An open house with poets

Poetry bookshelfSeveral years ago, I emailed a poem by Mary Oliver to a co-worker. She forwarded it to a friend, who then forwarded it to a friend, who then also forwarded it. In short, it went viral via corporate email. These were not poetry readers, but the timing was right, and the poem spoke to how they felt, much like Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones,” which recently went viral, but on a much larger scale, becoming famously known: an excerpt from “Good Bones” was read on the CBS drama Madam Secretary by Jay Whitman, played by Sebastian Arcelus, who took the poem out of his wallet.

I wonder if anyone who read “Good Bones” (or heard it on the TV show) got online and purchased one of Smith’s poetry books. I have a feeling that’s not the case, given poetry is “an art form determinedly ignored by most Americans,” as noted by David Orr in his book Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry. I happen to be an American with a healthy poetry bookshelf (including a copy of Smith’s book Lamp of the Body).  Some of the books on the shelf are fully read and reread, some partially read and several still unread. Pages of my favorite poems are dog-eared or flagged with slips of paper.

Here’s an excerpt from the poem “Candor” by Anne Carson that I recently fell in love with.

If you are not the free person you want to be you must find a place
to tell the truth about that. To tell how things go for you. Candor
is like a skein being produced inside the belly day after day, it has
to get itself woven out somewhere. You could whisper down a
well. You could write a letter and keep it in a drawer. You could
inscribe a curse on a ribbon of lead and bury it in the ground to lie
unread for thousands of years. The point is not to find a reader,
the point is the telling itself.

I came across this poem in Emily Berry, Anne Carson, Sophie Collins, the first book published in the revived Penguin Modern Poets series. The series originated in 1962 and ran until 1979, according to this article in The Guardian. It picked up again for a three-year period in the 1990s. These books are “succinct guides” that bring to the forefront selected work by contemporary poets.  As of today, four books have been published in this 21st century series. Each of the small paperbacks features three poets writing today, “allowing the curious reader and the seasoned lover of poetry to encounter the most exciting voices of our moment.”

Without reading much else of Carson, I dog-eared the page and moved on to Emily Berry. I don’t continuously read all the poems in a poetry book. It typically gets picked up and put down over a period of time, as I randomly read the individual poems.  And, for what it’s worth, it’s not easy for me to find poetry books that are a good match for my interests and sensibilities. The process feels like an on-going invitation to an open house with poets, where I bravely and hopefully walk into a roomful of acquaintances and strangers. I know there will be some who’ll leave me untouched and indifferent to what they have to say, or how they say it, but at least I will have spent a few minutes with them. It’s the ones who captivate me with their personal universe of insight, or the ones who write one poem, one verse or one line I’ll never forget, that make it all worthwhile. It’s because of them that I keep coming back to this open house. It’s the reason I invest in the books.

David Orr describes poets as more than “people who think of ways to write new poems,” emphasizing they are “people who imagine new ways of being and perceiving.” For me, it’s why I keep close those poets whose voices ring true for me. I suppose that’s also the reason Jay Whitman tucked “Good Bones” inside his wallet — to keep it close. Wouldn’t it be great if on another episode of Madam Secretary he pulls a poetry book from his briefcase and turns to a dog-eared page? In that small way, he could demonstrate this is an art form worth pursuing and that it’s possible to love it.

The other day, I met Debra Marquart in the The Best American Poetry 2016 anthology. Her poem “Lament” is about the suffering of North Dakota in the oil boom. Here’s an excerpt.

north dakota    I’m worried about you
the companies you keep     all these new friends     north dakota
beyond the boom, beyond the precious resources
do you really think they care what becomes of you

north dakota    you used to be the shy one
enchanted secret land loved by only a few     north dakota

The Penguin Modern Poets series is published in the U.K. and not (yet?) in the U.S. Nevertheless, the series is available via Amazon booksellers.

2 thoughts on “An open house with poets

  1. Open House — yes! Thanks for inviting me along — I absolutely love meeting any new poet who has the guts to put on display what is surely a look inside the soul.

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    1. David Orr begins his book “Beautiful and Pointless” with a humorous encounter at a party, when he tells someone he’s a poetry critic. The woman is outraged at the thought of critiquing something so personal. I’m not doing the moment justice here, but, like the rest of his book, it’s spot on with what poetry is all about.


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