When I began WWN, there was no question I’d have a special section for poetry. But, even as I planned, I knew it would most likely be the least visited part of the website. No matter. I believe in poetry with the same fervor I believe we should eat a leafy green every day. When my oldest granddaughter was about twelve, I gave her a huge book of world poetry. Only years later did I learn in a casual conversation that she doesn’t like poetry. It never crossed my mind that that could be possible.
Years ago, when I interviewed people for a living, I spent an hour talking to former President Jimmy Carter at the Carter Center in Atlanta. I’d been to the Carter Center fairly often and – back in the days before so much security – you could just walk in and wander around. But that day there were many police officers, lots of busy-looking civilians and a long line of limos, but I was waved through and walked into the building and was directed down a long hall to the room where the crew had set up for our interview. About halfway down the hall I saw two people who seemed familiar to me standing along the right wall, bracketed by a number of serious-looking individuals.
It wasn’t until I was right in front of them that I realized who they were: King Hussein and Queen Noor (Yes, she was quite beautiful). I was undone! For a split second I was tempted to curtsey. I knew better than to try to high-five them or yell out a bright ”How ya’ll doin’? I settled for a quick nod that may or may not have been returned. Reeling from this shock, I stepped into the room only to have President Carter step through the door on the opposite side of the room and, without preamble, ask, “You ready to start?” Yes is the only answer in that situation.
Thank heavens I always do my homework and, at that point in my life, had interviewed enough famous, near-famous and not-at-all famous people that I knew how to do the job, no matter how undone I felt.
As you may have gathered from his public life and personae, this ex-president is long on hard work and short on personal charm and humor. Maybe he was tired from entertaining the King and Queen, but he was not engaged and the interview felt long and sluggish to me. Our focus was on his post-presidential life as a writer and particularly on a book he’d just written about his mother, Miss Lillian. He was polite but more perfunctory than not. Not once did the light in the eyes that every interviewer hopes for go on. Finally, after I’d worn us both out and finished all my questions, almost as an afterthought I asked if he now thought of himself primarily as a writer rather than as a politician.
There was the first moment of hesitation and a sense of real thoughtfulness. He said he did now think of himself as a writer at least as much as he thought of himself as a politician. Sensing a real opening, I nearly shouted, “AND, you’re a POET!”
For the only time during the forty-five minutes we’d spent together, he smiled. He really smiled. Settling into the deepest kind of southern-speak understatement, he allowed as how he does write some poetry. Then, with a genuine bewilderment about the structure of poetry that has plagued me since I first learned that poetry has structure, I asked if he understood iambic pentameter.
He laughed! He really laughed and in what I felt was a conspiratorial tone he explained how he’d struggled to learn how poetry worked. I told him I knew just how he felt and that I remained puzzled by it. Of course this sweet exchange was not used in the final interview that aired, but it is one of my favorite professional moments.
Loving poetry is one thing; being able to write it another thing entirely. This partly explains my love for it. It remains out of my writing reach. In a few carefully chosen, honed words, a poet can speak for you; explain your deepest emotions and light up your heart. Let me use Derek Walcott’s Love after Love as an example.
The time will come when, with elation, you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror, and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat. You will love again the stranger who was your self. Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored for another, who knows you by heart. Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes, peel your own image from the mirror. Sit. Feast on your life.
"Love after Love" from COLLECTED POEMS 1948-1984 by Derek Walcott. Copyright © 1986 by Derek Walcott. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.