By Emma Stewart
Summer for some Johnnies is a time to take a break from heavy reading. For others, it’s a time to revisit books from the past year. Others see it as an opportunity to dig into some non-Program books. I’m in the latter group—devouring as many novels as possible before facing the fact that I have 992 pages of Don Quixote to read before the first Seminar in August.
My focus this summer has been on poetry. As an aspiring poet, there’s a lot to read before I can expect to write well, and the last semester of Sophomore Language, in which students study English poetry, left me with many questions about poetry as an art—what makes it what it is.
I’ve been reading my favorite poets: W.B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Rainer Maria Rilke, Dylan Thomas, and John Berryman, and spending some time with Wallace Stevens and Walt Whitman, whom I haven’t yet paid much attention to. These poets have diverse styles, but they all share a distinct and uncommon quality: mastery of their craft. I’m hoping to learn from them, this summer, how to master that craft myself.
There are several elements I’ve found to be crucial in an excellent poem: sound, taste, continuity, and honesty. Together, these qualities achieve something beautiful and impactful. But there’s another element I can’t yet name. It isn’t observed in the words themselves or the content itself but stands undefined in the foreground of every great poem.
A line of poetry with this quality gets stuck in your head.
I’ve had one stuck in mine for six months. It’s from Yeats’s “Brown Penny,” in which a young man asks a penny if he’s ready to fall in love. The penny tells him: “‘Go and love, go and love, young man, / If the lady be young and fair.'”
The man then says: “Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny, / I am looped in the loops of her hair.”
“Looped in the loops of her hair” isn’t outwardly very sensical. It’s not an image that’s ever come to my mind when thinking about love. But, when Yeats writes it, I understand entirely what he means, and whatever it is about the line that I understand (something intangible that I think exists at the root of what poetry is) stays with me.
I can mull over the works of these great poets, noting meter and word choice, and learn a lot from that. But what the poems won’t tell me directly is why I can’t get “Brown Penny” and many other poems out of my head.
It won’t be until Senior year that I’m given the opportunity to tackle this question in school again, so I’ll use every bit of the summer that I can, leading study groups, workshopping with friends, and reading incessantly.
Other summer reading my friends and I are doing:
Confessions by St. Augustine
Shakespeare’s collected works
The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche
The Human Stain by Philip Roth
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
Lila by Marilynne Robinson