How many

Do you remember the classic Tootsie Pop ad with a boy and owl? The question — exactly how much effort would be needed to reach the chewy, chocolatey center — the owl leaves satisfactorily unanswered.

That’s the taste of childhood all over: the not-knowing, the sweet cloy of simple wants, the imaginary owl asleep in our boredom. That’s the taste of a poem, too.

We approximate our answers, or try to make comparisons as though we know.

All men might well dispraise

My wit and enterprise

If I esteemed a pese

Above a pearl in price,

Or judged the owl in sight

The sparhawk to excel,

Which flieth but in the night,

As all men know right well.

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey — Poems of Love and Chivalry, XXVI

Worthy of striving, worth our attention or effort, and how much of it? The poet’s invitation to taste steadily these questions, but ultimately to seek the center of ourselves, is always open, always sweet, always the right answer.

The fire it cannot freeze,

For it is not his kind;

Nor true love cannot lese

The constance of the mind.

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey — Poems of Love and Chivalry, XXVI

Maybe these 16th-century verses feel a little remote, and we ought to scoot up to the 19th. I was thinking so much of Emily Dickinson’s famous line while painting these tulip poplar blooms.

Bring me the sunset in a cup,

Reckon the morning’s flagons up

And say how many Dew,

Tell me how far the morning leaps—

Tell me what time the weaver sleeps

Who spun the breadths of blue!

Write me how many notes there be

In the new Robin’s ecstasy…

Emily Dickinson, poem #128

I wonder, and wonder again. If the Tootsie Pop ad made you want to bite into cherry-chocolate bliss, what does a poem make you want?

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