Saturday, January 08, 2005

Ten Poems to Change Your Life by Roger Housden

A book review by Zinta Aistars

* Hardcover: 144 pages
* Publisher: Harmony, 2001
* ISBN: 0609609017
* $15.00

I need no convincing to read poetry. It is second nature to me... if not first in line. There is this quick, pointed injection of life that poetry offers that lengthier prose cannot. An image. A snap of sound. A gut punch. A sudden miracle. A flash of light. A surprise. Housden has recognized this and, with this book, presents his own miracle of found poetry to the general reader. He has chosen ten poems by ten very different authors out of ten different planes of existence (time, space, culture) and presented them here to - more than not, I think - the mostly uninitiated. Certainly these are not complex poems. No argument on their quality. They are definitely not the ten that I would choose (although one or two of them might indeed make it onto my list also)... but they don't have to be! Poetry is, after all, as personal and intimate as making love. Indeed, it is making love... the mind in the most intimate relationship with life in all its juices and flavors.

Housden's choices range from Whitman's enthused "Song of Myself" (this one would make it onto my list also)... to the simple pleasures of "Ode to My Socks" by Pablo Neruda... to the inspirational "The Journey" by Mary Oliver... to the old age reborn to new age "Zero Circle" by Rumi... to the deliciously sensual "Last Gods" by Galway Kinnell... to the always impressive "For the Anniversary of My Death" by W.S. Merwin... and more. Each poem is followed by Housden's essay elaborating his choice, the poem's effect on him, it's life-changing (at least for him) message. He kindles the poetry flame, and that is a wonderful thing.

For those who are reasonably well acquainted with poetry, there is little new here. The authors should all be familiar ones, several by now considered classics. There are Pulitzer Prize winners along with those appearing in smaller literary presses. None of that, I suspect, was part of Housden's criteria in his choices. He appears to have chosen poems for their ability to stop time, for just a moment, and cause some kind of metamorphosis, an epiphany, a momentary trembling of the earth beneath his reading feet. While a few of these choices left me unmoved, as a whole, I enjoyed the book and sharing in his perspective while keeping my own. Revisiting Whitman was a nostalgia of youthful enthusiasm, for instance. Whitman showed us that poetry need not be stodgy or stiff with rhyme and iambic pentameter. While both Neruda and Rumi left me cool, and Machado had only a mild effect... the encounter of "Last Gods" by Galway Kinnell... mm, left me purring. Never underestimate the power of the written word, indeed. Not only is it more powerful than the sword, but nothing can compete... no trash magazine, no cheap celluloid... with the eroticism of such well chosen words. Kinnell's poem evokes ripples of sensation, sweet sweet, savory, leaving all the senses tingling... but also stimulates the most erogenous zone of all: the mind. It is not shy. It is not embarrassed to be precise in its description. Yet here is a most wonderful example of the difference between erotic art... and pornography. One being of beauty, uplifting, lasting... while the other is ugly and base. One enriches while the other degrades. In his essay following the poem, Housden writes:

"...pornography divorces body from soul and turns body into a thing, which can be used like any other thing for profit in the marketplace. Pornography is a caricature of the erotic; it can only exist by demanding anonymity, and substituting fantasy for relationship. Without relationship, there is no soul. There is only sensation, for its own sake; and sensation is no more than skin deep. Sensation on its own - however orgasmic - fails to deliver the goods. To skim the surface of life ultimately leaves us on our own, and predictably, lonely. One reason we seem to be such a pleasure-hungry society is that we are habitually looking for it in all the wrong places."

As Housden says of Kinnell (and oh yes, I am looking up this poet on my next trip to the library), this slim volume of applause to poetry, its word-play and its word-ecstasy and its word-power, is one of immersion into the experience. "Great poetry," Housden says, "can alter the way we see ourselves. It can change the way we see the world... suddenly you see your own original face there; suddenly find yourself blown into a world full of awe, dread, wonder, marvel, deep sorrow, and joy.... poetry bids us... to break free from the safe strategies of the cautious mind; it calls to us, like the wild geese, from an open sky."

Whether these ten poems call to us, some of these ten, or another ten of our own choosing... poetry is an experience worthy of immersion. Housden's enthusiasm for the literary form is contagious. That enthusiasm, taken to be one's own, that understanding of the power of the word, is what can change lives.

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