Thursday, April 30, 2015

How Poetry is like a Tulip Field

On Sunday I went on a five hour bike trip through the bulb fields. Our Dutch teacher suggested we go to Noordwijk, her hometown, and led the way through fields of tulips. We did a little of this last year, but we were early for the tulips so it was mostly daffodils, and hyacinths, and what we found of them we stumbled upon by accident. It was a real pleasure to have a guide who knew the way so well. She even asked her friends which intersections or roads had the best views for this particular weekend. I've been wanting to write a post about poetry, but I also really wanted to post something about these bulbs so here are some ways in which fields of tulips are like poetry.

They both show the ordinary made extraordinary.
Tulips have always been a part of spring for me. My mom has some in the garden, they're in parks, and their sweet cups of color have always made me happy but experiencing the sheer number of tulips together that you see when biking the fields this time of year is so extravagant, so impressive. They don't even seem like tulips anymore, you experience them both as the flowers, but also as enormous blocks of color filling your vision. Poetry transforms words in a similar way. Not only does poetry make us look at the world around us in a new way, it makes us look at words in a new way too. Poets make you listen to words, feel them in meter, and notice their sounds or similarities.

They are both rare.
One of the things so special about tulip fields is how easy they are to miss. Eleven months of the year, they're green or brown like any other field. It's as if they've magically transformed into something different--I feel the same way about flowering trees. Most of the year they're pretending to be normal, unassuming flora, but for a short time they're covered in pink blossoms, or maybe in the fall it turns all crimson and orange? It feels as though you've been let in on a secret to see this little glimpse of beauty. I love poetry, but I realized writing this post that I didn't bring a single book of (nondramatic) poetry with me when I came to live in Holland. Most people spend a tiny fraction of the their time reading, (even if they read literature) reading poetry.

Tulip fields and poetry are both arresting.
Especially on an overcast day, the brightness of the colors of the flowers is so arresting that it's difficult to look away. When you're biking this means you need to keep a little of your brain paying attention to your biking so you don't swerve into a ditch or another biker. If the flash of distant color hides behind a barn or warehouse, I find myself biking faster to see it reappear on the other side. Poetry feels the same way for me, I remember reading the WWI poets for the first time in high school and how those words caught me up. Wilfred Owen's description of the soldier as "guttering, choking, drowning" in the gas around him and just keeling in the horror of those words. I remember reading poems (some upsetting, some beautiful) again and again, because they drew me, captured my attention in ways that more commonplace descriptions of the same events or ideas could not.

They are both experiential.
I've been on the train going through the bulb fields this time of year, you'll see a whole train car go silent as everyone stops conversation and looks out the window. Even those glued to their phones look up to see what has got everyone's attention. Much poetry is written to be read out loud, often experienced as a group. Some of my favorite experiences of poetry have involved friends getting together and reading poems out loud. Maybe all of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets. Maybe reading the American Lit assignment in the sunshine of the quad. In a camp I worked at each camper wrote a sonnet for another camper as a means of bonding, and you really had to work hard to put together your thoughts into a strict structure. Recently in Dutch class we were listening to songs in Dutch, and Owen was so moved by the words of this particular song that he translated it out and read it to me in English. We were both a little teary eyed by the end of it.

I wish I could take everyone reading this biking through the tulip fields, but I can at least point you in the direction of some good poetry. If anyone's interested I can put together a big list of some of my favorite poems, or poems to read if you're not sure you like reading poetry, but for now I'll just leave you some Keats.

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Who are your favorite poets? Do you have a favorite poem? Write poetry yourself? I'd love to hear about it.


  1. Some poets I enjoy are George Herbert, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, and certainly Shakespeare's Sonnets. I enjoyed your comparison of poems to tulip fields. Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay" seems to fit the theme.

  2. Lovely post! I felt this connection too....when the flowers started to bloom at the Plantsoen, I took my son there after school and we read some poetry! I should do it again. Your post reminded me of this one:

    I wandered lonely as a cloud
    That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
    When all at once I saw a crowd,
    A host, of golden daffodils;
    Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
    Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

    Continuous as the stars that shine
    And twinkle on the milky way,
    They stretched in never-ending line
    Along the margin of a bay:
    Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
    Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

    The waves beside them danced; but they
    Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
    A poet could not but be gay,
    In such a jocund company:
    I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
    What wealth the show to me had brought:

    For oft, when on my couch I lie
    In vacant or in pensive mood,
    They flash upon that inward eye
    Which is the bliss of solitude;
    And then my heart with pleasure fills,
    And dances with the daffodils.


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