Thoughts on Poetry in Winter
We may be turning and turning in a polar vortex, with April, or what folks in the creative-writing biz call poetry month, seeming like an impossible dream, but poetry is nevertheless in the air right now. In Walt Whitman’s case, it’s on the air: Apple’s ad for iPad Air, “Your Verse,” which debuted on January 12, includes lines from Whitman’s “O Me! O Life!” — as read by Robin Williams in a monologue from “Dead Poets Society” — ending with
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—what good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Two shorter 30-second versions — “Light Verse” (possibly the first time in literary history that the word “light” has been used in reference to Whitman, and a misrepresentation of the opening of “O Me!”) and “Sound Verse” — which begins with “To quote from Whitman, ...” have since aired.
This series represents Whitman’s second starring role in contemporary advertising: a 2009 ad campaign for Levi’s featured excerpts from two Whitman poems, “Pioneers! O Pioneers,” recorded by Will Geer for Folkways Records in 1957, and “America,” read by Whitman himself in an 1890 wax-cylinder recording.
It isn’t so hard to imagine Whitman embracing subsequent new technology. The opening alone of his “Song of Myself” — “I celebrate myself,” later revised and expanded to “I celebrate myself, and sing myself” — marks not only the start, as a number of critics have argued, of modern poetry, but also arguably the start of social media.
If the ego of that I drives and sustains the work, there is also room not only for his sprawling catalogs of life but also for “you,” the reader, who appears as early as the second line. The point was, always, connection: Whitman believed that poetry could heal a nation torn apart by financial concerns and ugly politics and policies (see David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography). To adapt Wordsworth’s sonnet on Milton, “London, 1802”: “[Whitman], thou should’st be living at this hour; / [America] hath need of thee: she is a fen/ Of stagnant waters...”
Whitman isn’t the only poetic presence evoked this month; another 19th-century giant — the one who said, “I’m Nobody. Who are you?” — has also made a public appearance.
Here’s Emily Dickinson — showing up ironically and wonderfully — in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” in Rebecca Mead’s essay on the Dickinson projects of poet and visual artist Jen Bervin (“Back of the Envelope” Jan. 27, 2014). What an image: Dickinson, dressed in white and wearing oversized sunglasses, arriving in Manhattan among fanfare, being driven to a borrowed townhouse, then shutting the door, pouring a glass of wine, and reading about herself in The New Yorker.
Why do I find these recent appearances of Whitman and Dickinson so exhilarating — so hopeful? Aside from the pleasure I take in finding any mention of poetry outside of the time frame of April/Poetry Month, it’s heartening to come upon these references in the midst of reading article after article on the death of the humanities.
For, if there have been times of personal and/or professional doubt when I wanted to say, with Marianne Moore, “I too dislike it” (“Poetry”) or when I wanted to side with W. H. Auden’s pronouncement, early in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” that “poetry makes nothing happen,” there have been many more instances when I have had to acknowledge the truth that Auden arrives at by the end of that same poem: it is poetry that will “Let the healing fountain start.”
As Ezra Pound said, “Poetry is the news that stays new.”
The news is mixed, of course. It reminds us, as Mary Oliver observes in her poem “Poppies,” that “of course, / loss is the great lesson” — but even in its — and our — darkest moments, poetry continues to answer one of our deepest needs, summed up by a character in Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club: “I wanted to be found.”
That is the secret of poetry’s fresh (psychic) news: quite simply and quite complexly, poems find us, and then they encourage us, as Jorie Graham says in “Afterwards,” to “begin with the world.”
We are in the car, for I am driving my three children somewhere — in those years I was always driving them somewhere — when my 7-year-old son asks me from the back seat, “You like poems, right?” I tell him yes. After a beat of several moments, he asks me, “Do you like bugs?” “Some” I say, suspecting that he has a secret agenda. Several weeks later on Mother’s Day, he brings me the gift he has kept hidden in his room, his pick from the “Reading is Fundamental” Program, which allows students to select a book to keep. He chose, for me, Paul Fleischman’s Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, a collection of 14 poems about insects. I use the book, along with Kenneth Koch’s Rose, Where Did You Get That Red, for years in writing workshops in elementary schools.
It is early on Thanksgiving morning — 3:00 a.m., the dark night of the soul. I am sitting with my father in a cubicle in the ER. He came in here over two hours ago, in pain. The nursing home called me just after midnight, and I told them that I would meet the ambulance. Now my father is sleeping peacefully; I study him: his still-beautiful hands and the striking high cheekbones of his face. I let my mind empty, and lines from Stanley Kunitz’s “The Testing Tree” arrive: “The heart breaks and breaks / and lives by breaking.” And then I remember hearing Kunitz himself reading the lines and how the members of the audience, a good-sized crowd on a warm September day, wept. Now, my father is sleeping; across the city, my mother lies awake, waiting for my phone call.
One spring break, I go to the private facility where my sister is a therapist, to conduct a writing workshop. The facility has a program that reunites women with their young children. I prepared for the workshop by gathering several poems about mothers and children, and then, at the last moment, I added William Carlos Williams’s “Between Walls.” At the workshop, I hand out copies and read the poem. There is a moment of silence, and then one woman asks, “Are we supposed to fill in the blanks?” A second woman says, “Wait, it’s already a sentence.” And then a third woman looks up — she is tapping the end of the poem, the image of broken but shining “pieces of a green / bottle” — and she says, “It’s us.”
My father’s favorite poem is by Billy Collins: it’s “The Country,” the one about the fire-starter mouse, “the creature / for one bright, shining moment / suddenly thrust ahead of his time.” We always start with this. Then I say, “Here’s another one I think you’ll like, and he says, “All right,” and he folds those (beautiful) hands in his lap, as I read “I Chop Some Onions While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice,’ ” which never fails to bring me, like the speaker in the poem, close to tears, and my father says, “That’s a good one. Thank you.”
On another day, I compliment Katie, a young woman working at my father’s nursing home, on her striking new tattoo: it’s a delicate feather, on the inside of her wrist. I ask her what made her choose that design, and she starts to explain that there is a poem that she has always loved. “Yes,” I tell her, “Emily Dickinson! ‘Hope is the thing with feathers,’ ” and Katie’s eyes light up. “That’s it,” she tells me, “that’s exactly it.”
Carolyn Foster Segal is professor emerita of English at Cedar Crest College. She currently teaches at Muhlenberg College.