I’d like to read more poetry. It’s not a resolution for the year, but simply something I’ve wanted to do for some time. The problem was I didn’t know where to start and my university education had inadvertently discouraged me from reading poetry. Studying quite a bit of modernist literature and criticism (such as T.S. Eliot) left me with the impression that unless I carried all of western literature under my belt, poetry was out of my reach. In fact, it nearly left me with the impression that literature in general is an impregnable fortress, entry into which should only be attempted by cranky, elitist types like the modernist writers themselves (as was my impression of them).
And so I’ve read The Great Gatsby a number of times, but with trembling hands. I am afraid of Virginia Woolf (hee hee), D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and the whole gamut of modernist writers. It also left me with a nagging concern about whether I’m “getting” what I’m reading or whether I missed something important.
But I digress.
One of my Christmas presents this year was Good Poems for Hard Times, compiled by Garrison Keillor. I will begin there. Keillor’s introduction urges the reader to forget or at least move past all the elitist stuff about poetry he or she may have picked up over the years and get on with the business of reading the poetry. And so I shall.
They’ve been good so far. This one stopped me, though:
At the Arraignment (Debra Spencer)
The courtroom walls are bare and the prisoner wears
a plastic bracelet, like in a hospital. Jesus stands beside him.
The bailiff hands the prisoner a clipboard and he puts his
thumbprint on the sheet of white paper. The judge asks,
What is your monthly income? A hundred dollars.
How do you support yourself? As a carpenter, odd jobs.
Where are you living? My friend’s garage.
What sort of vehicle do you drive? I take the bus.
How do you plead? Not guilty. The judge sets bail
and a date for the prisoner’s trial, calls for the interpreter
so he may speak to the next prisoners.
In a good month I eat, the third one tells him.
In a bad month I break the law.
The judge sighs. The prisoners
are led back to jail with a clink of chains.
Jesus goes with them. More prisoners
are brought before the judge.
Jesus returns and leans against the wall near us,
gazing around the courtroom. The interpreter reads a book.
The bailiff, weighed down by his gun, stands
with arms folded, alert and watchful.
We are only spectators, careful to speak
in low voices. We are so many. If we—make a sound,
the bailiff turns toward us, looking stern.
The judge sets bail and dates for other trials,
bringing his gavel down like a little axe.
Jesus turns to us. If you won’t help them, he says
then do this for me. Dress in silks and jewels,
and then go naked. Be stoic, and then be prodigal.
Lead exemplary lives, then go down into prison
and be bound in chains. Which of us has never broken a law?
I died for you-a desperate extravagance, even for me.
If you can’t be merciful, at least be bold.
The judge gets up to leave.
The stern bailiff cries, All rise. (Good Poems for Hard Times, pp. 28-9)
It’s not your classic poetic form, but still…
Of course, I’m still wondering if I “get” it, but that has led to pondering, which is a good thing.