The postings here have been sporadic lately because I was finally moving into a lovely apartment in Seattle. I hope this will be my last move, but you never know. It was exhausting and overwhelming, but one of the rare bright spots was unpacking my poetry books. I keep them in alphabetical order so I can find things easily Despite all the shuffling back and forth, it was full of pleasure. Some poets take up half a shelf or more, with their books and books about them: Ashbery, Berryman, Bishop, Carson, Dante, Dickinson, Eliot, Frost, Ginsberg, Gluck, Goldbarth, Heaney, Homer, Levine, Merrill, Merwin. Plath, Pound, Rilke. Simic, Stevens, Strand, James Tate, WC Williams. From Jonathan Aaron to Martha Zweig. From some of the earliest I read when I was starting to write–Margaret Atwood, Diane Wakowski, Transtromer, Bly, Kinnell, Plath, Stanley Plumly, to recent discoveries–Alice Oswald, Karen Solie, Tim Siebles. From well known to maybe less so: a collaboration between James Tate and Bill Knott titled Are You Ready, Mary Baker Eddy? A beautifully made book, Paul Hannigan’s The Carnation, published by Barn Dream Press in Massachusetts. I remember where I bought many of the books, or who gave them to me: Jonathan Galassi gave me The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barret Browning when he had recently started work at Houghton Mifflin and I interviewed him for an article on poetry publishing in Boston. Or my first reaction: reading Wind in a Box–Terrance Hayes can do anything! Milosz’s Anthology of Polish Poets where I read Szymborska for the first time. And I notice what’s missing: the little paperback of Stevens’ poems, Palm at the end of the Mind, that fell apart after I carried it everywhere with me for years. And I don’t see the first anthology of contemporary poetry I ever owned, Poems of our Moment, edited by John Hollander. As I remember, three of the thirty-seven poets included were women: May Swenson, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath. It’s possible I finally threw it out. Working my way through my shelves is working my way through my life–but in alphabetical rather than chronological order, so there’s a wonderful weaving back and forth between pieces. There’s a murmur of conversation, whispers and shouts. More than one mover said to me, “You should get rid of a lot of these books.” Over my dead body. I’d love to hear the stories of your poetry bookshelves.
Terrance Hayes is a wonder. He is also a POET in every cell of his body. Poetry isn’t a compartment of his life, it IS his life. But that doesn’t mean he’s writing poems in isolation. He’s a husband and father, teacher and activist, using poetry to think and feel his way through the world. I just saw him at Hugo House in Seattle, talking about Linda Hull’s poems and reading some of his own, and it was electrifying to listen to him. Even though he’s a virtuoso, he isn’t after a gleaming finished product, something static. All his poems are a process: asking questions, thinking aloud, making hypotheses, trying out possibilities. Everything is at stake, and he’s willing to try on one possibility after another, to get it wrong, to fail. He’s a master craftsman, and it was a pleasure to hear him focus on that. He’s devoted to working hard–something that comes in part from his days as a basketball player. I came home energized, challenged, rededicated to working harder and better. Read him, listen, watch him online and in person.
Here’s the first poem of his I read that set me on fire. Makes me think of Frost: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting.”
WIND IN A BOX
This ink. This name. This blood. This blunder.
This blood. This loss. This lonesome wind. This canyon.
This / twin / swiftly / paddling / shadow blooming
an inch above the capet–. This cry. This mud.
This shudder. This is where I stood: by the bed,
by the door, by the window, in the night / in the night.
How deep, how often / must a woman be touched?
How deep, how often have I been touched?
On the bone, on the shoulder, on the brow, on the knuckle:
Touch like a last name, touch like a wet match.
Touch like an empty shoe and an empty shoe, sweet
and incomprehensible. This ink. This name. This blood
and wonder. This box. This body in a box. This blood
in the body. This wind in the blood.
Stevens said this was his favorite of his own poems. I’ve always loved it, first for the sounds and lush words, gradually for the scene that began to emerge. My grandparents, just a little younger than Stevens, shared his sense of ice cream as something new and magical. My grandfather smiled at its mention in the same way he did when he described seeing women’s ankles for the first time as hems began to creep up. My mother remembered hand-cranked pineapple ice cream as her favorite childhood dessert, and made a note in my baby book when I had my first taste of ice cream–then finished the bowl and wanted more. Stevens’ poem captures the thrill and delight and sensual pleasure of ice cream, and its evanescence: death is just in the other room. I found this great account at the Poetry Foundation.
Feel free to add your own thoughts about the poem, ice cream, and other hot weather favorites.
Auden said that, not as a criticism of poetry but as a defense of it against ideological pressures in the 1930s from both the right and the left that poets take sides. When it comes to writing my own poetry, I am with Auden, and with John F. Kennedy, who declared that “Society must make the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him [or her].” And I agree with Yehudi Amichai that “all poetry is political. This is because real poems deal with a human response to reality and politics is part of reality, history in the making. Even if a poet writes about sitting in a glass house drinking tea, it reflects politics.” Following a number of recent tragedies people have posted Adam Zagajewski’s poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” just as the New Yorker did after the nine-eleven attacks. He didn’t write the poem to address any specific event, but it speaks to our hearts and minds about many of them. I’m interested to hear your thoughts about how poetry speaks to tragedy, and whether it’s most moving to you if it does it deliberately or indirectly.
Welcome to The Poetry Conversation with Sharon Bryan. I’ll be posting weekly thoughts on poetry, and I hope you’ll join in. I think of this site as a big room with comfortable chairs where we can gather to talk about poems and poets, craft, translation, what it is to be a poet, what others are reading and listening to, whatever interests you. I’ll be inviting other poets to do guest posts, so please feel free to make suggestions.