Good poems are instantly recognizable. They startle, shock new life into old ideas, impress on the mind patterns of beauty and truth previously unnoticed. Often, as John Keats wrote, they “strike the reader as the wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.”
Every year, birthday to birthday, I chose a poem of my year. I have been doing this since my 38th birthday so I now have forty-six of them and I am thinking of publishing in a very small edition for family and friends an anthology of these poems for my 85th birthday next year. I think they all must be good poems because they have stood the hard test of time and I like none of them less than I did at the time of choosing and some of them even more. Good poems reveal themselves fully only after many readings.
My latest poem of the year is ‘The Hero’s Journey’ by Tony Hoagland. As with all good poems it needs to be revisited often to listen again to its voice and meanings. I keep such poems in the leaves of my diary and move them on week by week so that I often re-read them and find they are never the same – though a central message of this one is clear: “the glory of the protagonist is always paid for by a lot of secondary characters.”
The Hero’s Journey
I remember the first time I looked at the spotless marble floor
of a giant hotel lobby
and understood that someone had waxed and polished it all night
and that someone else had pushed his cart of cleaning supplies
down the long air-conditioned corridors
of the Steinberg Building across the street
and emptied all two hundred and forty-three wastebaskets
stopping now and then to scrape up chewing gum
with a special flat-bladed tool
he keeps in his back pocket.
It tempered my enthusiasm for “The Collected Sonnets of Hugh
and for Kurt von Heinzelman’s “Epic of the Seekers for the Grail,”
Chapter 5, “The Trial,” in which he describes how the
“tall and fair-complexioned” knight, Gawain,
makes camp one night beside a windblown cemetery
but cannot sleep for all the voices
rising up from underground –
Let him stay out there a hundred nights, the little wonder boy,
with his thin blanket and his cold armor and his
until he understands exactly how
the glory of the protagonist is always paid for
by a lot of secondary characters.
In the morning he will wake and gallop back to safety;
he will hear his name embroidered into toasts and songs.
But now he knows there is a country he had not accounted for,
and that country has its citizens:
the one-armed baker sweeping out his shop at 4 a.m.;
soldiers fitting every horse in Prague with diapers
before the emperor’s arrival;
and that woman in the nursing home,
who has worked there for a thousand years,
taking away the bedpans,
lifting up and wiping off the soft heroic buttocks of Odysseus.
As the year passes I choose poems that especially strike me and at the end of the year I consider the folder of selections and make the award. It is never easy and that is all to the good since it means sorting out the richest from the rich, the best from the very good.
It is a good part of life to spend time with poems. In the end I have chosen ‘The Hero’s Journey’. By no means do heroes, great men, the famous, and the headliners matter most in life.