The Scent of a Poem

Vacation week meant no poetry classes, but it did not mean (thankfully) that poetry went on vacation.

One evening during my holiday week, M visited. She mentioned a poem she had seen displayed recently, and which she wanted to get a copy of. The poem, she told me, was “A Wood” by Richard Wilbur. “Let’s see if we can find it,” I suggested.

M is not a poet herself. Most days she’d choose to walk in nature rather than write a poem about it. When she plans an activity for us to do together, we usually take a walk in the woods and look for signs of porcupine or bobcat, or we observe vernal pools or turn over rocks  in search of snakes. M loves tracking.

Now here we were in my house, following the scent of a poem. We went upstairs to my writing room where I have a bookcase devoted to poetry. We sat on the chaise and began pulling down books. M scoured the collections of Wilbur’s poems and I hit the anthologies. 

I came across “The Pardon,” about a boy, the death of his dog, and guilt. Then I found  “Mayflies,” a beautiful little poem about even littler insects that live and die all in one day, and who carry with them a song of mortality and eternity. I read it for Molly, and then she read one she found and loved.

Meanwhile, we still hadn’t found the poem she was looking for. We did however find “The Writer,” one of my all time favorites, in which the poet describes his thoughts as he stands outside the room where his daughter is banging out a story on the typewriter. It’s a poem that has the power to make me cry no matter how many times I re-read it. And so M and I continued, swapping poems, finding words, lines and stanzas that we loved, and still not finding what we were searching for.

When she takes me tracking in the woods, I’m always impressed by what a skillful guide M is. So I started feeling a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to be a more competent guide in our poetic quest. After all, it didn’t occur to me until we’d been reading aloud together for thirty minutes or so, that M was holdling Wilbur’s Collected, and that meant the piece we were seeking must be there. I swapped books with her, went more slowly over the table of contents, and quickly found it. I flipped to the page, handed the book back to M, and listened closely as she read the poem aloud. At last, our mission was accomplished.

 I’m not sure it works the same with tracking animals in the wild, but it was certainly true for me in stalking a poem: the finding was not nearly as satisfying as the search itself. On second thought, I’m sure it is.