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Gates Beyond Gates

                                    Nicky Beer


“In literature, as in other spheres, every act crowns an infinite series of causes and causes an infinite series of effects.”
                              —Jorge Luis Borges


A recent study in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology explores the familiar phenomenon of walking from one room into another and forgetting what task brought you there in the first place. What’s to blame, it turns out, is the “doorway effect”; passing through a barrier from one room to another causes one’s brain to “purge” information related to the previous room, as a way of optimizing memory. I think that the experience of deep connection with poetry has a kind of reverse effect—every profound literary introduction one has holds within in it the echoes of all of one’s previous discoveries.

In thinking about my own gateways to poetry, I find myself restlessly considering any number of occasions throughout my life in which there was a feeling of “entering” the art. At the age of eight or so, seeing a PBS promo for a special on tigers, in which the announcer intoned the opening stanza of Blake’s “The Tyger,” the hypnotic, trochaic lilt of those lines making the very sound of my own language seem strange and dangerous. Watching an episode of Fat Albert in which a friend of “the gang’s” writes poetry shyly and embarrassedly, only to win the respect and admiration of all by the episode’s end—Who wouldn’t want that? I’d thought, seriously overestimating poetry's power to help me ascend the elementary school social scale. My eighth grade English teacher surreptitiously loaning me her copy of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and me thrilling at the intimate, forbidden nature of the transaction (not to mention that Millay referred to cigarettes in one of her sonnets). In high school, at the poetry slam where a local tree surgeon (or “branch manager,” as he’d referred to himself) extolled his job with audacity and humor (“I am the tree man!”), and me wanting to be as joyful as him about…anything, really. Browsing the poetry section of The Strand Bookstore, overwhelmed by its volume, finding a book called Death of the Plankton Bar & Grill and buying it for the sheer weirdness of its title, loving the feeling of choosing poetry, of owning it, of being able to carry it around with me like a protective charm. That feeling again in college in a used bookstore, opening Roethke’s Collected Poems on impulse, and, when confronted with the dark traceries of music on its pages, knowing it was meant for me. The memory of being in J.D. McClatchy's workshop, and hearing him read poetry aloud in a voice that made me think of green sea glass: lustrous, prismatic, and yet somehow opaque; I should write poems for that sound.

What I love about poetry is that there’s a perpetual feeling of entrance, of arrival; the gates of poetry through which we walk always lead to more, and we travel its blessedly purposeless labyrinth as if we’re characters in a Borges story. I think that's why I love teaching it so much, too—to see my students passing through their own gates, seeing those early glimmerings of excitement and discovery. Though I try to put together lively lesson plans and challenging assignments, in the end, I know that the best thing I can do for a student is to put something in her hands and say "Here—read this. I think you'll like it." Or rather, to really say: Here is a door to all your unforgettable doors. Walk through.


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