Leadership in poetry is making the case for poetry

The Post’s On Leadership series talks to poet Billy Collins, and he quickly swings the conversation away from himself to how a medium can lead.

Certainly one thing a poem can do is give you an imaginative pleasure by taking you places very suddenly that prose can’t take you, because poetry enjoys the broadest and deepest and highest and most thrilling level of imaginative freedom of any of the written arts.

Another thing poetry can do is connect you with the history of human emotion. That’s why at critical points in our lives, at funerals or weddings or other rituals, often a poem is read. The poem shows us that these emotions, love and grief, have been going on through the centuries; and that the emotion we’re feeling today is not just our emotion, it’s the human emotion.

Poetry is the only history we have of human emotions. Most history books, what we call history books, are stories of battles and treaties, negotiations and beheadings and coronations. But poetry is the only reminder of this very essential part of being human, which is one’s emotional life and all the dimensions it entails.

Weekend as ‘a small anti-seed’

Been off the work grid for a few days. Here’s what I’ve been reading.

Kay Ryan, “In Case of Complete Reversal,” in the new issue of Poetry.

Born into each seed
is a small anti-seed
useful in case of some
complete reversal…

Douglas Kearney, “Afrofuturism (Blanche says, “Meh”)“.

are we there yet?
are we we yet?
are we we there?
are there we there yet?
are we here yet there?
there, there.

Edward Thomas, “Lights Out.” Posted a link to this one last week, finding it a beautiful poem about the powerless and strangely desire-less feeling of falling asleep. Rereading after learning he wrote it while deep in WWI.

Danez Smith, “alternate names for black boys.” I was bummed this poem didn’t run in Poetry‘s Poem of the Day feed this month. Given the events of the month, how could the magazine not mention one of the best poems it’s published this year? But apparently I was just looking in the wrong place. Editors reran a link, with several follow-ups, on the magazine’s Twitter.

Eavan Boland, “The Lost Art of Letter Writing.” This one kills me. It will probably do the same to you. It will raise up every letter you haven’t sent, every story or emotion or interest or question you’ve wanted to share but failed to put into words, and dump them all over your slow mortal head.

The ratio of daylight to handwriting
Was the same as lacemaking to eyesight.

Poems for returning to work

The opposite of my weekend-arrival-poetry post the other day. The morning comes a little too early. The weather a little too hot. Etc.

Rodrigo Toscano, “At a Bus Stop in El Barrio.”

Tha’ vahnahnah go-een to keel joo.

Excuse me?

Tha’ vahnahnah    …    go-een to keel joo.

I’m sorry, I don’t understand.

Alexa Selph, “Market Forecast.”

Adjectives continue
their downward spiral,
with adverbs likely to follow.

Katharine Coles, “The Same Old Riddle.”

We keep trying to kill it, split it, hack
It to itsy bits. We suspend it
On the wall where we can see it
Passing. We hang it around our necks

Michael Earl Craig, “Advice for Horsemen.”

When trying to catch a horse it helps if you look away.
Eye contact just pisses them off.

Dean Young, “Romanticism 101.”

Then I realized I hadn’t secured the boat.
Then I realized my friend had lied to me.
Then I realized my dog was gone
no matter how much I called in the rain.
All was change.

Poem that stuck this summer

Because… so different, powerful, net-dropping, or all of the above.

James Baldwin, “Untitled.” Possible about the maturing of the civil rights movement. Or about celebrity. In either case, gently stunning. First lines: “Lord, / when you send the rain, / think about it, please, / a little?”

Caroline Bergvall’s “From ‘DRIFT.’ ” Part words and part images, the poem begins with pages of rough lines and slashes and builds to words blowing apart into their letters in what seems to be a storm at sea. Seems to be.

Ada Limon, “State Bird.” Metaphor breaks your heart.

Samiya Bashir, “Carnot Cycle.” Beautiful application of geology to life. Made me look up what in the world the Carnot Cycle was. Wikipedia:

The Carnot cycle is a theoretical thermodynamic cycle proposed by Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot in 1824…. It can be shown that it is the most efficient cycle for converting a given amount of thermal energy into work, or conversely, creating a temperature difference (e.g. refrigeration) by doing a given amount of work.

Gabrielle Calvocoressi, “Captain Lovell, [‘My eyes are shaky and glimmer like the stars’].” Don’t read too quickly. Opens itself on reread, research.

My eyes are shaky and glimmer like the stars.
My head turns to the left and it moves
just like a pendulum. The kids laugh and shake
it back to me, all the ways I’m stupid,
not like them. But I know how the grass sounds
when the locusts come, like a spaceship
taking off and how it makes the air shake.

It turns out Calvocoressi is writing about her nystagmus, a condition “of involuntary eye movement, acquired in infancy or later in life, that may result in reduced or limited vision.” And Calvocoressi creates this with it.

April Bernard, “Anger.”

When, during my travels along the Gulf Coast,
the intruder returned in the night
and I did not call the cops again but stood
with a butcher knife facing the door, yelling, “Come in!”
although this time it was just the wind flapping
and banging the screen door — 

Tim Seibles, “Mosaic.” One of the longest and most enrapturing Poetry‘s published this year. “In America skin was / where you belonged, a who / you were with, a reason / someone might: how — at the / parties of hands unknown — / astonishing deaths / could meet you.”

Jane Hirshfield, “My Life Was the Size of My Life.”

My life was the size of my life.
Its rooms were room-sized,
its soul was the size of a soul.

Mary Karr, “Descending Theology: The Resurrection.”

Poems that start the weekend

The stresses, discontents, all melting or traded away for better. So, seven poems and two joyous art-poems I’ve found here and there this summer…

Matthew Sweeney, “Gold.”

After the murder, I called a meeting
to see if we were happy. I declared
I was not — I said I liked the man
we shot. You all disagreed with this.

Joanie Mackowski, “Consciousness.”

How it is fickle, leaving one alone to wander

the halls of the skull with the fluorescents
softly flickering. It rests on the head

like a bird nest, woven of twigs and tinsel
and awkward as soon as one stops to look.

Elaine Equi, “Still Life #1.”

Look deep into the blueberry eyes of breakfast.

Joshua Mehigan, “The Fair.”

The fair slid into town just as a clown
slides into pants. The fit was loose but right.

Mitch Roberson, “Every Day We Are Dancers.”

It begins with the lewd macarena
each of us performs in the shower,
then the modified twist we are hip to
with that ever-absorbent partner, the towel

Tony Fitzpatrick, “The Atomic Oriole.”

Gary J. Whitehead, “Making Love in the Kitchen.”

We do it with knives in hand,
blue tongues licking the bottoms of pots,
steam fogging the windows from hearts
of artichokes being strained.

Rita Dove, “Flirtation.”

Outside the sun
has rolled up her rugs

and night strewn salt
across the sky. My heart

is humming a tune
I haven’t heard in years!

Mary Mapes Dodge, “The Moon Came Late.”

Dealing with the days

The Age Demanded” by Ernest Hemingway

The age demanded that we sing
And cut away our tongue.

My head has been too stuck in the above mode this last month. Too much going on, too many hours at the office, sapping the good stuff of life too quickly and consistently, before the tree can replenish itself, and I haven’t been feeling myself. Or reading. Or watching movies. Or just being happy.

But like I said the other day, Maine was restorative. And gave glimpses of an alternative life. And has come amid serious digging. Digging out of the hole, catching up with what overtook me earlier this year and especially this summer. I’m starting to have some success there, I think. We’ll see.

So, I’ve moved on to poems about digging out and replenishing.

Living with the News” by W.S. Merwin.

Can I get used to it day after day
a little at a time while the tide keeps
coming in faster the waves get bigger
building on each other breaking records

We grow accustomed to the Dark-” by Emily Dickinson.

The Bravest – grope a little –
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead –
But as they learn to see –

Ways of Talking” by Ha Jin.

After losing a land and then giving up a tongue,
we stopped talking of grief
Smiles began to brighten our faces.
We laugh a lot, at our own mess.

Heart” by Sue Song.

Forgive those years I left you
pounding your Morse of grief, alone—

On the other side of refilling, I hear there are good things and good sleep.

Send Me a Leaf” by Bertolt Brecht.

Lights Out” by Edward Thomas.

Here love ends,
Despair, ambition ends;
All pleasure and all trouble,
Although most sweet or bitter,
Here ends in sleep that is sweeter
Than tasks most noble.

More NoMa graffiti poems

After I posted about the Robert Frost graffiti on the sidewalk a block from NPR HQ, friends alerted me to sibling graffiti nearby at NoMa Metro.


“With out you, today’s emotions are just the scurf of yesterdays” is a line from Amelie. Which was a terrific movie and poetic in many ways. But the source adds new mystery. Is the graffiti artist trying to broaden our poetic definitions? Or random grabbing from a quote site? The theme certainly fits with that of the Frost quote: sadness at loss of someone close.

And — Jess pointed me toward the New Yorker blog post about mysterious poetry turning up in Central Park. (In the last month, I’ve fallen so behind on my reading. It’s the worst.) About the placard found: “I was enchanted to find a park sign filled with poetry rather than the usual mishmash of information, rules, and thinly veiled threats. And such doting poetry: the park, the sign implied, had not been entirely beautiful without me….”

There’s apparently one more poem near the Metro. I think I’ve seen it but only too quickly in passing. Need to photograph and look it up.

Frost was here


Spray-painted verse appeared the other week on a sidewalk near work. I took a pic and planned to look it up later. I remembered the photo today and the source came up quickly: the end of Robert Frost’s “Reluctance.”

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

Wonderful — and what a mystery. Cool Disco Bob! How often does Frost get graffiti? Who’s the writer? A graffitist with a MFA and a broken heart?

Who’s the intended recipient? An NPR staffer? A resident of the next-door apartments? They make up most of the people walking that way down the block. Are there other verses in the neighborhood? I hate to see graffiti in a beautifully rebuilt block. But I also wonder if any others find this mystery intriguing and a little warming. Does good graffiti makes good neighbors?

Four poems for tonight’s rain


It just finished raining. Pouring. Barely thundering. Barely lightening. At least where I was, it was all about the rain. There may be a few drops still falling, but a drainspout above my apartment porch makes it hard to tell. Above is my contribution to this evening’s sky and rainbow pictures.

So… here are four poems about rain and water that I’ve loved recently.

Kazim Ali’s “Rain” because what a glorious opening. “With thick strokes of ink the sky fills with rain. / Pretending to run for cover but secretly praying for more rain.” With a minimum of words, the poem grows more intense.

Brooklyn Copeland’s “Prayer’s End” because the stutter-step of the lines mimics drops as the poem pursues nature and finds nature leading it back through time and what time inflects. “The wind / speaks fluent / rain.”

Don Patterson’s “The Wave” because anthropomorphizing so often falls short, and this rolls as smoothly and powerfully as what it captures. “For months I’d moved across the open water / like a wheel under its skin….”

E.E. Cummings’ “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond” (lack of space, his, I think) because the poem’s end may be familiar, “nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands,” but the journey to that point is one I’d forgotten. We usually think of the poet’s twisting fun. Here, passion rules.

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

Ten poems for summer because it will be 97 degrees tomorrow

Emily Dickinson’s “I Dwell in Possibility–” because you think you know a poem and then read it after not seeing it for a while and you are surprised by the breeze across the field and the bright light from above that isn’t as hot as you expect or deserve. You are saved. You are not the 97 degrees.

Beth Weaver-Kreider’s “Pebbles” because when you went to the beach you ran into the water on its rougher days, harbingers of the hurricane approaching you might say later though earlier you hadn’t seen weather reports and the storm might not have been responsible at all, and waves threw you down as if to throw you out and filled your trunk pockets with pebbles and their shell cousins and sand, ground like the waves sought to grind you, you big-footed interloping beast.  But you love them anyway.

Maxine W. Kumin’s “Together” because this poem tells the rest of the fantasia above, after the waves win over you but your story doesn’t end. Why should it? “The water closing / over us and the / going down is all.  / Gills are given.  / We convert in a / town of broken hulls / and green doubloons.” And it turns out your story is a love story. Did you know?

Ron Padgett’s “The Love Cook” because short and simple is how love sometimes is when you’re not smashing about in the ocean and if you don’t allow yourself the time or deletion of pretense or vantage points, then you have some thinking to do. Or not some thinking. Or some not-thinking. Forget where you were. You have serious not-thinking to do.

Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” because when you initiate your not-thinking, when you’ve disposed of your vantage point and the horizon itself vanishes, you begin to work from the inside out and love is not an activity nor an observation but the first fire of yourself and then you have choices about what to do with yourself but fire can do most anything.

Stacie Cassarino’s “Summer Solstice” because a question like “Where is the evidence I will learn / to be good at loving?” is a surprisingly good one for the longest day of the year, in which we realize more than the rest of them that we can never take full advantage of the day, 100% advantage, every-minute-of-sunlight advantage. The poem gives lines destined for a wall-hanging, e.g., “I am visiting my life with reckless plenitude.” But the previous line is “We measure the isopleths.” Screw you, wall-hanging!

(The word turns out to be perfect.)

David Mason’s “In the Mushroom Summer” because “the ineffectual panic of a squirrel” is not only my favorite line of the summer (maybe!) but also a very silly way to set up sadness and removal of sadness, which is cool.

Hailey Leithauser’s “Bad Sheep” because summer is not all sunny days and prat-falling squirrels and balanced examinations of self. Summer is also the worst. Like you. You are the worst, and there’s nothing you can about it until the poem ends or the day gives up. Tomorrow you can be the best. But today you are stuck with yourself and the day til it ends, unrelenting heat not enticed by your offer of ice cream or air-conditioning or water.

Gwendolyn Brooks’ “truth” because it is too easy to think summer is just about summer. The seasons distill us in ways the days do not. The poem is about race and privilege, and no American summer is without either.

Linda Pastan’s “Eyes Only” because Pastan begins her poem, “Dear lost sharer / of silences” and no poem has hooked me so deeply this summer. I want to write you nearly every hour of the day and only infrequently find words, not specifically the right words, just words at all. I wish we shared the silences as Pastan means, with sharing in all its definitional splendor. Too often silence shares us, and words we churn for work beat their wings into numbing and injurious hums. I have higher expectations of summer.