Surprised by Poetry


Photo by Tyson Rininger

If I were asked for a short list of my proudest professional achievements, my course Making Poetry Part of Your Life would be near the top. And the audience’s response was enormously gratifying.

“Your enthusiasm for the subject was contagious.”
“Experiencing my understanding ‘bloom’ as I grasped what these strange words meant was uniquely valuable.”
“I got chills.”
“Next time please provide tissues…it was a tearjerker several times over.”

But when I pitched the course to self-described “crusty fighter pilot” Lee Behel—he was skeptical. His exposure to poetry had consisted of the drunken recitation of limericks with his buddies in a bar. He found it hard to believe that he—adventurer, officer, man-of-action—would have something to gain from the classics.

I made this pitch having just met Lee for the first time, at the opening banquet of the conference where my course was being offered. We must have felt a mutual meeting-of-minds, because it was also in this first conversation that he told me about the love of his life. She too had been a pilot, and he had lost her to a plane crash not long before. Stoic and “crusty” as he might be, his voice cracked with emotion as he spoke of his soul mate. At that point, it became non-negotiable. He had to take my course. He did.

I can still see his face among the attendees. Once skeptical, he was now focused, riveted, moved. A man with the capacity to love as he did also had the capacity to see that love reflected, emphasized and memorialized in a great work of art.  Shortly after I returned from the conference, I received a note from him entitled, “Surprised by Delight,” a reference to his favorite among the poems I taught, Wordsworth’s Surprised by Joy. He concluded his memorable message of gratitude by saying, “Thanks for broadening my horizons.”

I was reminded of all this recently, when I learned that on September 9, 2014, Lee Behel too died in a plane crash.

The next day, I told the story of my encounter with Lee to my 8th-grade students, to pay him tribute and to illustrate through his story that classic poetry is not just for English professors with their heads in the clouds. I then shared with them the poem that so moved him. Read it here.

In this poem, the speaker feels a flash of joy, and turns eagerly to share the moment with one he loves.

Surprised by joy—impatient as the wind
I turned to share the transport…

Then he is swept with the pain of remembering that his love is gone.

…Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?

It was for love of this lost companion that he felt a keenness to share his joy. But now, remembering that she is gone, he wonders that the depth of his love allowed him ever to forget.

Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss?

That brief moment of joy is shattered by the memory that he has lost the one with whom joy is to be shared. The memory of her loss brings on a despair greater than he has ever known, aside from the devastation of the loss itself.

…That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn,
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Now read the poem in its entirety again here.

Lee had clearly seen his own pain over his lost love reflected in this poem. How many times must he have felt a longing to share his joy, only to suffer again? Wordsworth gives voice to that suffering—and to the great love that suffering of that kind presupposes.

My students listened to Lee’s story, and then to Wordsworth’s poem—and they were focused, riveted, moved. In these lines of poetry, they felt the pain of Lee’s lost love, and the loss of Lee. The experience brought several of them to tears.

The power of poetry to put our most profound emotional experiences into words is what makes it valuable universally. It can serve either to accentuate the most meaningful aspects of the reader’s life or cultivate his ability to find that meaning. I hope that poetry helps my students learn to love the way Lee did, and I hope they will learn to appreciate, as he did, the poetry that does justice to that kind of love.

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