I've only been at teaching English for forty years, but sometimes I still wonder what, really, is a poem. It may rhyme, after all, but mostly, today, not. It may have a beat, but mostly, today, not that either. There may be some rhythm to these lines for instance, but if there is I don't know how to scan it.
Shadows passed over the mesa, and I saw six eagles sail across the
valley. They rode thermals until they were almost out of sight,
then dove, and swung back in circles over my head. The air seemed
insufficient to their size--one eagle is enough to fill the sky. Two
of the birds veered toward another, and when they met, shook their
open beaks and tumbled for a moment before swinging back into
an easy glide.
Nicely described, but honestly, to me, the line breaks are almost completely arbitrary. Is there any possible reason for ending the lines where he does, other than a certain consistency of length. I don't think so. The poem is titled "Shadows Passed Over the Mesa," by Gary Young, and it appeared sometime last week in my mailbox, courtesy of Writers Almanac.
They made graceful, abrupt turns, and when they did,
the sun hit their backs like a mirror and reflected a fierce copper
flash. The sky behind them was so severe that spots of white light
began to dance in my field of vision.
Very nicely done. But is it a poem? I suppose, but what do I know?--I've only been at this for most of my life! And then, here's the end:
I don't think I could have
watched them any longer if they'd stayed, but they drifted off, with
no other purpose, it seemed, than to fly.
There. One line makes it poetry: "no other purpose, it seemed, than to fly." There's a paradox there that is, at once, both shadowy and showy, an almost shocking shift from dark to light--"no other purpose" feels like criticism, but "to fly" is unsullied praise. "To fly" is real--they're flying, after all; but it's also metaphor. The poem quite literally takes off with those two words because the line glories in its own understatement--"with no other purpose. . .than to fly"--as if any of us could ever possibly take wing and achieve that resplendent glory.
First time through, here's what the teacher thought--could he have used the word soar to end the poem? Wouldn't that have been stronger? After all, we're talking eagles here, the closest thing to royalty among Native peoples all over the continent.
But soar would have endowed the line with less irony, less understatement. Fly is commonplace; soar is poetic--and what Mr. Young is doing with the last line is making an inspiring little joke--and eagle's only real purpose is to fly after all, he says. But up there aboard the thermals above an enchanting New Mexico landscape, to fly is absolutely nothing to sneeze at, almost divine.
Every morning lately I hear our neighborhood cardinal. But yesterday, after a long and incredibly busy day, he was here in the maples, front yard, where his searing song almost made me angry because I don't have time for joy. I was jealous, too. After all, all he was doing singing, all he was up to was making music. Like those eagles above the mesa, that glorious cardinal had little purpose other than sheer beauty.
That's why those New Mexico eagles are poetry.