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.
Sometimes I start a class with a book that takes me straight to the heart of wanting to write poetry: First Loves: Poets Introduce the Essential Poems that Captivated and Inspired Them, edited by Carmela Ciuraru (Scribners 2001). If you don’t already know it, I’d recommend the amazon page review for a sense of what it’s like. Ciuraru asked a wide range of contemporary poets to choose a poem that inspired them early on and say a few words about it. Every time I read around in the book I’m taken back to some of my own sources, and the same thing happens to students when they read it: a direct line opens to those original urges. The book is full of surprises: Robert Creeley chooses Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman” and Wanda Coleman picks Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” for example.
A number of experiences made me fall in love with words: my father asking “What’s black and white and red all over?” I was stumped. “A newspaper.” What? Oh! Read! That language could do that. Or my grandmother writing out “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and little lambsy divey” after she’d sung it. Later it was Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and—like Creeley—the galloping “Highwayman.” But it was Frost’s ability to see through tranquil surfaces to the depths below that resonated with something in me, from the opening of “My November Guest” (“My sorrow, when she’s here with me/ Thinks these dark days of autumn rain/ Are beautiful as days can be….”) to the horrifying “Out, Out—,” where a young boy is mortally wounded as he’s sawing lumber. But one in particular seemed to speak directly to me, where I lived in Utah’s arid landscape:
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.
The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.
And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
I’m curious to hear about your first loves. Please add your own thoughts and choices to The Poetry Conversation.
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.