caroll ann duffy | mr. midas

I rarely reblog, but this is a particularly enjoyable piece from Britain’s poet laureate.

poetry dispatch & other notes from the underground

POETRY DISPATCH No.386 | November 27, 2012

Carol Ann Duffy

Editor’s Note: Though the “Poet Laureate” honor has never been my cup of tea (given the politics present in such selections), I do occasionally visit whatever fashionable Laureates have been honored on the American scene just to see if they have done anything of value for the poetry cause while holding office.

I’m pleased to remind/report that though Billy Collins (far from Laureate material in my humble estimation), sure did one fine thing in his brief “hour upon the stage”: edit the anthology, POETRY 180, A Turning Back to Poetry, an anthology of contemporary poetry that speaks so plainly, so perfectly to one and all.

He also wrote a magnificent intro to this book, wherein, in part, he describes the discomfort many readers experience dealing with a poem. Having experienced the war zone of trying to teach poetry on the…

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Retooling with Rumi

Rumi_Wikipedia
Rumi, courtesy en.Wikipedia.org

After a series of personal challenges in the past six months (fire, three moves, close deaths, and associated challenges), I’m baaaaack . . . . Now that I’ve dusted off, it’s back to teaching, pulling out the poetry manuscripts, mixing things up (big-time), greasing wheels, feeding my inner nerd, hoping I remember how to see upside-down through my legs like a kid, or, as Fitzgerald famously said, breathing underwater.

I’ve been reading poets new and ancient, the most ancient of whom is Rumi. From eight centuries back, he speaks more clearly through translators like Coleman Barks than most, regardless of their epoch or their age, as in these lines from “Who Says Words with My Mouth?”: “Who looks out with my eyes? What is my soul? / I cannot stop asking” (Selected Poems by Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks [New York: HarperCollins, 1995]). On September 11th this year, at an interfaith community commemoration at Hudson River Music Hall featuring preachers, poets like Paul Pines, and musicians including Duke Ellington‘s granddaughter Mercedes Ellington, I had the privilege and joy of reading Rumi. Preparing for that event, I immersed myself in Rumi’s ecstatic love and wisdom, a tasty tonic for the soul.

If you had told me two decades ago that very soon our culture would broadly celebrate a thirteenth century Persian ecstatic mystic poet, I wouldn’t even have believed you. Rumi’s appeal transcends his faith tradition, eschews false piety, embraces all humanity. You just have to sip his work to get it.

So, if you’re here, if you read or write poetry, what revives your soul? For whose poems do you head when your head is down? Scroll down a little and post a comment, please.

For Adrienne Rich

They led a writing workshop together in Austin...
Rich (right), with writer Audre Lorde (left) and Meridel Le Sueur (middle) in Austin Texas, 1980 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the memory of Adrienne Rich, one of our country’s finest poets who died last week, I offer the following poem, penned a couple of decades ago and revised very recently:

The New Androgyne

She will be like the deaf mute                                                 turned composer:

ink will pulse               through her veins the color

of half-lit midnight                  when grass sways slightly

By turns she will be            gardener and stargazer                  peasant

and prophet                      bag-lady                                   and carpetbagger

pointillist                                                                 and modern dancer

delivering mother                                and midwife delivering

the mother                                           and her child

You will see her                           gradually

rising with the sun                   her origins uncertain

her language                        raw and bold                       her hands stained

strong-boned                                 her eyes deep                    as Andromeda

She will take                                   by the first two fingers

anyone who will                             enter the labyrinth                               listen

to the crackling of leaves                     as she infuses them                with breath

and witness                         her gypsy dance                as she steadily

wrenches                                 an arc of bone                          from her side

–Kathleen McCoy

In the past two weeks I’ve had a house fire, attended a magical manuscript conference, and lost Adrienne Rich.  While I won’t forget any of these occurrences, one of them I can now acknowledge with this piece. For the way she championed the oppressed of all types–gays and lesbians, men and women of color, the imprisoned, the marginalized, the impoverished, and the politically oppressed (all people who have been silenced or ignored)–and did it with beauty, grace, and always, compassion, I am deeply grateful.

Rich helped to show the world the value of the women’s liberation motto that “The personal is political.” This is a good time to reread some of her unforgettable poems like An Atlas of the Difficult World, “Sources,” “Integrity,” “Diving Into the Wreck,” “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” and “Twenty-One Love Poems.” Or you may want to read one of her landmark essays such as “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson,” “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” “Split at the Root,” or her historic rejection of the National Medal of Arts in 1997, when she dared to write to Jane Alexander, then head of the National Endowment for the Arts, that she could not accept an award for a few privileged artists when “the people at large are so dishonored” in this country.

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What Poetry Requires

Poetry–like music, like theater, like many arts and community activities–brings people together. And when people get together, as the world screen has displayed prominently in the past year, stuff happens–good stuff. Empowerment. Liberation. Education. Social justice.

Political rallying is not the only kind of populist empowerment. Poets do it too. And the powers-that-be are threatened.

As an adult educator, I warn students that some of the sacred cows of their childhood are about to be put to pasture. Education is subversive. So is the message of Jesus (you know, the Jesus that tossed the money-grubbers out of the temple; that showed up the Romans by feeding the hungry that the powerful would rather conscript or enslave; that said, and showed, that love is a verb.) So poetry, too, is subversive.

Across the world, poets are still being persecuted, as truth-tellers always are. In China, Zhu Yufu has been imprisoned for subversion for responding to the populist movements with a poem that inspired followers to initiate a “Jasmine Revolution.”

Some exciting developments here in the States render clear and apparent the links, the possibilities, between poetry and justice. Split This Rock! in Washington, D.C. is a great example. There, March 22-25, poets gathered for “four days of poetry, community building, and creative transformation.” The lineup there includes such literary luminaries as Alice Walker, Jose Padua, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sonia Sanchez, and others.

And I was at the Colrain Conference in Massachusetts with Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo Press, Ellen Dore Watson of the Masschusetts Review and Smith College, and founder Joan Houlihan with a dozen other poets who constantly reminded me that poetry without authentic compassion is worthless. Poetry requires compassion.

Chinese depiction of Jesus and the rich man (M...
Chinese depiction of Jesus and the rich man (Mark 10) - 1879, Beijing, China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s to poetry. To subversion. To justice. To love as a verb. And to those who are willing to risk their freedom for the sake of truth, love, justice–and poetry.