Poet's Notebook: Backward & Forward

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No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main…;
any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

JEANNE MEINKE
  • Jeanne Meinke

Most American males reading the above probably think, “Wow, that Hemingway guy really could write!” But women are better read than men these days, so many of them (and some men) will remember it — Meditation XVII — was written by the English poet John Donne. His birthdate’s disputed, but he died on March 31, 1631, which is one reason I’m thinking of him this week; though in truth, he’s often on my mind in any case.

The sentence quoted above, with its quadruple repetition of “man,” may irk a pure feminist, though Donne would be a tad less famous if he’d written, “No man or woman is an island, entire of himself or herself.” But Donne was speaking the language of his day; and anyone who’s read his poetry would understand that he loved women in general, and his wife Anne in passionate particular. A true and turbulent love story, Donne and Anne More married in 1601 against everyone’s wishes. In those politically and religiously dangerous days, this cost him his court appointment, and he was thrown into Fleet Prison in London, writing in a letter to her, “John Donne; Anne Donne; Un-done.” Although his brilliant eloquence (and conversion from Catholic to Anglican) led him to be pardoned, and he was later made Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, his poems remained unpublished until after his death.

None of this I knew when I was taking a class at Hamilton College from Professor Robert Rudd, also known, fondly, as Bobo. (All popular Hamilton profs had nicknames, e.g., “Digger” Graves, “Swampy” Marsh, “Shifty” Gere et al.) Bobo, an elderly, distinguished scholar, had just recited from memory Shakespeare’s Sonnet #73, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold/When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/Upon those boughs which shake against the cold/Bare, ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang…,” his scratchy voice shaking with emotion. On the spot, I — a closet poet — decided to enclose two poems with the essay written for Bobo’s class. Though I loved poetry, my inexperienced teenaged self had never heard it read like that before.

In our next class, Professor Rudd returned my poems with no comment, except to print out, GO BUY THE SELECTED POEMS OF JOHN DONNE. That afternoon I found it in the college bookstore, part of the diminutive Laurel Poetry Series with muscular portraits by Richard Powers on its covers. It was the first book of poetry I’d ever bought, costing 40 cents. Of course tuition was about $600 a semester, so money back then spoke a different language, but it wasn’t long before I had the whole series. Poet Richard Wilbur, whom I’d meet much later, was the series’ general editor.

They say we always remember our first love, and the same may be true of poetry. I stayed up all night reading Donne’s poems, not clear on much of their meaning, but understanding that this was the kind of poetry I’d want to write if I knew how: smart, passionate, sexy, and witty, compressed into complex shapes and rhyme schemes. The poems were challenging, and worth the work — something I can’t say of some of the perplexing poems I try to read today.

No matter what we do or make or believe, all of us stand on the shoulders of those who went before us; life is, as a friend wrote recently, “a web of dependencies.” We dangle in the middle, thankful for those who helped us, hoping to touch some of those who come after. People, like poems, look backward and forward at the same time.

Verse hath a middle nature: heaven keeps souls,
The grave keeps bodies, verse the fame enrolls.

—from “An Anatomy of the World” by John Donne 

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