This year’s season of the sun awakened a surprising appetite in me for poetry, all kinds of poetry – by those from other cultures, from other ages; romantic poetry and sacred poetry, by women and for women. In fact, I’ve read several anthologies, the latest being Norton’s Anthology of Modern Poetry, a weighty tome of nearly 2,000 pages.
I have degrees in English but in my early years my first love was fiction, not poetry. Perhaps it was all those epics like Paradise Lost, Faerie Queen, Idylls of the King that did me in. The strange words and syntax, classical allusions and lines that rhymed. I rarely, if ever, read poetry for pleasure except for the occasional foray into Kahlil Gibran or Pablo Neruda.
But this year for some reason my appetite has changed. Perhaps I have finally become old and/or wise enough to appreciate something of the soul of poetry. While fiction helps you escape life for a little while through vicariously living another’s, I think poetry can help you understand life more deeply.
One of the poets I have discovered on this journey is Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962). He was very popular in the first part of the 20th century but fell out of favor when he opposed the US participation in WWII. He lived in Carmel, one of the most beautiful coastal towns in California, and many of his poems speak of a deep appreciation of nature.
One of his recurring symbols was the hawk, a bird particularly close to my own heart as a symbol of freedom. Nearly 20 years ago when I was recovering from an illness, I learned to whistle like a hawk and discovered that they would often respond to my calling as they flew overhead.
In my reading of Jeffers I found a hawk poem that particularly moved me in its beauty and power, and although it is longer than I usually include in a post I am quoting it here in its entirety. I hope it resonates with you.
The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,
The wing trails like a banner in defeat,
No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without talons.
He stands under the oak-bush and waits
The lame feet of salvation; at night he remembers freedom
And flies in a dream, the dawns ruin it.
He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
The curs of the day come and torment him
At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head,
The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes.
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.
You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him:
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.
I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk; but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bone too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved.
We had fed him six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
Implacable arrogance. I gave him the lead gift in the twilight
What fell was relaxed,
Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.