Of Poets and Poetry

“‘Does anyone ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?’
‘Saints and poets, maybe, they do some.'”

Thornton Wilder, Our Town

Seamus Heaney died last Friday. He was only 74– a bit young, in my opinion, in this late age, to shuffle off this mortal coil. His death is our loss entirely.

I don’t know his work well, which seems its own loss– as if I should have seized the opportunity to read him while he was still among us, the potential existent, I suppose, to write and thank him for his words. I first learned of him in my in-laws’ family room years ago via a visiting friend of a friend. This fellow was lanky and had hair that fell poetically over his forehead, and he carried a worn volume by Seamus (may I call him by his first name?) and somehow recognized in me a person who would be interested in poetry. “Seamus Heaney,” he said to me. “Seamus Heaney. You’ve got to read this guy.”

A few years later, Heaney won the Nobel Prize for literature.

But I didn’t read him them. I gave almost no time at all– in those days– to reading poetry. Novels were the thing. And though I was raised in the sort of family that was given to sudden outbursts of poetry recitation, we didn’t have volumes of it lying about on coffee tables.

Then my babies were born, and over the first decade or so of their lives I read them everything that A. A. Milne had scribed in verse for his own little boy, and also poetry by Rudyard Kipling and some others. Now, occasionally, my own children will recite a line or two by Milne. That’s lovely.

But my love for poetry– for grown-up (?) poetry– my need for poetry has developed quietly, too quietly, even, to take me by surprise. Years ago at a writer’s conference, I found myself buying absolutely everything that Luci Shaw had to offer: all of them slender books with beautifully photographed covers, five or six books, I think, that I maybe couldn’t afford.

There’s something romantic in that, isn’t there: poor, and buying poetry.

But I wasn’t so very poor, and romance isn’t the thing. Not for me, anyway, in poetry.

It’s the words. The words. The crystalline concision. The way that one word– just that one– will do, and does, demanding that one sit with it, attend, not meditate on it exactly but just allow it to sit, to sink, trailing its connotations even as one continues through the poem, gathering as if by static pull more words as one goes. By the end of the poem, breathless, one is laden with and lifted by them, transfixed, changed.

One recent summer, I took to saying words in threes in my mind: whatever words came, listing endlessly in triplicate, fascinated by the sounds they made in my head, marveling at their irrelevance to one another and their potential, by their proximity, to make (perhaps?) meaning: “singular,” “matted,” “triangulate.” “bison,” “metaphorical,” “archipelago.”

That kind of thing. Weird, I know– and immeasurably satisfying.

Visiting my sister and brother-in-law became–in new ways–a feast. Christopher Janke is a poet and also the editor of Slope Editions, and so their home is full of volumes of poetry. Through them, I made the acquaintance of the work of Jonah Winter and Kirsten Kaschock, whose poetry book, Unfathoms, is a word one could think about for days. I also met Betsy Wheeler and Penelope Austin, who does not have a website because she passed away before Slope published her work. But I have posted the work of Janke, Wheeler, and Austin here on this blog before, and works by both Janke and Austin hang framed for frequent perusal in my house. I will, no doubt, talk about them– especially Janke– here again.

Of course I still read novels. One must read what one is writing– that, I know, is certain. We none of us invent the wheel, you know. We learn from others.

But still I return to poetry. It is irresistible to me– both for the words and the spaces between them. It’s the space poets make, I think, that invites us in. Space for the words to take effect. So accommodating, a poet. Kind, in that way. So much writing has too many words.

On the night last February that I finished the second draft of my novel, after a solitary and celebratory dinner that included a lovely glass of prosecco and an arugula salad, I purchased (also in celebration) a volume of Seamus Heaney’s poetry in a used book store in downtown Charlottesville. I was reading that very book within the week that the poet died.

May I say it here? I will say it here, belatedly and whole-hearted: Thank you, Mr. Heaney, for your words– crystalline, spare. And thank you for celebrating with me.

And I would like to introduce you to another of my favorites, young and decidedly living– living the way that poets do, I think, which is so much more than the rest of us. Hannah Mitchell is a former student of mine, but I claim no credit for her talent, as she was my student for a brief spell, in an expository writing (of all things!) course that I taught bi-weekly (was it?) for the space of (less than) a month.

Hannahthewriter clearly understands what words can do, and occasionally news of her posting arrives in my email: small feasts that I openly instantly or save for later but always read and re-read again. She writes here, and if ever you have the option to read my work (here) or hers, you must absolutely always choose hers. Go there, and you will know why.

For my part, my email recently made an “improvement” to my account: it automatically determines whether my incoming missives are “primary” or “social” or “promotions,” and it relegates them accordingly. This is helpful on many levels, but it was not at all helpful to discover that, recently, Hannah’s posts had been deemed “social.”

This, I believe, is an error. Poetry is not social– or not merely, anyway. Poetry is primary. It is absolutely primary.

Run at Lake Ellen
Running, along the gravel trail above Lake Ellen,
dodging goose droppings,
In the heavy August post-dawn, already beady with humidity and salt sweat.
Past Booker Creek,
Which flows through Ellen into Jordan Lake,
There’s going to be a baptism, out at Jordan, in late September.
Down in the murky water where you were lowered after a confession,
around 1997.
Aluminum fishing boats, canoes,
overturned in the mucky pine roots here.
A dock, leaning into the water across the mist-surface supports one abandoned and severely faded red chair.
Susan said you could swim in it,
Lake Ellen,
during the summer.
But the weathered community bulletin board, under Boy Scout roofing, with pet-sitting numbers in cut strips at the bottom of a printed flyer,
Says the water is home to four different kinds of turtles.
Including snapping ones.
You hope nobody sees you,
With this oversized outdated iPod.
You press the shuffle with your pinkie, looking for a rhythm you can match with your black and hot pink hand-me-down Reebok shoes.
Goose feathers caught in a basketball net at the street
Twist in the east-breaking sun.
At the corner of Taylor Street,
A lush and frondy tree sprawls out over the blacktop.
Teardrop bulges, green last week, suddenly deep burgundy.
Suddenly scuppernong black.
You stop.
You’ve heard it twice in one week:
“A fig is an inverted flower.”
Once at the farmer’s market,
“Put the whole thing in your mouth,”
The grower said, “Pop it in.”
You did. It did not taste good to you.
You thought about chewing an inverted flower, and you tried to smile as you worked your jaw over the tiny seed crunches and thick, sticky skin.
(It was a large fig.)
The second time, reading a piece of junk mail from Trader Joe’s,
Addressed to a former tenant.
“Black figs from CA. $3.99 a pound!”
California is home to 98% of the country’s fig crop,
it said.
“Buy them while you can. The season doesn’t last long.”
This fig tree–
It’s in the neighbor’s yard, which is an unkempt rental yard. Overtaking the road.
This road is in the public domain.
This fig is in the road.
This fig in the road is public domain.
You pick it.
You don’t want this fig.
Not to eat it.
Just, as a sort of conquest.
A specimen of the outstanding 2% of the nation’s fig crop,
Stem-oozing fresh,
And absolutely free.
You curl it in the palm of your hand, where it fits perfectly.
Two ladies power walk by on the other side of Taylor.
You hope they don’t see
The oversized outdated iPod in your left hand,
Or the fig you just picked out of your neighbor’s tree in your right.
In the kitchen, still in your running shoes,
You cut it open.
Look at it,
For a long time.
Fleshy, inverted flower–
Until you’re ready to shower
And wash the evaporated lake off your skin.

Hannah Mitchell

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