Yesterday at The Loft, a Place for Readers & Writers in Minneapolis, two poets talked about their love of the art.. Mark Doty and Terry K. Smith, the first teacher to the second, the first well-known for writing a haunting memoir about the life and death of his gay partner called Heaven’s Coast, the second recently come to fame by winning the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
As I listened, I felt the psychic tug of poems that have become attached to me. They pull at my hem as I stand at the sink; they follow my steps as I stride across city streets. There’s William Carlos Williams’ little poem about a sheet of paper tumbling over and over.
What is it that makes poems become entwined with our memories and actions? Sometimes it’s the grace and sonority of their being: William Butler Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree, “I will arise and go now…” Or it’s Galway Kinnell’s long poem to his tiny daughter waking at night: “Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight.” “you cling to me/hard/as if clinging could save us.” Yes, I’ve experienced that years ago, and though I made no such promises in the dark to my daughter, I believe Kinnell’s promises to his Little Maud:
I would blow the flame out of your silver cup
I would suck the rot from your finger nail….
I would let nothing of your go, ever
feel the clothes fall asleep in their hands
and hens scratch their spell across hatchet blades…
Remembering the poem, I call up the occasion and the dense surprise of his promises. It’s enough to tell me that the poem has entered my body.
Then for exquisite control and shape, Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”–
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
It’s a villanelle, I’ve known almost as long as I’ve known the poem, but when I call it up out of the blue, it’s not any particular line that flies to me, but the compression of grief, the vast repetition of those deflating “sssss’s.”
I could go on with Marge Piercy’s poem about unhooking a sea gull from a fish hook embedded in its beak. Or the Chinese poet Tu Fu from the 8th century: “It is spring in the mountains.”. Or e.e. cummings, the little balloon man who whistles “far and wee.” Often these poems first accompanied me into a classroom. I can’t count the number of times I taught the Tu Fu poem to classes of 6th, 7th, 8th graders–a model for their own writing. Or rather, a poem usually announces itself in privacy as I look out a grey window, and there is Denise Levertov’s “The Crack”–
While snow fell carelessly
floating indifferent in eddies of
rooftop air, circling the black
a spring night entered
my mind through the tight-closed window,
a loose Russian shirt of
For this, then,
line was left, that crack, the pane
Or struggling to meet a recalcitrant student, a poem of Richard Wilbur’s returns to me: I can’t remember the title or find it on the internet, but I have its architecture: upstairs the daughter types furiously, and below the father listens to the pauses and remembers how hard the shaping of words as he silently apologizes for belittling her effort and sends her good wishes.
Sometimes I think these recurrences are like Greek gods who come to earth and set the beauty of a flowering tree aflame.