Even though it’s no longer National Poetry Month, we’re still going to share about poems, because why wouldn’t we? Today’s guest post comes from Lauren Eggert-Crowe, whom I had the pleasure of earning my MFA with at The University of Arizona; she’s remained a fine friend, generous collaborator, and all-around inspiration. Enjoy! —Nishta
My relationship with poetry has been like a marriage.
I started young, very young, single digits young. Back then, everything was rhymes about snow and rhythmic couplets. I wrote poetry inspired by whoever I was reading at the time, so there were a lot of little Shel Silversteinesque quatrains about misbehaving twins or Robert Louis Stevenson-style odes with big fancy words like “immortal.” I was easily and uncomplicatedly in love. I thought I knew everything there was to know about poetry. It seemed simple enough and I was happy.
In high school, I had an English teacher who I adored. He belonged in one of those Inspirational Teacher movies from the ’90s, that’s how good he was. But during the poetry unit, I hated him. Him and his stupid class. I was seventeen and pissed off and frustrated and defensive, and there was nothing more I wanted to do than slump behind the fortress of my folded arms with a glare that said, “Just *try* to engage me today. Just try.” He gave us a packet of xeroxed poems by Tess Gallagher, D.H. Lawrence, Wilfred Owen, etc. Some of the poems I liked enough but I could not bear another minute of raking through the poems line by line, unpacking their meanings and metaphors. I had a good marriage with poetry – why was he making me work harder at it? I didn’t want to deepen my understanding or think beyond the obvious. In hindsight, I know he was actually doing a good job, but I was a teenager who hated feeling like she didn’t understand something. So I resisted.
It happened again in college. My poetry professor was a warm, affectionate, spitfire. She loved her students with a grandmotherly charm, and she loved teaching us to love poetry. But she loved to talk smack about our favorite poems even more. Every day I would go to bat with her over my Holy Trinity of Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and Marge Piercy. She goaded me to go beyond inspirational poems whose meanings were laid bare. I rolled my eyes. One day, when she floated an interpretation of Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” that I completely disagreed with, I protested. “You’re making this up! Stop!” When she had us mark the metric feet all over that whole poem, and “beat out” the rhythms as we read it, I said I didn’t think “Prufrock” was a poem that could be beaten out. “Oh, someone needs to beat the shit out of Prufrock,” she retorted.
At the end of the year, she nominated me for “Most Outstanding Sophomore.” Really.
At the end of college, I finally had a poetry class that made it click for me. Or maybe I had finally matured enough to open myself up to stranger, weirder poetry. Stuff that was more lyrical than narrative, that left me feeling unsettled at the end, unsure about what I had just read. I learned to be okay with the ambiguity, to even seek it. I started writing poems that focused more on imagery than epiphany.
I backslid a little bit in grad school, intimidated as I was by all my chain-smoking smartly dressed poetry peers who referenced John Ashberry and Frank Bidart and Milosz. I retreated a little more to what was comfortable. Workshops made me cry sometimes. I didn’t understand and I felt hopeless. I considered ending this marriage, jumping ship, defecting to the Nonfiction department.
I don’t know how it happened. Maybe with time. Maybe with reading. But I let the oddness in again, the scariness, the messiness, the “what-the-fuck-is-happening-here”-ness. I stripped away my punctuation and syntactic rules, little by little, until I was galloping and war-whooping through mazes of surreal prose poems. I started to see language as a marvelous raw material. Poems didn’t have to be an algebra problem.
Working for Kore Press certainly introduced me to the exciting developments in contemporary poetry. While I worked there, in 2007 they published Loveliest Grotesque by Sandra Lim, an Iowa Writers Workshop grad. I read her whole book in one day, as I often did back then, binge-reading poetry the way we now slam through Netflix series. I didn’t understand, but I did. Or, rather, I understood that there were multiple ways to understand. It made me want to write and write, to collage the hell out of words, to experiment with all the ways words could be jammed together, dropped, whipped, folded, buried, floated, flung, detonated.
Something Something Something Grand
Sandra Lim (originally published in Zyzzyva)
I adore you: you’re a harrowing event.
I like you very ugly, condensed to one
deep green pang. You cannot ask the simplest
question, your hold is all clutch and sinker.
Cannibal old me,
with my heart up my throat, blasting on all sides
with my hundred red states. Hidden little striver.
How not to know it, the waist-deep trance of you,
the cursing, coursing say of you. Embarrassing today.
Curiouser and curiouser,
your body is a mouth, is a night of travel, your body
is tripling the sideways insouciance. The muscle
in you knows gorgeous, in you knows tornadoes.
In an instant’s compass, your blood flees you like a cry.
You put on my heat,
(that’s the way you work) I’m a bandit gripping
hard on the steal. The substitutions come swiftly,
hungering down the valley, no one question to cover
all of living. I arrange myself in the order of my use.
You’re wrong and right
at the same time, a breathless deluxe and a devouring
chopping down the back door. You slap my attention
all over the dark. What’s in me like a chime?
Sometimes, sometimes, I come to you for the surprise.
I loved this poem in particular for its juicy muscular language. I didn’t know exactly what was going on. For awhile I was like, “Maybe this is a 9/11 poem? Or maybe it’s about writing. Or remembering a breakup?” But I knew I didn’t need to know. I could just lose myself in its urgent pace, its switchback metaphors.
I want everyone to fall in love with poetry and have multivalent marriages. When people make offhand comments about how they don’t “understand poetry,” I want to take their hands and let them in on the secret: You don’t *have to* understand it. There’s no “getting it,” there’s no secret code you have to decrypt like a hacker. I want to tell people they can experience poetry the way they watch a modern dance performance or the way they look at paintings. You can just let the images wash over you. Just gaze at the lines, at the movement. Get the hell in there and play in the sandbox. You don’t have to figure it out or map its every mappable part. You can just let it be beautiful. Or scary or sublime or dark or whimsical or naughty. Sometimes, sometimes, you can come to it for the surprise.
Lauren Eggert-Crowe is a poet, an essayist, book reviewer, food writer, and non-profit assistant in Los Angeles. She has been published in The Rumpus, L.A. Review of Books, The Nervous Breakdown, The Millions, Salon, Tupelo Quarterly, SpringGun, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor to TROP and is about to start a blog of poetry chapbook reviews.
Today, an interruption in the National Poetry Month guest posts, which will, incidentally, continue into May. Couldn’t let this day go unacknowledged. —Nishta
I almost feel like I don’t know how to write these letters anymore. Today would have been your seventy-second birthday, and I know everyone expects me to say something heartwarming about how much I miss you and what an amazing human being you were and how I’m trying to raise Shiv to know and honor you, but fuck all of that heartwarming shit. I’m so tired of it.
Every single one of the heartwarming things is true, of course, but what’s also true—and what goes unsaid—is that this isn’t getting any easier. In fact, in some ways it’s harder, the farther away I move from you in time. There’s so much forgetting There’s more and more of my life that would be unrecognizable to you. Sometimes I say things like “Papa would love this,” and then I wonder if I even know anymore. Would you? I worry that I can’t trust my sense of you, that it’s fading, and that scares me. There’s so much that’s new, so many things that you were never a part of; nothing smells like you anymore.
People are fond of saying that even though you’re not with me, you’re “with me,” and I know they mean well, but it sounds like a cop-out every time. Because some things are never going to be okay, and some things are never going to get better, and some things are not fixable, nor do they have an upside, and I wish that people would just tell the truth about the fact that you being dead is one of those things.
We got cheated, Papa. End of story. For once, I just want to say what’s so without worrying about sounding pleasant or optimistic. I am pissed. I am bereft. And I still get ragingly jealous of other people’s parents, the ones who are still alive, still together, still celebrating anniversaries, still coming to visit, the dads who comment weirdly on their kid’s Facebook and text awkwardly and give frequent, unsolicited advice. I know I’m not supposed to, but wow do I covet.
In the end, there are a few things I feel like I know for certain so I stick to them: one, that you would be so proud of mom, of her bravery and her willingness to change and shift and be open to new things, of the way she and I have built a new relationship and new incarnation of our family, and of her happiness. Two, that you would absolutely love and delight in Shiv, and he in you. He is so much like you, Papa, that it’s almost eerie. He has your joie de vivre and your appetite and your significant charm, and on the days when I am more filled with gratitude than rage, feeding his voracious little palate feels almost like feeding you. I’ll take it.
Three, it’s always been clear that the best way to honor you is to be present in my life to the greatest degree possible: to enjoy each and every day, to err on the side of extravagance, to find satisfaction in ordinary details, to maintain traditions and enact rituals, to give generously of myself and my time, and to do my best to ensure that everyone I love knows that I love them, because that’s what you did.
Right now, your grandson is running around pants-less, holding my toothbrush aloft and giggling like a banshee while Jill chases him around the kitchen. I wonder if this is what you were like when you were his age, and the thought that it might be makes me grin. I wish you were here to see him.
Always and forever,
I’ve known Dave since I was seventeen; in the intervening years, he has taught me a great deal about a lot of things, but especially about poems and paying attention. This guest post reflects so much of what I’ve learned from him and what I respect and treasure about him. –Nishta
On the bus to work, I realize I haven’t seen a single thing for fifteen minutes. Yes, yes: I have in some limited way seen the road and its yellow lines, the gray buildings lining the street, the outlines of people standing. But I haven’t really looked, not like I could, not the real kind of looking. My eyes are still asleep.
Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” is an alarm, set to the highest volume. The poem describes what it is like to catch a fish. It also describes what it is like for a human being to wake from visual slumber and pay real attention to the world.
We learn that the fish is “tremendous,” that he is an ancient creature who has survived multiple attempts on his life. His eyes are shallower than a human’s, but like human eyes they can “tip” toward the light. Though he is a distinguished fish who seems to hail from a time before men, he now must breathe the “terrible oxygen” of the world.
Unlike the fish’s eyes, we do not look into the speaker’s. Rather, we look out from them– though they are nothing like a camera. They do not faithfully record the entire frame in front of them. They roam from thing to thing and pluck out a vibrant detail: not the whole fish but his “brown skin hung in strips / like ancient wallpaper.” The speaker follows these details to all the unusual places they lead. The meaning, if you want to call it that, is in how the imagination links one visual detail to another and forms a narrative of images.
“The Fish” describes what it is like to really look. Such a simple task for a poem, yet the poem isn’t simple at all. The only things that “happen” occur in the first line and the last. The rest is looking. But this looking is so consuming there is no time to pause, no time for long words. The rhythm drives forward with no room left for a stanza break–hardly enough room to finish a thought before a new line must begin. One sight leads to another, until we find all the colors have run together.
Poems do many things. One thing they do is tell us to remember to look. Perhaps what we will see is so rich and unusual that we must tell others about it. “The Fish” reminds me why I read poems on the bus: to wake my eyes for the day.
I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
—It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
—if you could call it a lip—
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.
David Berry grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the Secret City of the Cumberland Mountains. He met Nishta, a fellow Tennessean, at summer camp in 2000, and they have been friends ever since. Since 2001, he has lived in Houston, where he more or less acclimated to life on a coastal plain. Dave reads and sometimes writes poetry and is grateful to live in a city with a rich literary life.
Today’s post–the third in my National Poetry Month series–is especially meaningful because its author is the person who first inspired me to take a second look at poetry. Please enjoy this honest, timely meditation from my friend Katherine. –Nishta
I don’t remember the moment that I was introduced to poetry. My mother read poetry to me amidst my bedtime stories as a child. My father sat at the kitchen table and wrote poetry on Saturday mornings. The first poem I remember crafting by myself for myself was during a long car ride sometime my seventh grade year. I wrote poetry off and on through high school and into college, but I only began to read poetry in those college years. That’s not quite right. I read poetry – a lot of poetry – in high school courtesy of the specially printed Tome that girls of my era at my school toted around risking permanently stooped shoulders. I was introduced to poetry, but I didn’t fall in love with poetry. We were cordial.
It might have been Jorie Graham who baffled and intrigued me; it might have been Li-Young Lee with his peaches. Something began to connect. I read the poems of Denise Levertov and found someone whose heart flickered with faith. I laughed with Billy Collins, and I breathed deeply with Mary Oliver. My poetry crush began to develop. Somewhere along the way as I met these poets, I found that I loved reading poetry and somehow that reading poetry loved me. Poetry certainly accepted my attention span, and then I discovered that poetry enlarged my faith with its metaphors and its loose ends. Then I learned that poetry swelled my voice as it hunted for beauty. We weren’t just cordial, and the flush of first love had passed, we were partners now.
I don’t write much poetry these days (insert usual litany of excuses here), but since I climb in and out of church pulpits with some regularity, I find myself leaning on others’ poetry as a second scripture. Those metaphors, so much like parables. Those loose ends, so much like my weak grasp. The hunt for beauty, so much the truest call to faith I can claim. Poetry is part of why I’m a believer, and often offers me the best words for what I believe.
I figured out somewhere along the way that I can be most faithful to poetry in its wide span. I love an anthology more than a single poet’s voice – perhaps the Tome shaped more than my vertebrae. Or maybe it’s because poetry is another scripture, and my Bible is an anthology of stories and poems and perspectives and strangeness and of the faithful seeking forward. If you’re looking to fall in love or just interested in meeting a poet or two, try Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems or the (often unfortunately named) anthologies curated by Roger Housden. They are as worn as my Book of Common Prayer.
As for my choice of “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, this isn’t the first poem I loved. It’s not even my most recent favorite. But it’s the one that I thought of immediately when Nishta invited me to share. Now she tells me that my post will go up on Good Friday, a day of darkness that for me as a Christian must be lived and not avoided. A day for all the hurt and the pain that is all too real. “Kindness” speaks to that, and also professes the hope that follows. If, as someone has said, our bruises and wounds are how the light gets in, then when we rise battered but not broken, that’s how the light gets out.
“it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,/ only kindness that ties your shoes/
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread”
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
“Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, from The Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. © Eighth Mountain Press, 1995.
Katherine McQuiston Bush is a wife of an actual public servant, mother of twin boys, younger sister, second daughter, all too fair-weather friend to many, Episcopal priest, school chaplain, occasional writer, secret blogger, poetry reader, and friend of Nishta’s for something like 15 years now.
Today I am pleased to bring you the second entry in my National Poetry Month series, from my dear, dear friend Courtney Rath. Special thanks to Lisa Seger of Blue Heron Farm for letting me use these wonderful photos. –Nishta
For a long time I thought poetry was something to be worked at and worked on, something to be studied, perhaps appreciated, but only after careful explication. Poetry was not about my life.
Until it was.
The poem that changed things for me was Galway Kinnell’s “St. Francis and the Sow.” I remember reading the fourth line, “for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing,” and stopping short. “Um, no. No.” But then the next two lines, in the moment of my reading them, made something real in the world that had never been possible for me before: “sometimes it is necessary/ to reteach a thing its loveliness.” Yes.
This poem finds its way back to me in moments when I need it most. For example, during National Poetry Month last year, I was trying out some yoga classes at a local studio. Though I’ve developed many ways to compensate for it, I am really quite shy, and newness (finding my way around new spaces, figuring out the procedures at new places, talking to new people) is often anxiety-producing for me. Before class, I was nervously wandering in the hallway reading the notices on a bulletin board when I discovered an envelope full of folded paper. It was the paper I noticed first, lovely and marbleized, folded and secured with a paper strap in a contrasting color. Inside each little paper package was a poem, offered to yogis to celebrate National Poetry Month. When I unfolded my selection, I rediscovered St. Francis.
St. Francis and the Sow
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
I have offered this poem as a gift, too, my version of paying it forward. Last fall, I taught my first class to teachers-to-be; once again, the newness of it—along with the fact that teaching teachers is what I’ve come to graduate school to prepare for and here I was doing it for the first time—was terrifying. My students were terrified, too, overwhelmed by the workload of courses and student teaching, the prospect of changing the lives of their students, and the project of discovering themselves as teachers. I offered St. Francis to them in our last night of class. To me, teaching is about helping students to see possibilities for themselves, to help them be the best version of themselves, to retell them, in words and in touch, that they are lovely.
Most days I think poems are the best teachers.
Courtney L. Rath is a former high school English teacher and current Ph.D. candidate in Education at the University of Oregon. She is currently engaged in a dissertation project that works to disrupt typical (and typically unhelpful) narratives about teaching and replace them with multifaceted stories that paint a realistic, complex picture for pre-service teachers. When she’s not grappling with articles on theoretical physics and posthumanism, Courtney spends her time cooking, knitting, and dancing. She lives with her husband John and their dachshund Tillie in Eugene.
Some days you feel hollowed out and broken open, extra vulnerable to everything.
There isn’t a reason, though there may be some contributing factors: your partner’s unexpected four-night absence, your subsequent binging on young adult novels, your face-to-face visit with friends whose gleam of brightness despite a recent string of trials both broke and mended your heart. Except that you don’t think this is something that can be explained anyway.
This is our thrown state as human beings, full of terror and awe. You lie in bed at night and think about, really think about, the fact that you will someday have to mourn the woman you love, or else she will have to mourn you first. You think, the world is full of more beauty and more sorrow than I can comprehend, and you try to cry, you try to write about it, but that doesn’t help, so you go to the gym to sweat through some of what you feel, but you forgot your headphones so there isn’t any music, just all of your thoughts that swirl and swirl. It is the most first world of all first world problems: too many feelings and not enough earbuds.
This is why we need poems.
I, like many people, did not “get” poetry for a long time. I thought it was always either vague or cheesy or deliberately obtuse, and I had no patience for it. Even as I got to high school and college and graduate school, and lovely, kind friends and teachers shared poems with me, poems that I could begin to appreciate, to enjoy, to consider, I still felt like I didn’t really get it.
Then my father died, and I understood what poetry was for. Poetry is for the times that you feel so tenderized that you are too raw for complete sentences. When fragments are all you can find room for. When you need someone to serve witness to what you see, to know that another has seen it too. This is what a poem is for. This is how I fell in love with poems.
I had the great pleasure of meeting the poet Tony Hoagland in February, at a poetry workshop he conducted for teachers. It was a perspective-shifting weekend that had me fall in love with poetry all over again, and for a whole host of new reasons. Tony has argued, in his tremendous Harper’s Magazine piece “Twenty Little Poems that Could Save America,” that we teachers need to re-think our approach to poetry so that we can bring its power to our students.
“[W]e need its aliveness, its respect for the subconscious, its willingness to entertain ambiguity; we need its plaintive truth-telling about the human condition and its imaginative exhibitions of linguistic freedom, which confront the general culture’s more grotesque manipulations. We need the emotional training sessions poetry conducts us through. We need its previews of coming attractions: heartbreak, survival, failure, endurance, understanding, more heartbreak.”
And it’s not just the students who need poems. It’s grownups, too.
Since April is National Poetry Month, I decided to ask some of my favorite people—poets, readers, and teachers—to share about a poem that carries special meaning for them. For some, it’s the first one they fell in love with; for others, it’s one that they return to, over and over again. I want to drape my little piece of the internet with poetry because I believe in its power, and in our inherent human craving for it.
Mary Oliver was, in a sense, a gateway poet for me, as she has been for many others, my first toe-dip into previously unexplored waters. I kept her collection House of Light—a gift from my friend Katherine, my first poetry apostle, if you will–at my father’s hospital bedside during the three weeks it took him to die. I read the poem below, from that collection, aloud to him each day, and then again at his funeral, during my eulogy. For me, this poem will always and forever carry the urgency of that day, the freshness of grief, and the conviction that the world is more hopelessly beautiful than I can ever say.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
The one who has flung herself out of the grass,
The one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
Who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
Who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention,
How to fall down into the grass,
How to kneel down in the grass,
How to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
Which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?