This is Harvard: Today I stood in line to get tickets to a poetry reading.
The guy in front of me had driven an hour from the suburbs. By the time the box office opened the line was 50 deep. A woman was first in line; she left the counter with four tickets and a giant smile.
For me poetry is like soccer — 99 percent of the time it’s boring and incomprehensible, but that 1 percent is so breathtaking and beautiful that I understand why people give it so much of their hearts. So Tuesday morning I stood in line for tickets to Seamus Heaney.
He grew up in a three-room farmhouse in Northern Ireland, the oldest of nine brothers and sisters. “It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence,” he said, “in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other.”
I don’t know how many of my favorite writers grew up in a blue-collar life or on farms, and how many grew up in cities or the ‘burbs, but I’m guessing I lean toward the people with a close relationship to dirt. So many poems I read (or try to read) are like a subway map — you have to stare and stare at the thing to figure out where you’re supposed to go.
It’s not just poetry, of course — there are so many novels and short stories and magazine pieces that are set up like the Olympic decathalon. You want to get to the point? OK, first jump these hurdles, then throw this javelin, then run around this track a few miles. You have to earn it. If the writing is entertaining enough along the way (R.I.P., David Foster Wallace), maybe I stick around. But most of the time I’m hopping off for the next train.
It’s OK to say what you mean. It’s OK to just tell a good story. If you’re a poet, it’s even OK to rhyme. Let me have some Robert Frost or Emily Dickinson or Billy Collins, who is clear and supple and wrote the funniest dog poem ever.
Give me long furrowed rows that go straight to the heart of the thing.
Speaking of which, here’s Seamus Heaney’s “Follower”:
My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full-sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.
An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck
Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.
I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back,
Dipping and rising to his plod.
I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.
I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.
That’s a poem worth standing in line for.