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…
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.
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
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.
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.