It's been quite some time since a book of poetry has truly excited and inspired me, but that is exactly what occurred recently. When I got my hands on Poetry Speaks Expanded (Source Books), I immediately cracked it open and began leafing through the pages. There is something nourishing about this form of expression, especially in these days when free speech is so often compromised, if not stifled. This tome is a reminder how the human spirit is capable of finding an outlet in oppressive times, how poetry can help explain why we do what we do as a thinking people.
Equally thrilling, is the set of three audio CDs accompanying this book where Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Walt Whitman and William Butler Yeats read their works, thanks to one Thomas Edison who recorded them. Charles Osgood introduces these readings with a bit of informative background. The quality does not compare to later recordings, but the poems stand the test of time as the grainy sound of these poets' voices quiet history's shame while offering promise for tomorrow.
I was eager to hear Langston Hughes read one of my favorite poems, Mother to Son. Years ago, I recited that poem in my 9th grade English class, touched by its powerful message; never mind that I was a white adolescent girl living in upstate New York. I put on track twenty-seven, listening to Hughes' recitation, which brought me back to that classroom so long ago where I tried to impersonate a black woman's pain. Unlike me, though, Hughes didn't exaggerate any southern accent nor did he implement the same drama one young girl had for a classroom assignment. I smile to think what he would have thought had he witnessed my pathetic attempt to articulate how life was no crystal stair.
Then again, I've always considered poetry a very personal form of expression, one where readers can easily misconstrue what the poet wanted to impart, since we tend to shape the words by our own yearnings and experiences. Yet, once the poem is written and released, the poet must trust how it's received. With that in mind, from Denise Levertov to Allen Ginsberg, the poets speak for those who cannot, whether it is from fear, sadness or political suppression. Their words provide clarity. I couldn't help think about this while reading Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken a day after independent journalist Arthur Kent announced his decision to suspend reporting in order to enter politics in his home constituency of Calgary Currie. His Web site has a growing list of comments in light of his announcement, some wishing him well while others sound as though he's betrayed them. Most notably, one comment in part says, "You created this website, invited people in, and then unceremoniously stopped. I think most people are stunned by your decision. You claimed no political affiliation, then without any hints, after an ego flattering weekend, you're entering politics?"
Yet Frost, who wasn't a journalist or politician, (although his father, like Kent, was both), understood what it meant to stand at a crossroad:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth...
Certainly, in our struggle to make sense out of what we do not understand, Poetry Speaks Expanded helps on so many levels.
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