The poems that changed my life

by Blake Campbell / Arts Columnist • April 30, 2015

I look forward to the imminent end of my undergraduate career with a mix of anticipation, apprehension, and relief. And when I feel uncertain about the direction that my life will take, I turn to the poems I have fallen in love with most deeply. During the latter half of my college years—a time of great transition, loss, and isolation—poetry become vital to my daily life.  Now, as I prepare to enter what so many condescendingly refer to as “the real world,” reading or reciting my favorite poems to myself reassures me that wherever I’m living and whatever I’m doing in ten years, they will remain with me.

I am wary of relating to works of literature; too often, our culture (when it finds any value in the art at all) looks at writing as a therapeutic exercise. Poetry, in particular, sometimes feels as if it has been sentimentalized to death. Yet I take refuge in poems during times of emotional turmoil to avoid sentimentality. Great poems do not sugarcoat. They have no obligation to comfort the reader; they present crises exactly as they appear to the poet. I discovered very quickly that I preferred reading about what Elizabeth Bishop calls “the cold hard mouth / of the world” than listening to hollow reassurances that things will get better.

Below are the three poems that I turn to most often in times of sorrow and uncertainty. They especially resonate with me right now, as I end this chapter of my life, because they are all works of self-evaluation; they were all written by poets nearing the end of their lives and looking back on their careers, relationships, and lifestyles with nostalgia, regret, joy, and dignity. They provide no resolutions, only the illusion of closure, but it is their ability to exist within uncertainty (what the poet John Keats called “negative capability”) that makes them so redemptive to me.

 

“The Auroras of Autumn” 

by Wallace Stevens 

 

In my favorite of Stevens’s poems, the old poet pits his powers against the reality of his coming death. As Stevens reflects on the loss of his parents, the ambivalence of his marriage, and the costs of a solitary life devoted to art, the “frigid brilliances” of the northern lights flash across the sky to remind him of all that lies beyond the grasp of his remarkable imagination. The word “change” appears again and again over the poem’s 10 sections; its central message is that life itself is change, that our mortality defines our humanity and our place on the earth. I highly recommend that anyone interested in this poem listen to the recording of Stevens reading it at Harvard University in 1954, the year before he died; I learned “The Auroras of Autumn” primarily by ear, as Stevens’s beautifully cadenced voice draws out many of the poem’s emotional subtleties.

 

“Crusoe in England” 

by Elizabeth Bishop

Picking one Bishop poem was a challenge, as her work has been an enormous presence in my life for the better part of the year. Her modern take on Daniel Defoe’s classic Robinson Crusoe is one of the greatest poems about loneliness that I know, and consistently brings tears to my eyes when I return to it. Bishop’s version of Crusoe recounts the details of his years as a castaway with the poet’s own wry sense of humor, which serves to underscore the gravity of his situation. (“Beautiful, yes, but not much company,” he remarks of the waterspouts on his island.) Crusoe concedes that solitude was a precondition of his existence, that his “brain / bred islands.” He finds his loneliness relieved when his companion, Friday, appears on the scene, but his joy is cut short in a single heartbreaking line: “And then one day they came and took us off.” The beautifully articulated pain of finding and losing the one person who you feel completes you is what sends me back to this poem, and keeps its greatest passages echoing in my mind.

 

“The Broken Tower” by Hart Crane

Crane’s poems often defy normal logic, and his final masterpiece, composed just months before he committed suicide, is no exception; I’m still not entirely sure what he means by “Pagodas, campaniles with reveilles outleaping— / O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain!” But this poem can be enjoyed without the full unpacking of its complex metaphors or knowledge of the biographical events that inspired it. The rhetorical intensity of “The Broken Tower” astounds me each time I recite it to myself; Crane’s rhymes, rhythms, and sonic effects, not to mention his consistently brilliant verb choices, propel me through the poem. As such, the poem sounds transcendent, even in its bleakest moments:

 

And so it was I entered the broken world

To trace the visionary company of love, its voice

An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)

But not for long to hold each desperate choice.