For Mary Oliver

The poet Mary Oliver died today. I want her to know I am grateful. She, more than many, shows how the practice of poetry saves lives. The practice of poetry protects us from pedantry and meanness. Habits of poetry lift us from ugliness, inattention and boredom.

Mary Oliver offers patience and attention, how to be present in the world while living in it. I will write my whole life hoping for one clear poem, one paragraph or a sentence so finely observant, so clear and true. Mary Oliver tells us not to suppose or daydream, but wake up and see.

I once foolishly tried to explain the meaning of “Wild Geese” to a class of community college freshmen during a library orientation. I recited for them “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” They didn’t get it because I didn’t get it.

I thought I understood but only now, when the world is breaking my heart and I am feeling the limits of my own time and possibility, do I begin to understand. We are animals, you and I. We are not separate from the rest of creation. We are as confused and limited and small with no idea where we come from or where we are going. And yet, we can rise. We are not lost in our despair. We have a place. We belong. We are reminded, time and time again that we belong. But only if we listen.

Only if we listen.

Saturday night poem.

This is a night I wish to write poetry — loud, brash, unrhyming poems that stick sideways inside your head and make you walk around shaking like a dog, trying to jar loose that cockeyed idea that did not start with you but lodged in and got dressed up in your own life, became your own words.

A poem like home invasion — sudden, brutal, unflinching — arriving like a stranger in the dark unlocked hallway of your home. Unsmiling. Dishonest. Up to no good.

A poem could be that one saving shove back away from the subway tracks where you had stood contemplating. Your reverie interrupted by the rude press of unseen hands and then gone, leaving you there to wonder how close you might actually have come to stepping down while the night’s last train goes barreling by.

Poems like coffee taken black too late at night, a sinister brew of dreams which you will imbibe and quickly forget, except for one phrase that reaches out and scalds your gullet, scorching as you swallow, all the way down.

Poems dumped like a box of cockroaches, scurry and scatter everywhere, finding the cracks, the crannies, all the tiny, secret places of your life you pretend are not there. Places even the finest brushes cannot reach. Places inside yourself which you can never get clean.

Ah. Here comes a poem, approaching like the evening’s last shopper casually strolling the aisles in a grocery store about to close. The cashier has made her last announcement. The lights are half off. The grocers have other places to be, but the poem makes its way, perusing the shelves, making its maddening slow inventory, a list of things it does not need and will not buy. They cannot lock the doors until it pushes its empty cart through the checkout line.

Here it is. At last. A poem about poetry, which is the writer’s main retreat. When you do not know what to write, you write about writing. You post it for others, inject it into their Saturday night. They read it with a shrug, except for that one other writer who feels the same inexorable urge and pours herself another heavy draught.

Terminal.

Terminala poem for Patricia

I am thinking of the night you called, two years ago, sobbing and hysterical with fear, suddenly overwhelmed by the fact of your terminal diagnosis. And as we spoke on the phone, I could feel you were stunned by the silence of your one-person home and how like a graveyard it must have felt. How your mind began flying like a moth trapped inside a tomb. And ever arrogant, I aspired to do one brave thing and tell you how things would go with some conjured sense of certainty. How much braver I would have been to admit right then that I sometimes have nights like this myself. Me, a person with no terminal diagnosis living in a house full of people, still able to pretend the years all belong to me and that I feel them stretch endlessly out ahead.

200 Bad Poems

Billy Collins was the special guest on National Public Radio’s “Wait. Wait. Don’t Tell Me” last week. (transcript | listen) My poetry friends know I have a bit of a nerd crush on Collins for his ability to write simple, clever yet powerful poetry. I’ve written about this before (“Poems Belong Everywhere”).

As much as I admire Collins’ work, I am even more appreciative of his ability to talk about poetry in a way that helps it make sense to non-poetry people. When asked about the bad poetry people write in high school, he said, “We’re all born with 200 bad poems in us… Middle school and high school is a good time to get rid of those.”

As a college librarian, I sometimes get the chance to talk to college students about their writing. When the conversation is about poetry, I ask how long they have been writing poetry. “I started in high school,” they usually tell me and then quickly add, “but it was all terrible.”

I understand their embarrassment. I started writing poetry in high school. It was awful. Long, tangled polysyllabic stuff crammed full of grand pronouncements, sweeping generalities and unclear abstractions. Oh, and angst. Lots and lots of angst. I wrote about death. I wrote about darkness. I wrote about my feelings of obsession with death and darkness. The weird things is that I was a happy kid. I have no idea where all the death and darkness stuff came from but, between the ages of 12 and 19, it gushed from my pen and stacked up on pages and pages of notebook paper.

I still have most of that poetry. I don’t read it. I’m not really even sure how to deal with it. I keep it as a physical totem. An object that connects me back to myself in some indirect way.

Hearing Collins say everyone has 200 bad poems inside made me very, very happy. Instead of bemoaning how terrible my earliest work has been and hiding that work from sight, I suddenly feel like I should share it. The next time, a young writer apologizes for the inadequacy of their verse, I want to show them the inadequacy of my own. I want to celebrate my 200 bad poems with them. I want to celebrate the fact of their 200 bad poems. I want to give them a stack of my most terrible verse, add up all the pages, place it beside their very worst and say “Race you! Let’s see who can get through their 200 bad poems the fastest.”

This, I think, is how the new poets will be born. When we give our students permission to be weird in public, to show off their mistakes and celebrate together our inevitable iteration through failure. That’s when poetry will be important again. That’s when poetry will recapture our minds as a new kind of language.

Pimp This Poem: Spring Bloom

Here’s a poem I wrote three or four years ago. I have been tinkering with it off and on ever since. The poem is about a moment years ago when I was taking out the trash and was surprised by the promiscuous beauty of my neighbor’s pear tree illuminated from behind by a street light. The light poured through the soft, white flowers. She seemed very much like an angel, alive and glorious, glowing from within with a pure but sensuous light.

I am explaining too much. I am thinking I may submit this to a local literary arts magazine. I am interested in comments, feedback, semi-rotten tomatoes.

In other words, please pimp this poem.

***

Spring Bloom

The girl next door stands ready at the gate.
Her long, lithe limbs linger. She beckons me
with burgeoning blooms, her open invitation hands.
She is bathed in streetlight – radiant, clean, gleaming
from the inside with a promise. No one is awake.
The night protects us, our anonymous secret.
I have an idea, I tell her.
I know you do, she says. She always knows
exactly what to say.

Poems Belong Everywhere

I love poems, but I don’t always particularly enjoy poetry.

I like the way a really good poem slices through the baggage of words and gets to the truth of things. I like the way a really good poem makes familiar objects seem unfamiliar. I like way a really good poem can surprise you, catch you off guard and force you to acknowledge beliefs you did not realize you held.

I love poems, but I have a terrible time with Wordsworth, Yeats, Keats and the crew. There was a time when I assumed that Eliot, Stevens and cummings spoke with ideas and a voice more rarified and brilliant than my own. I bashed my mind against their verse, trying to unlock their elevated ideas. It never happened, so eventually I stopped.

Then I started reading Kerouac and Ginsberg, Billy Collins and Mary Oliver and I began to understand poems again. Poems are a kind of meditation. Poems are moments of complete attention where the object and the subject disappear. Poems are acts of gratitude. Poems are declarations not of how things should be but declarations of how things really are. Poems are prayers.

Poems are useful. They have a purpose in every day life. The problem is, too often, poetry gets in the way of poems. Poetry makes poems into an abstraction, an idea of a thing rather than the thing itself. We teach ourselves to fear poetry in high school and then feel ashamed about that fear for the rest of our lives.

I particularly like the way Billy Collins puts it, “It is a good thing to get poetry off the shelf and more into public life.” His 2012 TED Talk shares some ideas on how this might work. I was particularly amazed by the animated poem mashup he undertook to bring 5 of his terrific poems to a new kind of life.

Take a look:

What do you think about the idea of poems in public life? Where does the world need poems? How can we get them there?