Who are the poets whose verse helps you feel and see more deeply into the experience of life? Or do you prefer poetry that’s foggily disorienting, that offers no safe harbour of meaning? Or do you embrace poems in any form? Today, March 21 is World Poetry Day but during transformative events like COVID, poetry’s day has lengthened into a “a year’s worth of Groundhog Days,” drawing out long shadows of influence. To celebrate the occasion, we’re sharing a mixed bouquet of poems: rosy and dark, spiky and scented, many petalled and single blooms.
Since one of my first quarantreats was Jane Hirshfield’s latest book, Ledger, let’s start with a few lines from a poem she wrote on March 17, 2020, “Today, When I Could Do Nothing.”
Today, when I could do nothing,
I saved an ant.
It must have come in with the morning paper,
still being delivered
to those who shelter in place.
A morning paper is still an essential service.
I am not an essential service.
Jane, to my mind, gives the best explanation for reading poetry and has even written how-to books about the subject. She says:
Why ask art into a life at all, if not to be transformed and enlarged by its presence and mysterious means? Some hunger for more is in us – more range, more depth, more feeling, more associative freedom, more beauty. More perplexity and more friction of interest. More prismatic grief and unstinted delight, more longing, more darkness. More saturation and permeability in knowing our own existence as also the existence of others. More capacity to be astonished. Art adds to the sum of the lives we would have, were it possible to live without it. And by changing selves, one by one, art changes also the outer world that selves create and share.
The word poet means “maker” and comes from the same etymological root as the word magic. While Magellan and I were on our Rove-Inn trip to the southwestern US, into my mailbox came a poem by James Wright, so gobsmacking that I copied it into my diary. You’ll see why in the volta—the magic of the tone change in its last line.
“Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
After the sillage of that poem’s flower, let’s add the bright colour of laughing crocuses to represent this anonymous poem to the vase.
“Have you ever been in Cahoots?”
I have been in many places, but I’ve never been in Cahoots. Apparently, you can’t go alone. You have to be in Cahoots with someone.
I’ve also never been in Cognito. I hear no one recognizes you there.
I have, however, been in Sane. They don’t have an airport; you have to be driven there. I have made several trips there, thanks to my children, friends, family and work.
I would like to go to Conclusions, but you have to jump, and I’m not too much on physical activity anymore.
I have also been in Doubt. That is a sad place to go, and I try not to visit there too often.
I’ve been in Flexible, but only when it was very important to stand firm.
Sometimes I’m in Capable, and I go there more often as I’m getting older.
One of my favourite places to be is in Suspense! It really gets the adrenaline flowing and pumps up the old heart! At my age, I need all the stimuli I can get!
I may have been in Continent, but I don’t remember.
And while we’re on the light side, let’s arrange into the bouquet “Loud Prayer” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a poet, painter, social activist and co-founder of City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in San Francisco who died last month.
Our Father whose art’s in heaven
Hollow be thy name
unless things change
Thy Kingdom come & gone
They will be undone
on earth as it isn’t Heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
at least three times a day
And lead us not into temptation
too often on weekdays
but deliver us from Evil
whose presence remains unexplained
in thy Kingdom of Power & Glory
Losing touch, days of missing the most powerful sense of togetherness. Here’s a leafy touch, a poem by Norman MacCaig modelled after Robert Frost’s Reluctance.
Wanting to go,
All the leaves want to go, though they have achieved
Their kingly robes.
Weary of colours,
they think of black earth,
they think of
as a safebreaker
they unlock themselves
And from their royal towers
they sift silently down
to become part of
the proletariat of mud.
And from their royal towers
What I’d like for my birthday
is a box of telepathy,
a bottle of clairvoyance
and a gift of tongues.
Then I wouldn’t need
to sit hunched up in my memory
staring at a screen of images
and listening to a voice
I can’t converse with—
And anything I’d say
Would need no translation.
—Everything would shrink
to the biggest thing of all,
the immediacy of meaning,—
but with one language still to use,
the language of touch, the speechless
Vocabulary of hands.
And this extraordinary little verse Magellan found that seems to be what many elderly trapped in long-care homes must be thinking: “The End of Poetry” by Ada Limón, written on April 27, 2020.
I am human, enough I am alone and I am desperate,
enough of the animal saving me, enough of the high
water, enough sorrow, enough of the air and its ease,
I am asking you to touch me.
Given the conflagration of the country’s rules around COVID protocols, how about adding the complex petaling of a camellia to the arrangement to accompany the opening lines of a poem by Pulitzer Prize winner James Tate.
Jack told me to never reveal my true identity. “I would never do that,” I said. “Always wear at least a partial disguise,” he said. “Of course,” I said. “And try to blend in with the crowd,” he said. “Naturally,” I said. “And never fall in love,” he said. “Far too dangerous,” I said. “Never raise your voice,” he said. “Understood,” I said. “Never run,” he said. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” I said. “Never make a glutton of yourself,” he said. “It won’t happen,” I said. “Always be polite,” he said. “That’s me, polite,” I said. “Don’t sing in public,” he said. “You have my promise,” I said. “Don’t touch strangers,” he said. “That’s forbidden,” I said. “Never speed,” he said. “You can count on me,” I said.
And more contemporary drama, a bit of the surreal for this free verse by Ben Lerner from his book Angle of Yaw.
a wall is torn down to expand the room and we grow distant. At the reception, cookies left over from the intervention. In the era before the flood, you could speak in the second person. Now the skylighted forecourt is filled with plainclothesmen. I would like to draw your attention. Like a pistol? In the sense of a sketch? Both, she said, emphasizing nothing, if not emphasis. Squint, and the room dissolves into manageable triangles. Close your eyes completely and it reappears.
And “The Fatalist” by Lyn Hejinian—a flower the mother-in-law would enjoy?
Time is filled with beginners. You are right. Now
each of them is working on something
and it matters. The large increments of life must not go by
unrecognized. That’s why my mother’s own mother-in-law
was often bawdy. “meatballs!” she would shout
superbly anticipating site-specific specificity in the future
of poetry. Will this work? The long moment is addressed
to the material world’s “systems and embodiments” for study
for sentience and for history. Materiality, after all, is about being
a geologist or biologist, bread dough rising
while four boys on skateboards attempt to fly
Last December The New Yorker printed this zinger, Augustus Evans decrying Elon Musk and his Mars-y gang.
Millionaires and billionaires and trillionaires,
You will not be moving from this earth to any other planet.
You will not be importing water to start civilization on the moon. My name is Augustus and I am here to answer your doom.
I want you to look me in the eye and read my lips
before you trip trying to run from angry populations and board space ships.
All right Spice, I can hear you saying, time for something cheerful, heart-warming. Here’s the culmination of a private poetry workshop for five sessions this week, via Alexa, for my 92-year-old mother, a farmer’s wife who enjoyed poetry over her lifetime, Maxine MacLeod, who is now blind and in a care home. (Disclaimer, as requested by the author: “People should know the truth. You did a lot,” mom said yesterday.)
My young friend,
her face happy as a sunflower,
a bright spot
over the last years.
Driving me to church, dropping in to see me.
She’s reserved. I don’t think she would want me to name her. Do you agree? (Ask your husband.)
Sunflowers, like sundials turning their heads to follow the sun,
standing upright in the prairie wind.
I hated them as a kid. I thought they took up too much space,
were too big-headed. (“Big shots” as my father would say.)
When I moved to Birch Hills my young friend brought me sunflower seeds to plant.
Their heads are smaller than they used to be, and now
I find them joyful.
Some I left for the birds, others I cut for bouquets, or gave to my neighbours: Lila, and Marie.
In cloudy weather, sunflowers turn their heads toward each other,
just like me.
I enjoyed them.
I wonder what my garden is like now?
My young friend,
I imagine how happy she is to have a son
turning his head toward her.
From Shawna LeMay’s blog, Transactions with Beauty, we’ll enhance the bouquet to represent “This is the Dream” in which Olav H. Hauge uses a daisy chain of repetition of the word that as its structural component.
This is the dream we carry through the world
that something fantastic will happen
that it has to happen
that time will open by itself
that doors shall open by themselves
that the heart will find itself open
that mountain springs will jump up
that the dream will open by itself
that we one early morning
will slip into a harbour
that we have never known.
May Sarton, a Belgian-American poet (17 books), novelist (19 books) and memorist uses the metaphoric harbour in “Coming into Eighty.” Here’s the first verse:
Coming into eighty
I slow my ship down
For a safe landing.
It has been battered,
One sail torn, the rudder
We are hardly a glorious sight.
It has been a long voyage
Through time, travail and triumph,
Of learning what to be
And how to become it …
Modelling May’s verse, here’s my poem, “Coming into seventy,” perhaps best symbolized by flowers from a roadside ditch.
Coming into seventy
We gas our engines
To keep up the pace.
They’ve driven us far,
Back-country, city streets,
Magellan and me, rounding along.
What a rewarding voyage
Feats, fun and fulfilment,
Of learning how to drive
Windows open to life…
Our last poem is Charles Wright’s “October, Mon Amour,” accompanied by my favourite flower, the peony.
What’s-to-Come is anybody’s guess.
Whatever has given you comfort,
Whatever has rested you,
Whatever untwisted your heart
is what you’ll leave behind.
after you post a poem in your comment, we will add a block quote for style around it
Piepenbring, Dan. “I Have Wasted My Life.” The Paris Review. June 23, 2015. A brilliant discussion of the poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” by James Wright.
Evans, Augustus. “A Lonely Occupation” by Francesca Mari. The New Yorker, Dec 7, 2020.
Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. Writing Across the Landscape. New York: Liveright Publishing, 2015.
Habash, Gabe. “Poetry, What Does It Accomplish?” Huffington Post. May 25, 2011. This thoughtful article kickstarted today’s blog.
Hauge, Olav H. The Dream We Carry: Selected and Last Poems of Olav H. Hauge translated by Robert Bly and Robert Hedin. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2008. A Norwegian poet first published in 1946, Olav lived a minimalistic life relying on the proceeds from his seventy apple trees, using his words in an equally minimalist fashion.
Hejinian, Lyn. The Fatalist. Omnidawn: Oakland, 2003. A founding figure of the Language poetry movement of the 1970s and an influential force in the world of experimental and avant-garde poetics. Her poetry is characterized by an unusual lyricism and descriptive engagement with the everyday,” says the Poetry Foundation.
Hirshfield, Jane. Ledger. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020.
Hirshfield, Jane. Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2015.
Housden, Roger. Ten Poems for Difficult Times. California: New World Library, 2018. The first poem, “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith, was the third-most downloaded poem from the American Academy of Poets website in 2016. Its first line is “Life is short, though I keep this from my children.”
Lerner, Ben. Angle of Yaw. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2006.Poet-turned-novelist, Ben Lerner, has “a taste for collage, and a playful attitude to the line between life and art.” He’s received both a Guggenheim and MacArthur “genius” grant and has been named in the New York Times as the most talented writer of his generation.
Limon, Ada. “The End of Poetry.” The New Yorker. May 4, 2020.
MacCaig, Norman. The Poems of Norman MacCaig. Scotland: Polygon, 2009. He was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and made an OBE.
Sarton, May. “Coming into Eighty.” Yale University. You can find the entire poem here and a good article on her life and poetry at The Poetry Foundaton. Her final poetry book, Coming into Eighty, deals with the realities of aging.
Tate, James. “The Rules.” Ghost Soldiers. New York: Ecco, 2008. In an interview published in the Poetry Foundation, James said, “There is nothing better than [to move the reader deeply]. I love my funny poems, but I’d rather break your heart. And if I can do both in the same poem, that’s the best.”
For inspiration, I recommend, once again, the blog of poet, novelist, photographer, librarian, and Edmontonian Shawna LeMay: Transactions with Beauty.
World Poetry Day: In 1999, UNESCO proclaimed March 21 as World Poetry Day.
Wright, Charles. Caribou Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014. Concerned with grand ideas and “sorry that he no longer believes in grand ideas,” Charles Wright is a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets and the Souder Family Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. His many elegiac collections of poetry, influenced by music and the words of Ezra Pound, have been honoured with numerous awards—the Pulitzer Prize, the Griffin International Poetry Prize, and a Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.
Wright, James. “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1990. “He was admired by critics and fellow poets alike for his willingness and ability to experiment with language and style, as well as for his thematic concerns,” says the Poetry Foundation.