“If you can keep your head…” -Rudyard Kipling, “If”
“Have you reckoned the earth much?” -Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
“Under the pink quilted covers / I hold the pulse that counts your blood.” -Anne Sexton, “The Fortress”
In my new Poetry class, we’ve been reading Anne Sexton, Walt Whitman, and Rudyard Kipling. It’s almost the beginning of a good joke: “Three poets walk into a bar…” I can’t think of the joke, but the three of them did weave together to offer me a metaphor.
When I was fifteen, I was required to memorize Kipling’s “If.” (I had to recite it, too. Fifteen other students had already recited it, and the class was bored with listening, so I tried to rap it instead. Rudyard raps well–which isn’t surprising I suppose, for as Hamilton shows, Rap and Poetry are the same body in a different pose. Anyway, my teacher kept telling me to “slow down”). I fell in love with it. I fell in love with this strong, stoic picture of who I could be, what I could strive for. I felt Kipling’s hand on my shoulder, I saw his smile as he looked at the stars, raised a hand, and said, “Aim there.”
Whitman’s “Song of Life” overflows and overwhelms me: it is the world, all of it, running along beside and above and below and through, and I have to run to keep up. It is as expansive as oceans and as deep as night skies. It has a mountain’s roots. The first time I read it, really read it, I was walking through the fog of an Amherst night, reading by street lamps, saying the whole thing aloud in one long song. It ran off ahead of me, leaving me behind in its rush toward the world. In running forward, it found me.
Sexton’s “The Fortress” sinks down deep into a moment. She wrote it “while taking a nap with Linda,” her daughter, and the three page poem takes place while she looks at her daughter’s sleeping face. There she sees a beauty mark, and in that mark she sees the threat of illness, and then the cruelty of a world that she can’t control; and then, in the end, Sexton remembers the love that is all she can offer her daughter. The love that, given, cannot be taken away. Sexton’s poem looks down into into where she is, into now. She stands right here until she grows roots, until she becomes a stem through which life blossoms.
Kipling, Whitman, Sexton; looking up, looking out, looking down. The three are different, almost opposed, and I think I need them all. If we went to climb a mountain, we’d have to start by looking at the peak–looking at where we intended to go. Then we’d need to look at the hills ahead–look at the wide world, rich with rock and grass and opportunity, and engage with it. There is so much more than just what we intend. Then we would need to look down, see where our feet actually stand, see this place, here. See myself so I can grow into myself. In order to go anywhere, in order to grow into anything, we need to start where we are. Kipling, Whitman, Sexton; looking up towards what we hope, looking out toward all that is, looking down into our hurts, our hopes, ourselves. They’ve reminded me that I need all three, in fluid, easy sequence.
Sometimes I find my balance, not by trying to stand still, but by throwing my hands to left and right, throwing my head back, and calling to the sky.