My sophomore year of college, I reluctantly enrolled in “Modern Poetry.” It was required for all English majors. Obviously. It was also the only class I had dreaded: I’d always found poetry—the kind written by real poets—to be hazy and nebulous, and had never been able to penetrate what seemed a special, secret language found in poetry.
When the class started, I learned the poetry we would study wasn’t “modern” at all, but rather a study of very un-modern poetry. The most “modern” poet on the syllabus was sixty years dead.
Okay, then, I thought. Whatever.
The point, I discovered, was to show us the progression of poetry over time, and how it influenced poets who were writing in more modern times.
So: We started with Beowulf, then made a multi-century jump to John Keats, then spent time with Ralph Waldo Emerson, then Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson, and W.B. Yeats.
Studying these greats, I finally understood. These poets! So, so good! Some of their one-liners were breathtaking, in the literal sense: I would read a line, stop, breathe, not breathe, think, and re-read. These lines, written some 200 years earlier, spoke to me. Me. A scrappy but lost college girl who was trying to manage college and a looming life.
I now recognize that I connected so thoroughly with these poets because of their simple way to encapsulate something real, something true, and something universal that everyone can understand. In fact, I now identify my connection with these poets as the beginning of my ongoing love affair with quotes.
Many—most?—people love quotes. They speak to us. They are simple, one-line zingers that capture a collective reality, something we’ve all felt or can understand. We hear a quote, and we think, Yes! We think, Someone understands. We think, See? I’m not alone.
Let’s go back to the original masters, the ones that spoke to me so many years ago from the pages of a Modern Poetry textbook.
Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.
Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.
And say my glory was I had such friends.
Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul - and sings the tunes without the words - and never stops at all.
If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain.
Forever is composed of nows.
To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.
Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
Right? Those words? Those thoughts? How something said a century ago can still apply to us, today, here, now?
I imagine these expert poets, penning these truths so long ago, with charcoal and ink-dipped pen. And still, here, today, they speak to us with their essential truths. We still share them, pin them, post them, and Tweet them. And most of all, in this modern world of ours, we learn from them.