Poetry is a little goat that followed me

Last day of National Poetry Month. I’ve been neglectful of it this year, especially considering how much I owe to it, how much my soul needs it.

I don’t exactly remember how I came to love poetry, how I decided to give it another try after it left me cold in school. Somehow I just wanted to like poetry. What I remember is going to the library and pulling down as many poetry books as my arms could carry, pretty much based on the spine of the book and a few names I could recognize. Then I’d sit down and filter through them, keeping the ten or twelve that caught my fancy and taking them home. Next visit I’d get ten or twelve more, including a few repeats. And so on.

And that’s how I came to know Cummings, Lorca, Oliver, Bukowski, Berry, Ciardi, Stevens, Simic, and a host of other new friends.

I knew I liked a poem by the feeling I had after I read it, not so much by what it said. One of my favorite poets is James Tate, precisely because he can leave me with a bemused smile after his poems even though I am not sure what I just read or what it meant. He lays out his playful absurdism in plain language and leaves me thinking “What the heck was that?!” but chuckling, gleefully disoriented. Don’t ask me to explain it to you. Just read.

It Happens Like This
by James Tate

I was outside St. Cecelia’s Rectory
smoking a cigarette when a goat appeared beside me.
It was mostly black and white, with a little reddish
brown here and there. When I started to walk away,
it followed. I was amused and delighted, but wondered
what the laws were on this kind of thing. There’s
a leash law for dogs, but what about goats? People
smiled at me and admired the goat. “It’s not my goat,”
I explained. “It’s the town’s goat. I’m just taking
my turn caring for it.” “I didn’t know we had a goat,”
one of them said. “I wonder when my turn is.” “Soon,”
I said. “Be patient. Your time is coming.” The goat
stayed by my side. It stopped when I stopped. It looked
up at me and I stared into its eyes. I felt he knew
everything essential about me. We walked on. A police-
man on his beat looked us over. “That’s a mighty
fine goat you got there,” he said, stopping to admire.
“It’s the town’s goat,” I said. “His family goes back
three-hundred years with us,” I said, “from the beginning.”
The officer leaned forward to touch him, then stopped
and looked up at me. “Mind if I pat him?” he asked.
“Touching this goat will change your life,” I said.
“It’s your decision.” He thought real hard for a minute,
and then stood up and said, “What’s his name?” “He’s
called the Prince of Peace,” I said. “God! This town
is like a fairy tale. Everywhere you turn there’s mystery
and wonder. And I’m just a child playing cops and robbers
forever. Please forgive me if I cry.” “We forgive you,
Officer,” I said. “And we understand why you, more than
anybody, should never touch the Prince.” The goat and
I walked on. It was getting dark and we were beginning
to wonder where we would spend the night.

Only poetry can do that — reach beyond the literalness of words and combine them to take you to an emotional place completely unexpected, even when you don’t understand.

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