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What I Owe to Poetry

Walter Moss: Besides heightening my appreciation for nature and beauty, my college poetry course also stimulated my thinking about what kind of life I wanted to lead—an important consideration for any twenty-year-old.

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Although not a poet, I owe much to poetry. I’ve written some poems over the years, but to call oneself a poet requires more dedication to the craft—and more skill—than I have ever shown.

And yet poetry has been an important part of my life for more than a half century, ever since a required college poetry course. (Because college should help prepare us for life, and there is much more to life than just a job, I regret the decades-long trend of dropping such courses from required Basic Studies.)

Our text was Sound and Sense (1956 ed.), and I am amazed to see that more than a half century and numerous editions later it is still being published. As I skim through my old text, I see some of the poems that I still love. Since most of them and thousands more are available online at the Poetry Foundation’s site, I will not provide links to each one but hope readers will access some of them. (Some can be also be accessed on its free Poetry Mobile App for iPhone and Android, which is searchable by poet and other categories.)

One of the main benefits of reading the poems in our college text was that some of them intensified my appreciation of nature and its beauties, for example: Shakespeare’s “Spring,” Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us,” Keats’ “To Autumn,” Tennyson’s “The Eagle,” Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees,” Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” Hopkins’ “God's Grandeur” and “Pied Beauty,” Masefield’s “Sea Fever,” Sandburg’s “The Fog” and “The Harbor,” and Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Before taking my poetry class, I had been like those “us” Wordsworth described in his above-mentioned poem:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.

After my class, I felt more like poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was influenced by Wordsworth after meeting him on a trip to Europe in 1832-1833. In Emerson’s first published work, Nature (1836), he wrote: “The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. . . . Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit. The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected the wisdom of his best hour, as much as they had delighted the simplicity of his childhood. When we speak of nature in this manner, we have a distinct but most poetical sense in the mind.” During this same period he wrote, “Every natural form to the smallest, a leaf, a sunbeam, a moment of time, a drop, is related to the whole, and partakes of the beauty of the whole.” (See here for the sources of the quotes and more on Emerson.

The poets that I read taught me to see beauty all around me: in trees, the sea, and the snow; in seasons like spring and autumn; in animals like the eagle and tiger (Blake’s “Tiger”); and in people. As Hopkins wrote in “Pied Beauty”:

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced–fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

Wordsworth described the beauty of a singing young girl in his “The Solitary Reaper”:

I saw her singing at her work,
And o'er the sickle bending;—
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.

And in reading Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man,” I experienced something I have often observed since—that women seem naturally more compassionate than men. The wife Mary portrayed in the poem is beautiful because of her kindness. Many years later I came across lines in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” that I thought applied more to women than men: “that best portion of a good man’s life, / His little, nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness and of love.”

The love of nature enkindled in me by Wordsworth and other poets eventually led to more hiking and outdoor appreciation at places such as the Appalachian Trail and National Parks like Yosemite. On Russia’s Lake Baikal one night, I looked up and saw more stars in a moment than I had probably seen in all the moments of my life up to then. When our children were young, Nancy (my wife) and I often took them out to enjoy nature, and we continue to see some of our love for it reflected in their appreciation of nature’s many wonders.

This same love has led to more appreciation and enjoyment of the writings of nature-lovers like John Muir, who championed the establishment of National Parks and admired the works of Wordsworth and other poets like Emerson, Thoreau, and Robert Burns. Muir once wrote: “For everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul.” Muir also warned against “gainseekers—mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to supervisors, lumbermen, cattlemen, farmers, etc., eagerly trying to make everything dollarable.” When I was in college, there was not yet any real environmental movement, but when it began a decade later the love of nature awakened in me by poetry led me to embrace it. In 1983, I wrote in the first edition of a text on 20th century history: “The increased burning of fossil fuels might cause an increase in global temperatures, thereby possibly melting the polar ice caps, and flooding low-lying parts of the world.” For good reasons, my concerns about global warming have just escalated during the past three decades.

Besides heightening my appreciation for nature and beauty, my college poetry course also stimulated my thinking about what kind of life I wanted to lead—an important consideration for any twenty-year-old.

Besides heightening my appreciation for nature and beauty, my college poetry course also stimulated my thinking about what kind of life I wanted to lead—an important consideration for any twenty-year-old, as I stressed in an essay many years later. Sara Teasdale’s “Barter” advised “Spend all you have for loveliness, / Buy it and never count the cost,” and mentioned some examples of that loveliness—blue waves, music, “eyes that love you.” Rupert Brooke’s “The Great Lover” mentioned much of what and who he loved and hoped that he would be remembered for having loved so intensely. In his “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” Robert Frost noted that “the woods are lovely,” but that he had to move on from observing them because he had “promises to keep.” After reading such poems, I did not ask myself, “Okay now, how should I live so as to shape my life according to the values reflected in such poems?” But still they influenced me subconsciously. Yes, love and enjoy the loveliness of life. Yet, remember that life also involves duties and commitments (“promises to keep”) that may tear us away from any aesthetic enjoyments.

Love has always been one of the favorite subjects of poets, and our text contained many poems on love. And, of course, that is a subject, at least if restricted to romantic love, which most college students find of great interest. I don’t ever remember reciting Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” to any young coed, suggesting that she be more giving with her affections, but I don’t doubt that some students did. As might be expected we read some of us Shakespeare’s love poems like “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” (Sonnet 116). At the time, I probably did not fully appreciate his lines

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

But years later, after reading more of Shakespeare’s poetry and experiencing more of love, I came to appreciate that it involves much more than just that of the romantic variety and why Abraham Lincoln and so many others considered Shakespeare such a wise writer.

Other poems steered me away from expending too much time “getting and spending” (Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us”), being too conforming (Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen”), too proud (Shelly’s “Ozymandias” [recently featured in a “Breaking Bad” episode] ), or being too indecisive, or too concerned with trivia and what other people thought of me (T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”):

And indeed there will be time

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons . . . .

Poems like Thomas Hardy’s “The Man He Killed” and Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” led me to reflect on war. How strange it was to kill someone just because he was from another country upon which my nation had declared war. How false it was to repeat the cliché that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country (Dulce . . .). Only years later did I learn the circumstances of the poet (and captain) Owen’s tragic death in World War I. A machine-gun ended his life a week before the war ended at 11AM on Nov. 11, 1918. One hour later, with bells still ringing in celebration of the war’s end, his parents received the telegram informing them of their son’s death.

Numerous other poems in our text reflected upon other types of death—and on aging. There were several of Shakespeare’s poems such as “That time of year thou mayst in me behold” (Sonnet 73) and “Since brass, nor stone, nor earth.” When we read Frost’s, “Out, Out” our professor probably explained that the poet took the title from lines in Shakespeare’s Macbeth that also dealt with death. In addition to this Frost poem, our text also contained his “The Span of Life” and “Death of the Hired Man,” which reflected on aging and/or death. At least four other poems also did: “Come up from the Fields Father” (Whitman), “Mr. Flood’s Party” (E. A. Robinson), “Is My Team Ploughing” (Houseman), and “Ulysses” (Tennyson).

But being age 20, I thought little of aging and death. It was not until I was almost twice that age that I began to think of them more. As a result of a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant, I began exploring what various humanities disciplines could contribute to the study of aging and death, and I edited a work that dealt with these topics: Humanistic Perspectives on Aging: An Annotated Bibliography and Essay (1976). It contained six pages of poetry titles, and as a result I read almost all of the poems listed. Some like Tennyson’s “Ulysses” I had first read in our college poetry text—and it now became one of my favorites—but most of the poems listed I had never read until the mid-1970s. A poet who often wrote about aging was the Irishman W. B. Yeats, and it was a joy to discover these poems, as well as many of his others on different topics.

The older I get (now age 76) the more I appreciate the poets I came to know over the years, and in a recent essay on aging, I quoted or otherwise referred to the poets Auden, Wendell Berry, T. S. Eliot, Sandburg, and Tennyson. About Auden, Berry, and Sandburg, I have also written more extensively in recent years, as well as about Robert Burns, Emerson, and the great German poet Goethe. In a soon-to-be-posted essay on “Wisdom, Death, and the Transcendental,” I borrow some of the material from this present essay, but place much more emphasis on how important achieving transcendence is for older people and how poetry (e.g., Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn”) and other arts can help do so.

In writing essays, whether on love, war, or other topics, I often start out with a poetry quote, or at least mention a poet or poetic lines somewhere in the essay. I do so because a small number of lines often contain terse truth and wisdom—Robert Frost once said that a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” Marcel Proust devoted three thousand pages of his multi-volume novel In Search of Lost Time to a topic that Frost’s poem “The Span of Life” dealt with more succinctly in two lines.

The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.

It is a poem, I loved to repeat to our children and now enjoy hearing my pre-school grandson Jonny, who likes short poems, recite.

The words “enjoy hearing” remind me of another aspect of poetry—the delight of hearing lines like Coleridge’s

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Or from Poe’s “The Raven”:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping. . . .

Poetic rhythms and meter sometimes transfer easily into songs as I have discovered by applying guitar chords to such poems as John Masefield’s “Sea Fever” and “The West Wind” and Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Sometimes we can discover such poems put to music on YouTube, for example, Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Poet Gary Snyder once told TV journalist Bill Moyers that he “thought of poetry as a variety of song.”

Although I could mention many other delights of poetry, in order to exercise just a tad of the conciseness that good poets often demonstrate, I’ll mention just two more: humor and consolation. Our college text introduced me to Ogden Nash by including his “The Sea-Gull” and “The Turtle,” two poems whose humor still tickles me. Later on I came across the Nash gem “Song of the Open Road,” which subtly and concisely criticizes our capitalist consumer culture.

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I'll never see a tree at all.

Conversely, in a tragic time like the assassination of John Kennedy I found some comfort in reading two of Whitman’s poems written after Lincoln’s assassination: “O Captain, My Captain” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.” (See here for poet Gary Corseri’s recent appreciation of Kennedy and mention of the president’s praise for Robert Frost.)

walter moss

In an essay on Goethe, the poet T. S. Eliot once wrote: “All language is inadequate, but probably the language of poetry is the language most capable of communicating wisdom.” In an age which values wisdom so little these words are worth pondering.

Walter G. Moss