Staff Poetry Favorites

Welcome back to our final installment of Staff Poetry Favorites in honor of National Poetry Month 2021. This week we look at some of our favorite poetry collections!

Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

Dearly by Margaret Atwood

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver

blud by Rachel McKibbens

The end of April is quickly approaching and thus the end of National Poetry Month. Hopefully you have been inspired to continue reading poetry throughout the year! We have a great selection of poetry on our shelves at Rocky River Public Library, and don’t forget you can access our digital shelves via OverDrive for more poetry titles from the comfort of your couch.

Staff Poetry Favorites

As we continue to celebrate National Poetry Month here at Rocky River Public Library, I’m sharing some more staff favorites with you today. Last week we heard from our Outreach Department and this week we will hear some favorite poems from some of our Adult Services Department staff.

Image from The Poetry Foundation.

The Hill We Climb

by Amanda Gorman

When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade.
We’ve braved the belly of the beast,
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,
and the norms and notions
of what just is
isn’t always just-ice.
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken,
but simply unfinished.
We the successors of a country and a time
where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one.
And yes we are far from polished.
Far from pristine.
But that doesn’t mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge a union with purpose,
to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us,
but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true,
that even as we grieved, we grew,
that even as we hurt, we hoped,
that even as we tired, we tried,
that we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat,
but because we will never again sow division.
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
and no one shall make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to our own time,
then victory won’t lie in the blade.
But in all the bridges we’ve made,
that is the promise to glade,
the hill we climb.
If only we dare.
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth,
in this faith we trust.
For while we have our eyes on the future,
history has its eyes on us.
This is the era of just redemption
we feared at its inception.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power
to author a new chapter.
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So while once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert,
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was,
but move to what shall be.
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free.
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation,
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation.
Our blunders become their burdens.
But one thing is certain,
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy,
and change our children’s birthright.
So let us leave behind a country
better than the one we were left with.
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,
we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.
We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west.
We will rise from the windswept northeast,
where our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states.
We will rise from the sunbaked south.
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover.
And every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful.
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid,
the new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

Selected by Shannon, Adult Services Librarian

Image from The Poetry Foundation.

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in)

by E.E. Cummings

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

Selected by Shannon, Adult Services Librarian

Image from The Poetry Foundation.

Good Bones

by Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Selected by Dori, Adult Services Manager

Check back next week for our final National Poetry Month post featuring a list of recommended poetry collections!

My 5 Star Top Ten List

2020 has been a year in which I read many trilogies:  Shades of Magic by Schwab, Lady Astronaut series by Kowal, Star Trek: The Janus Gate by Graf, The Broken Earth by Jemisin, and The Dam Keeper by Kondo and Tsutsumi

My top 10 list (in chronological order that I read them)

The Andromeda Evolution by Daniel H. Wilson

(A sequel to Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, which takes the thrills to the next exciting step.)

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

(What makes us the wise man of the ape species?)

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

(Each of the three books in the ongoing series so far are 5 stars in my opinion. I love the alternative history space race that is firmly rooted in real science and math.)

Blacksad written by Juan Diaz Canales with art by Juanjo Guarnido

(This is a film noir detective story with animal characters. It is a bit like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?)

A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

(The middle volume with a sort of Olympics for Magicians is the peak)

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djeli Clark

(This is a slim steampunk adventure set in Cairo by a hot speculative fiction writer.)

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

(A classic text of the ’60s Civil Rights era that is still useful for understanding current racial tensions in America.)

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

(A great start to her Hugo Award winning trilogy with a couple nice twists near the end.)

The Dam Keeper: Return from the Shadows by Robert Kondo and ‘Dice’ Tsutsumi

(Perhaps this ending of the trilogy with its community joining together is the best part.)

Citizen Illegal by Jose Olivarez

(This is a poetry book recommended by the virtual book club on this blog as a book to start the conversation about immigration.)

-Byron

Your Library Staff at Home- Our Favorite Poetry

Happy National Poetry Month from all of us at Rocky River Public Library! National Poetry Month was launched in April of 1996 by the Academy of American Poets to remind the public that poets have an integral role to play in our culture and that poetry matters. You can read more about National Poetry Month and ways to get involved here!

Below you will find some favorite poems and poetry collections curated by RRPL staff we hope you will enjoy, along with lots of links so you can explore our favorite poets from home.

Dori’s Poetry Pick: “Sorrow Is Not My Name” from Bringing the Shovel Down, by Ross Gay

You can find more of this Ohio born poet’s work on his website, in our digital library collection, and through the Poetry Foundation website.

Megan’s Poetry Pick: “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats

You can read more from Yeats, widely considered one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, through the Poetry Foundation, or choose from four of Willam Butler Yeats poetry collections in our digital collection, including some of his early poems and an audiobook.

Greg’s Poetry Picks: Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems by Danez Smith and
Bury it by Sam Sax

Read more of Smith’s award-winning poetry on his website and on the Poetry Foundation website. You can find more of Sax’s work on his website, through the Poetry Foundation site , and you can check out his debut collection of poems, Madness, from our digital library collection.

Nicole’s Poetry Pick: Blud by Rachel McKibbens

You can listen to audio performances of some of McKibbens’ poetry on her website or read some of her poetry through the Poetry Foundation.

Carol’s Poetry Pick: “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime” by William Carlos Williams

You can check out a collection of Williams’ early poems from our digital library in addition to reading more of Williams’ poetry through the Poetry Foundation.

Stacey’s Poetry Pick: “Still I Rise” from And Still I Rise: A Book of Poems by Maya Angelou

We offer quite a few of Angelou’s amazing poetry collections in our digital library, and many of her poems are available on the Poetry Foundation website.

We’ll be celebrating poetry all month long over on the library’s social media, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled for more staff favorites, book spine poetry, and more. If you want to participate, consider recording yourself reading a favorite poem and sharing it on social media! We can all #shelterinpoems while we shelter in place- thanks to the Poetry Foundation for that wonderful hashtag!

Happy 200th Birth Anniversary, Walt Whitman!

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Today, May 31, 2019,  marks the 200th (!) birth anniversary of the poetic genius Walt Whitman, who in many ways invented American poetry – which is another way of saying that, if one is writing poetry today, in America or elsewhere, Whitman is utterly inescapable, and seems to hover over any poem whatsoever as a guiding and tutelary spirit.  Whitman’s poetry, in its long rolling lines and cadences, its oceanic rhythms, its “plain” (I say “plain” in quotes because Whitman’s praised plainness is kind of deceiving; it’s really more subtle, even more hermetic, than “plain” suggests), and earthy and robust manner of addressing himself and the world – there was nothing like this before him, though afterwards and up until today his imitators (including this librarian) have been legion.  Read some poetry by Ralph Waldo Emerson, another inventor of American thought and literature, and a great influence on Whitman – these poems might be moving and/or intelligent, subtle and/or intricate; you might find the rhymes or the spiritual insights surprising or interesting; but it (Emerson’s poems – his essays are another matter) really does not touch the achievement of Whitman, who was somehow able to embed within his poems the literary DNA of a large soul, a large person, Walt Whitman, one of the roughs, barbaric yawper, containing multitudes.

I wonder today, because of this birthday, how many people out there have actually read Whitman, as opposed to hearing of him, (or perhaps not even hearing of him, alas).  These particular persons might say or think, “Okay, you’ve got my attention.  Where do I start?  What should I read?”

I am not a Whitman scholar, but the best thing about Whitman is that he speaks to all of us, and one does not have to be a scholar of literature to read and appreciate Whitman.  Here is one of my favorite Whitman quotes, from “Song of Myself,” pertaining to this:

Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

 

So, if I was asked what to read, I would suggest the 1855 “Song of Myself,” and the 1865 “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” both of which are utter masterpieces.  Here are links to both of them:

https://web.archive.org/web/20110213065239/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=Whi55LG.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=1&division=div1

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45480/when-lilacs-last-in-the-dooryard-bloomd

One of my favorite parts of the Whitman mythos is the aura that surrounds his trip to New Orleans in 1848, seven years before he self-published (and we need to think about this as well – Whitman self-published (?!) the 1855 Leaves of Grass) the first edition of his great work in 1855.  Whitman left New York as “Walter Whitman,” a hack journalist, but when he came back from New Orleans, he was different, he was “Walt.”  What happened to Whitman in New Orleans?  Some scholars have speculated that he had a transformative love affair with a man; others have argued he had some kind of life-changing spiritual experience.  We’ll probably never know what happened exactly, but there is a clear and real qualitative difference between the articles and fiction he wrote earlier in his career (Whitman wrote a serialized novel that was a potboiler about temperance; he also wrote at least around 1200 articles for many different newspapers, many about social and political issues), and the later radical experimental poetry he would dedicate his life to.  One of the most fascinating and amazing products of Whitman scholarship is the digitized manuscript drafts of some parts of the poem, where we can actually see decisions and revisions Whitman made during the process of composition (the actual original manuscript for the 1855 Leaves of Grass is lost; Whitman claimed it had been mistakenly used for a fire and burned by his printer).  Take a look at his early notebooks:

http://bailiwick.lib.uiowa.edu/whitman/index.html

My other favorite aspect of Whitman’s biography is the fact that, once the Civil War started, Whitman spent three years tending to soldiers, really like some kind of saint.  Here is an excerpt from an article about Whitman’s life during the Civil War (link to whole article is below the excerpt):

“Whitman’s routine was to rest after his office work, bathe, dress in fresh clothes, eat a good meal, and put in four to five hours touring the hospitals. He would often pack a knapsack with fruit, tobacco, paper, envelopes, and the like for individual distribution to the soldiers—materials chiefly paid for with money raised from relatives and friends. He entered the hospitals well-rested, sweet-scented, and cheerful in appearance. Though he might often break down hours after a visit, he took care to steel himself to the agonies he witnessed for as long as he was in the presence of the soldiers, to keep his spirits high. He was not so much a “wound-dresser,” as his poem of that title suggests, as a healer of the spirit, an affectionate comrade or “uncle,” whose curative abilities were nonetheless deeply respected at a time when doctor’s interventions often did more harm than good. Whitman never read his poetry to the men—in fact, he apparently never told them he was a poet—but he would recite Shakespeare or passages from the Bible. He would also hold the men’s hands, kiss them, write letters for them. Some of Whitman’s most admirable prose can be found in letters informing parents, with exquisite tact, of the exact circumstances and manner of the death of a son.”

https://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/encyclopedia/entry_8.html

I once read a famous critic claim that Whitman’s service during the Civil War killed him as a poet.  While I am not in a position to evaluate this contention, I think it’s fair to acknowledge that Whitman’s service during that time took its toll.  But what does that even mean?  The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “ethics and aesthetics are one.”  When I think about Whitman, I think about this apothegm, and I feel that Walt Whitman, more than any American poet in our storied history, really embodied this truth in his work and his life.  Today, on his 200th birth anniversary, let’s remember this great poet’s contribution to our ongoing lives, to our democracy, to our ways of thinking and feeling and imagining, to our hope, to our literature, to our dreams, and to our future.

Image result for 1855 leaves of grassWhitman’s name weirdly and mysteriously did not appear on the title page of the self-published first edition.

 

 

 

 

 

For the last day of National Poetry Month, here are three great poems

It’s the last day of National Poetry Month!  Does this mean anything?

In the grand scheme of things, I don’t really think so.  Poetry lives and breathes outside the schematics we impose on it, and National Poetry Month is just an excuse to celebrate something that cannot be contained in really any way.  But there is something – sad? significant? – about the ending of April and this month designated as poetry’s, if only because we need to say farewell to our intentional calendrical homage, and move out into May’s own vista, as poetry moves out of the national spotlight and back into the less-attention-getting situation of readers and writers (mundanely, extraordinarily) connecting.

To commemorate the ending of this poetry month, we should connect with some poems.  Here is a deservedly famous villanelle by American poet Elizabeth Bishop, titled “One Art.”

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Image result for elizabeth bishop
Elizabeth Bishop

And here is African-American poet Robert Hayden‘s unforgettable “Those Winter Sundays”:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Image result for robert hayden

Robert Hayden

And here, last but not least, is the profoundly wonderful “Adam’s Curse” by Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

 

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’
                                          And thereupon
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There’s many a one shall find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, ‘To be born woman is to know—
Although they do not talk of it at school—
That we must labour to be beautiful.’
I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.’
We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.
Image result for yeats
William Butler Yeats

Ohio Poet Stanley Plumly: 1939-2013

Image result for stanley plumly

Ever year, it is inevitable, we come across the news of the passing into elsewhere of our heroes.  We don’t know where they go, but we know that we felt blessed to have had them here when they were here.  That’s how I feel today, on hearing about the death of American poet Stanley Plumly.  He was a deep and strong and elegiac poet, who wrote remarkable poems about the natural world and the worlds of human beings who shaped him.  He was the first poet I ever came across, with the exception of Philip Levine, who wrote utterly brooding and moving poems about his parents, how they were who they were, how they danced across the vista of his life and influenced him indelibly.

Sometimes I feel very sad when a beloved poet dies.  There is something, to my mind, very holy about the art of poetry, of speaking and bringing into being one’s own deepest, most vital thoughts and feelings, expressed into a durable form (language) that somehow miraculously outlasts and transcends civilizations.  There is comfort, I think, in encountering these various voices of poetry, for they suggest that something does live on after death, something beautiful about the soul and the spirit, something rich and flowering and fresh and familiarly strange.

But enough of the talk.  I wanted mostly to share a poem by Plumly, who wrote many.  Here is one from Poets.org, called “At Night”:

When did I know that I’d have to carry it around
in order to have it when I need it, say in a pocket,

the dark itself not dark enough but needing to be
added to, handful by handful if necessary, until

the way my mother would sit all night in a room
without the lights, smoking, until she disappeared?

Where would she go, because I would go there.
In the morning, nothing but a blanket and all her

absence and the feeling in the air of happiness.
And so much loneliness, a kind of purity of being

and emptiness, no one you are or could ever be,
my mother like another me in another life, gone

where I will go, night now likely dark enough
I can be alone as I’ve never been alone before.

 

What is the “it” in the first line?  What does it mean to add to the dark?  What is the relationship between loneliness and “a kind of purity of being / and emptiness”?  And what does it mean to be alone in a different, new way, “as I’ve never been alone before”?  Plumly raises these important and fascinating questions, and the poem, in its own unfolding, gestures towards answers that are perfectly capable of being and living and answering themselves within the form and content of the poem, and therefore within us, its readers.  The writing of the poem, as Plumly knew, was an embodiment of the poet’s spirit seeking to understand itself through the weaving and conjuring of a shape adequate to its own great longing.  Plumly was able to convert this longing into a form that seems to understand and speak to and assuage our own longings.  He was a poet who deserves a wide audience.  He will be missed.

National Poetry Month – What is Poetry?

Folks, it is National Poetry Month, which means we really should try to answer an important question: What is poetry?  Or, as many might feel is a more appropriate way of asking the question, What the heck is a poem, anyways?

This is a very valid question that comes from a very genuine place.  I think there are many avid readers out there, readers who consume novels and non-fiction with a kind of ardor, who still come reluctantly to poetry, and wonder how or why people connect to that particular art form.

What is poetry?  How does it differ from the other art forms, like visual art, or theater, or music?  Isn’t poetry a kind of music?  And isn’t it something you have to look at to appreciate its form, and therefore isn’t it kind of like visual art?

One of my favorite descriptions of what poetry is comes from the scholar Elaine Scarry, who writes in Dreaming By the Book that our various art forms all participate in different kinds of content.  What does this mean?  Scarry points out that many art forms, like visual art and music, involve “immediate sensory content.”  We hear a song or a symphony, we see a painting or sculpture.  Our senses come alive during these interactions, and the content is immediate and sensory.

But what about things like musical scores?  That’s art, isn’t it?  Scarry calls that “delayed sensory content.”  In this case, the notes call attention to a sequence that, if honored, produces actual music.

But there’s one more kind of content, and this is my favorite one.  For what happens when we read a novel or a poem?  There is “immediate sensory content” – the weight and feel of the book in our hands, the smell of the pages, the color of the black letters printed into the white page, the different shapes of the letters.  But when we read, we are not only engaging in immediate sensory content, because the letters on the page, as in a musical score, are instructions that help us to imagine a world.  In this case, we are engaging not only in immediate sensory content and delayed sensory content but also….(drumroll please) “mimetic content.”  So what’s that?  Mimetic content does not include any sensory content – it is, rather, what we see, touch or hear through our imagination and memory.  Scarry then points out that the visual arts, film, theater and music are all focused primarily in immediate sensory content, whereas the verbal arts are more grounded in mimetic content.

Phew!  That was a lot of theorizing.  I hope it wasn’t too off-putting.  But we have one more step to take, so that we can think about poetry, and more specifically think about what poetry is.  For poetry, more than the other art forms, participates in all three forms of content outlined by Scarry.  It’s immediate sensory content participates through the visual form of the words on the page.  Its delayed sensory content participates through the way in which the notations on the page are intended to produce actual sound.  And its mimetic content participates through the way in which the poem activates our imaginations, the way it sings in our mind.

Yes!  We are (hopefully) getting somewhere.  But there is actually one more distinction we have to make.  And that’s this: what’s the difference between novels and poems?  Both are weighted primarily in mimetic content.  Both involve the production of worlds, through language, in our imagination and memory.  So how do we differentiate between the two?

I don’t have an easy answer to this, but I think it has to do with the aspect of poetry that involved delayed sensory content and immediate sensory content.  How do I mean?  Well, most poems have a certain form – maybe it’s a long stanza, with rolling and exuberant lines, a la Walt Whitman.  Maybe it’s a short stanza, with more restrained lines, a la Emily Dickinson.  The point being, when one reads a poem, its form is so essential to its content.  Reading a novel, we of course imbibe the paragraph breaks, but the form of the language is not as paramount as it is in poetry.  That’s the immediate sensory content.  But also, poetry, like music, is a form of singing.  Poetry touches upon the boundary that separates language from music, in a way that I don’t think novels often do.    Many novelists employ musical language – Vladimir Nabokov is a good example of that; Proust is another.  But poetry and music, I think, are more intertwined than prose and music.

So that’s my librarian talk for today, with help from Scarry.  And, as it is the first day of National Poetry Month, I feel I would be amiss if I did not include a poem.  So, dear readers, as a great example of poetry’s always-noble attempt to simply break into song, here is a favorite of mine, James Wright’s (Ohio poet) “A Blessing.”  Enjoy!

A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,

Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.

And the eyes of those two Indian ponies

Darken with kindness.

They have come gladly out of the willows

To welcome my friend and me.

We step over the barbed wire into the pasture

Where they have been grazing all day, alone.

They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness

That we have come.

They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.

There is no loneliness like theirs.

At home once more,

They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.

I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,

For she has walked over to me

And nuzzled my left hand.

She is black and white,

Her mane falls wild on her forehead,

And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear

That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.

Suddenly I realize

That if I stepped out of my body I would break

Into blossom.

 

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James Wright

 

 

Making the Ordinary Sacred

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In my last blog post, I talked about how poetry is able to articulate, through its form and language, aspects of experience that are hard to articulate – aspects like love or grief.  But another great thing about poetry is its ability to make the ordinary sacred, by focusing on ordinary life and making it into something special, or reminding us how special our most ordinary moments are.  This is to say that poetry is good for the big things, the things we think about alot (love, grief), but it is also great on the smaller things, the things we forget, the things we want to remember but don’t (alas!) write down.  Therefore, now that we are nearing the end of National Poetry Month, I wanted to share a poem that I love, where what is ordinary is memorialized and maybe even transformed.

This poem is by one of my favorite poets, the Detroit-born Philip Levine.

Belle Isle, 1949

We stripped in the first warm spring night
and ran down into the Detroit River
to baptize ourselves in the brine
of car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles,
melted snow. I remember going under
hand in hand with a Polish highschool girl
I’d never seen before, and the cries
our breath made caught at the same time
on the cold, and rising through the layers
of darkness into the final moonless atmosphere
that was this world, the girl breaking
the surface after me and swimming out
on the starless waters towards the lights
of Jefferson Ave. and the stacks
of the old stove factory unwinking.
Turning at last to see no island at all
but a perfect calm dark as far
as there was sight, and then a light
and another riding low out ahead
to bring us home, ore boats maybe, or smokers
walking alone. Back panting
to the gray coarse beach we didn’t dare
fall on, the damp piles of clothes,
and dressing side by side in silence
to go back where we came from.

 

This is an amazing moment, a remarkable experience, but it’s the kind of thing one might forget about if it hadn’t been written down – going hand in hand under the water of the Detroit River with a stranger, a “Polish highschool girl.”  There is something so lovely and deep about this memory, despite the description of the river as full of “car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles, / melted snow.”  We hear about a “perfect calm dark / as far as there was sight,” and the sense is that Levine and his stranger-friend are buoyed in this darkness and calm by the water, and are swimming towards a light – “ore boats, maybe, or smokers / washing alone.”  There is something desolate about these images, while at the same time something gritty and stark and beautiful.  The moment is seemingly ordinary, but something about the language – the motif of light and dark, the water, “the final moonless atmosphere / that was this world” – gives the poem a spiritual and even philosophical intensity, something almost metaphysical, something having to do with experience and memory.  Levine has chosen to memorialize this event, and it’s not hard to see why – there was about this event something so vivid and alive, something youthful and fun.  It makes me wonder if the memory is bittersweet for the older poet looking back on it, or if the memory still retains its taste of pure amazed joy.

As we end National Poetry Month, I hope you are able to find similarly intense and vivid poems that reminds us why we read and write poetry in the first place, and that perhaps might inspire you to put your pen to paper and memorialize something, no matter how large or how small.

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Philip Levine

A Poem About (Messy, Visceral) Love for National Poetry Month

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April is National Poetry Month, which means I have the opportunity to write about one of my favorite topics.  Poetry, for me, is one of the most beautiful, powerful, and expressive of the art forms.  While visual art uses the world that we see, and music uses the sense of our hearing, poetry uses both (seeing = the arrangement of the poem on the page; hearing = the rhythm of the poem on the page, or hearing the poem read out loud).  But what poetry uses more than anything else is language.  And that’s why I love it so much.  Don’t get me wrong – fiction and non-fiction are also constructed out of language, but poetry for me is a different use of language, and it can gesture towards aspects of experience that are hard to talk about or explain, including love and grief.  Here, for example is a poem a friend of mine shared recently on Facebook.  I read it with the shocked awareness of something being said about love and grief that would be hard to articulate in another art form.  Here is the poem:

Marriage

By Ellen Bass
When you finally, after deep illness, lay
the length of your body on mine, isn’t it
like the strata of the earth, the pressure
of time on sand, mud, bits of shell, all
the years, uncountable wakings, sleepings,
sleepless nights, fights, ordinary mornings
talking about nothing, and the brief
fiery plummets, and the unselfconscious
silences of animals grazing, the moving
water, wind, ice that carries the minutes, leaves
behind minerals that bind the sediment into rock.
How to bear the weight, with every
flake of bone pressed in. Then, how to bear when
the weight is gone, the way a woman
whose neck has been coiled with brass
can no longer hold it up alone. Oh love,
it is balm, but also a seal. It binds us tight
as the fur of a rabbit to the rabbit.
When you strip it, grasping the edge
of the sliced skin, pulling the glossy membranes
apart, the body is warm and limp. If you could,
you’d climb inside that wet, slick skin
and carry it on your back. This is not
neat and white and lacy like a wedding,
not the bright effervescence of champagne
spilling over the throat of the bottle. This visceral
bloody union that is love, but
beyond love. Beyond charm and delight
the way you to yourself are past charm and delight.
This is the shucked meat of love, the alleys and broken
glass of love, the petals torn off the branches of love,
the dizzy hoarse cry, the stubborn hunger.

Although the poem is titled “Marriage,” I think it could speak to anyone who has experienced love both as a “balm” and a “seal.”  Here, Ellen Bass is trying to get beyond notions of love that are “neat and white and lacy.”  She is trying through language to gesture towards the messy and visceral aspects of love, the way it reaches us down to the roots and changes our lives in unalterable ways.  Love, for Bass, is like “the way you to yourself are past charm and delight.”  It is real, and therefore not always pretty, but its power moves within us, through happiness and (maybe even more so?) through loss.  Love is such a rich and complicated thing that it contains

                                                                   all
the years, uncountable wakings, sleepings,
sleepless nights, fights, ordinary mornings
talking about nothing, and the brief
fiery plummets, and the unselfconscious
silences of animals grazing, the moving
water, wind, ice that carries the minutes, leaves
behind minerals that bind the sediment into rock.

When people love each other, they are loving a person formed by time, and time is full of so many things, including dreams, quarrels, chatter, silence, and even things like weather and trees and leaves and rock.  When we love someone, we are loving an embodiment of the world.  This is not a pretty poem, but a poem doesn’t have to be pretty.  Instead, it needs to be honest about its subject matter.  Reading it is therefore bracing, but also energizing.  I hope during this month, and beyond, that you are able to find poems that you find energizing, exciting, and moving, full of rich language and imagery.

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Ellen Bass