Ways to Think in 2017: Poems I lived with last year

For the past couple years I’ve done some kind of traditional year end round up: last year we spent Christmas writing his and hers books we read list; the year before I rounded up my favorite articles.

This is not that kind of list. 2017 wasn’t that kind of year, or any kind of year I know how to recognize. Aside from the ongoing shit show on the world scene, it’s been a year of personal changes that seems almost comical in fulfilling the idea that there are years where nothing happens and months where everything happens: I got promoted, got married, got pregnant, moved, had a baby, and my mother died unexpectedly. All of this has made for reading that as been more scattered and fragmented but also more periodically more intense and visceral than usual. I find myself more desperately clinging to something that give the illusion of permanence, or at least gives a vantage point from which to reflect on impermanence. For a while I was trying to train myself not to look at my phone when I was with my kid on the playground; when I got antsy I would try to recite the first twelve or so lines of Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking. I never got beyond those 12 lines, but this year I have been turning more and more to poetry.

The best best-of lists always have the air of achievement: I got through this many serious books, or read that classic I always meant to. This year was the first year I didn’t make my “goal” of reading more books than I had the year before since I started keep comprehensive lists in 2013.  I’m willing to cut myself some slack on this given what this year has been.  Poetry and living with poetry takes me away from thinking this way; finishing a poetry book doesn’t feel like something to cross of the list- it’s easy enough to read them quickly, but you don’t want to if they are working.  I’ve been thinking about living with poems in that way we tell our students reading poetry will help them do. I have them memorize or imitate or translate poems as a way of “living with.” For me, teaching can be a way to “living with” – my sense and memory of them blur with comments students have made over the years, I track their changing reactions and my own. As with writing, they float through the categories: things I am thinking of teaching/writing about, things I have taught/wrote about, things I remember only because I once taught/wrote about them.

Towards that end, a few of the poems I’ve been living with:

  1. Adrienne Rich, “On the Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” 

Rich starts this meditation on language and suffering with a quote from Daniel Berrigan, the radical priest who is also the source of this poem’s title, which is taken from his statement about an action in which a group burned draft files with homemade napalm. From there Rich goes to a scene of schoolboys burning Algebra books to scenes from the cruelties recorded in libraries and scenes from a never to be recorded love affair. Along the way it’s a meditation on the sanctimony of liberal dogma about the value of writing and explores the possibility that some pages must burn so that other pages – and other people – might live. In a time where there are too many conversations about whether and how the times are really worse than those we read about in books, I keep going back to these lines:

there are books that describe all this
and they are useless

You walk into the woods behind a house
there in that country
you find a temple
built eighteen hundred years ago
you enter without knowing
what it is you enter

so it is with us

no one knows what may happen
though the books tell everything

2. Grace Paley, “People in My Family,” 

I got to hear Paley read once, not too long before she died in 2007, at NYU, at an annual Spanish Civil War veterans event, back when some of them were still around also. Paley and Rich linger large and together in my mind, feminist, poets, and thinkers somewhere between my mother’s and my grandmother’s generation, and not incidentally, both mothers themselves. This was one of the poems she read that night, also about generations and what they have and don’t have to tell each other and whether we are supposed to have “hope” for children:

The ninety-two-year-old people remember
it was the year 1905
they went to prison
they went into exile
they said    ah     soon

When they speak to the grandchild
they say
yes     there will be revolution
then there will be revolution     then
once more     then the earth itself
will turn and turn and cry out     oh I
have been made sick

then you     my little bud
must flower and save it

3. Marge Piercy, “My Mother’s Body,” 

For the obvious reason. The specifics of Piercy’s poem have nothing to do with my mother, but it’s always been one of my favorite elegies. I once read about two thirds of Piercy’s many, many books because I was writing an encyclopedia entry on her and I was struck by what an unusual writer she was: a model of workman-like prolificness she attributed to her working class background who was also an activist and radical. Once again, the question is generations, though here it is only one who can speak: the left behind daughter sho must speak of the now-gone, only covertly politicized or self-realized mother, but also just a beautiful account of the hollowed out places where loss comes to visit us:

The dark socket of the year
the pit, the cave where the sun lies down
and threatens never to rise,
when despair descends softly as the snow
covering all paths and choking roads:

4. Linda Pastan, “Ethics,” 

One more woman poet of this generation. If I may. I think I first saw a copy of this in Adrienne Rich’s papers, and I love it for embodying one of the things that made me come to poetry – how you can have a fragment of an idea, a tangential connection that’s not meant to be something larger and decide it gets to be something, all on its own.  I remember versions of the Ethics 101 pseudo-profound game she mentions here. I was at camp, I think, and we were charged with deciding which character we would take in a lifeboat based on two line descriptions. I remember that one of them was a pregnant woman and the counselor desperately trying to avoid the inevitable abortion debate that one led to. No one said, the whole premise of this thing is crap, no one’s life is more valuable than another, and even if it were, would you really want to leave it a bunch of kids?

In any case, the perfect respite to  “the wasteland is worth five old ladies”:

This fall in a real museum I stand
before a real Rembrandt, old woman,
or nearly so, myself.  The colors
within this frame are darker than autumn,
darker even than winter — the browns of earth,
though earth’s most radiant elements burn
through the canvas. I know now that woman
and painting and season are almost one
and all beyond the saving of children.

5) Frank O’Hara, “Animals

Because it can’t all be loss and struggle, this wonderful ode to youth. I teach O’Hara a lot in both Creative Writing and literature classes and students usually love it and it works well for imitation and memorization. As long as something like New York, something like sex, or something like youth exists I think it will work.

My life has generally gotten better over the decades, so I always wear my nostalgia with an asterisk, but at a certain point you realize you feel that way about your youth not because it was great just because it was yours. Or, why not imagine you had O’Hara’s? Short enough to quote in full:

Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth

it’s no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners

the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn’t need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water

I wouldn’t want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days

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