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National Poetry Month
April 4, 2008 - 3:06pm

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The Academy of American Poets, who originated National Poetry Month 12 years ago for the purpose of “bring[ing] together publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, schools, and poets around the country to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture,” offers us great good things this month, most of it free: daily poem by e-mail, a spiffy poster, news of poets, readings, new books, the results of a Poetfans contest, and much more.

The Academy suggests 30 ways to celebrate Poetry Month, and today’s mission is to “put some poetry in an unexpected place.” Perhaps this blog will serve.

As an undergrad I organized a campus visit by Gwendolyn Brooks. Everyone else was too in awe to get her around safely, so I had a blissful day with her and her husband, poet Henry Blakely. I didn’t deserve it. At one point, Ms. Brooks was onstage, and Mr. Blakely, standing in the wings with me, asked what I wrote. I said I was in a class to write short stories. He said, No, what poems have you written? I said I didn’t write poetry—indeed, I had barely read any, but I wasn’t admitting that—and he said no one could write prose without being a poet first.

I’ve come to realize: Poets are where the human spirit goes when the rest of us are asleep. O! if I had known in adolescence what I know now, I’d have dropped my desperate doomed early loves and ignored the stirring desire for martial adventures. To have loved words enough then to now be a poet-translator-scholar in China, maybe, even a double-wide, mac-and-cheese poet in Lower Alabama! (Mrs. Churm prefers the China scenario.)

I’ve been reading more poetry, and prose on poetry, than anything else the past year, and I wanted to share some of those delights.

  • The book series Poets on Poetry from University of Michigan Press is excellent. (William Meredith, in Poems Are Hard to Read: “It is easier to achieve an identity, to see a unique vision, through misgivings, grievances, despair, on the one hand, or through utopias, sentimental optimisms, on the other. Only a very large and assured artist can retain his sense of self while deferring to a created order.”
  • My favorite new collection this year: Robert Pinsky’s Gulf Music, a National Book Critics Circle “Good Read.".
  • A little scholarly help from our friend Cary Nelson, who’s made a life of reading poetry, as well as activism and sartorial splendor. His Modern American Poetry site is invaluable.
  • CruelestMonth, a book blog as bright as a mango, from the good people of HarperCollins. (You haven’t posted in a while, fellas. Bottom-line okay?)
  • And of course this site from the publisher of Poetry magazine.

For those rough boys of my youth who still think poetry is precious, here’s a ditty from E.E. Cummings. As the wise man said, it won’t be to everyone’s taste:

the boys i mean are not refined

the boys i mean are not refined
they go with girls who buck and bite
they do not give a fuck for luck
they hump them thirteen times a night

one hangs a hat upon her tit
one carves a cross on her behind
they do not give a shit for wit
the boys i mean are not refined

they come with girls who bite and buck
who cannot read and cannot write
who laugh like they would fall apart
and masturbate with dynamite

the boys i mean are not refined
they cannot chat of that and this
they do not give a fart for art
they kill like you would take a piss

they speak whatever's on their mind
they do whatever's in their pants
the boys i mean are not refined
they shake the mountains when they dance

And as antidote to that one, let me leave you with a gorgeous poem about another bad boy and his women from Brigit Pegeen Kelly, whom I am honored to know a little:

Wild Turkeys: The Dignity of the Damned

Because they are shame, and cannot flee from it,
And cannot hide it, they go slow,
One great variegated male and his harem of four wild hens

Halting our truck as they labor
To cross the road into the low fields they are indentured to.
They go slow, their hearts hardened to this;

Those laughingstock, shriveled, lipstick red hearts—
Swinging on throat and foreneck
Beneath the narrow heads that are the blue

Not of the sky but of convicts’ shaved skulls—
Have been long indurated by rains and winds and filth
And the merciless exposures of the sun.

They do not look up, they do not fly—
Except at night when dark descends like shame,
When shame is lost to dark, and then,

Weak-winged, they heave themselves
Into the low tree roosts they drop from in the morning,
Crashing like swag-bellied bombers

Into the bare fields and stingy stands of trees
They peck their stones and seeds from.
Yesterday they were targets, but now they go slow,

As if this lacuna between winter and spring, still gray,
But full of the furred sumacs’ pubescent probings,
And the faint oily scent of wild onion vials crushed open,

Gave hope to even them, or as if they knew
All seasons to be one, the going back,
The crossing over, the standing still, all the same,

When the state you defend is a lost state,
When lurching into an ungainly run
Only reminds you that there is nowhere to run to.

And this movement, this jerking
Of these heavy goffered carapaces forward,
This dumb parading that looks at first glance furtive,

Like skulking, the hunkered shoulders, the lowered heads,
Reveals, as we watch, the dignity that lines
Of pilgrim-sick possess as they halt toward some dark grotto—

A faith beyond the last desire to possess faith,
The soldier’s resolve to march humpbacked straight into death
Until it breaks like oil over him

And over all that is lost.

FromSong, BOA Editions, 1994. Reprinted with author’s permission.

 

 

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