This is a line by graveyard poet Thomas Gray (a friend of Horace Walpole, in whose former villa I coincidentally work) – it was also more recently tweeted by the Folio Society. The Folio Society preserves literary classics, by republishing them as beautiful and authentic bound editions – full of “thoughts that breathe and words that burn” and have done so over years, decades, centuries. Few of those editions contain poetry. Why? Good question. And to be honest, I don’t think there’s a definite answer to this question.
We always speak/ hear/ read about “literary classics” – and of course, everybody could come up with a fair number of them, off the top of their heads. But what about poetry – what about lyrical “classics”? For me, poetry has always been deeply personal (yes, of course, my taste in novels, too, is personal, but in a different way – let me explain). There are those poems I read with my grandma as a child, and still know by heart – Goethe’s “Gingko Bilboa”, Annette von Droste-Hülsoff’s “Brennende Liebe” (which I adored for the simple reason, that it had a Cello player in it – Cellos are cool) – I remember them for their emotional value. There are the spooky ones, I got to like as a teenager (and yes, I still like them), such as E.A. Poe’s “The Raven” or Heinrich Heine’s “Belshazzar” – I remember them because they are cool, and always good to creep people out, spontaneously. There are the funny ones, Edward Lear’s and other Limericks are just fantastic – I remember them because they’re funny and just stick with you. And, of course, there are also the ones we had to learn in school – “classics” – if you like. Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”, or rather “I wandered lonely as a cloud…”, Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee…” sonnet, Goethe’s “Erlkönig” or Heine’s “Schlesische Weber”. I remember them, because I had to (once).
I agree with Gray (whose “Elegy written in a Country Churchyard” I should probably know by heart, but don’t) – but in reverse order. Poetry is “words that burn” – into your memory – and when they do precisely that, to a large number of people – they become classics. But what makes them special, and important to us, is, when those “words that burn” turn into “thoughts that breathe” – which gives us a fifth category of poems, probably akin to the first one, I explained above: the ones you love, the personal ones, that breathe within us. Love at first sight. You love them, you maybe don’t even know why, but they stir something within you. And for me, the ultimate love at first sight-poet was Dylan Thomas – not necessarily the poet himself, his looks or his biography (which is equally fascinating, though) – but really, mainly his poetry.
In 2009, I visited the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea/Abertawe, his hometown, oblivious of the man and his poetry. I was an exchange student in Wales, I studied Literature, Swansea wasn’t exactly the most exciting place in the world, so I kind of escaped right into his arms. Part of the interactive exhibition was a digital collection of the poems read by the author himself, I clicked “Fern Hill” on the display, because it sounded cool and mysterious, and that’s when I fell in love, unexpectedly and out of the blue. The poet’s voice seemed to echo the meaning of the poem’s words – it swayed like the “apple-boughs” in the wind and lilted with the “lilting house”, and almost sang, like the youth who was “prince of the apple towns”, it was likewise “carefree” and “light”, sometimes fading, but then still brilliantly “flashing in the dark”. — And the lines remained with me, especially the final two, which cryptically also adorn the poet’s memorial stone at Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey: “Time held me green and dying, while I sang in my chains like the sea”. Words that burn, thoughts that breathe.
And that’s what poetry is about. Words that burn, and thoughts whose breath, in its insubstanciality, you cannot always grasp. So maybe it does really work Gray’s way round, as well: thoughts that breathe within you, continuously reinvigorate new ones, and new meanings; while words, that, in their staticness, burn, and will continue doing so, as long as you cherish them. I still know the words to “Gingko Bilboa”, and so does my now almost 90-year old grandmother.The poem ends with the line “Spürst du nicht an meinen Liedern, dass ich eins und doppelt bin?” (“Do you not feel in my songs, that I am one and yet of twofold nature?”) – the Gingko leaf becoming a metaphor for the twofold human nature, but also, the twofold nature of the poem itself, since it is those words, on the one hand, but also, those ideas – your thoughts, that give the poem life and meaning. And that’s why actually, you make a poem a classic, your classic, your personal favourite: you’re becoming its new home, preserving it, in a super-personal special edition, that’s yourself.
So dig out that poem you liked in school, as a teenager, the one your mum read to you, that nursery rhyme you can barely remember – and celebrate World Poetry Day by reading it again (and maybe share it – I love to getting to know new poems – hint, hint) – Happy World Poetry Day!