to my enigmatic acquaintance and in honor of the day, I offer three personal favorites:
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost
This melancholy but beautiful poem renders an experience universal to all living things. How often can we say of eight lines that they speak to all living beings?
“This Is Just To Say” by William Carlos Williams
The first reason I fell in love with this poem is it made me laugh (though I probably shouldn’t!). Upon closer inspection, I marvel at its exquisite construction.
“13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens
For me, this evocative poem is interwoven with the experience of reading it one stanza at a time on the Wallace Stevens Walk in Hartford.
What are a few of your favorite poems for national poetry day or any day?