“No, but it can change people. And that’s enough.”
-from an interview with Eavan Boland
Adrienne Rich’s history-making 1974 National Book Award acceptance speech
“We, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Alice Walker, together accept this award in the name of all the women whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world, and in the name of those who, like us, have been tolerated as token women in this culture, often at great cost and in great pain.”
I’d read The Dream of a Common Language so often that I’d practically memorized it. In the previous few years, certain lines had become like incantations to me, words I’d chanted to myself through my sorrow and confusion. That book was a consolation, an old friend, and when I held it in my hands on my first night on the trail, I didn’t regret carrying it one iota—even though carrying it meant that I could do no more than hunch beneath its weight. It was true that The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California was now my bible, but The Dream of a Common Language was my religion.
I opened it up and read the first poem out loud, my voice rising above the sound of the wind battering the walls of my tent. I read it again and again and again.
It was a poem called ‘Power.’
—An excerpt from Cheryl Strayed’s new memoir Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
Adrienne Rich: Yes, I do, and I usually say to them—which I also believe to be true—“You were changing your life and you read my book or you read that poem at a point where you could use it, and I’m really glad, but you were changing your life.” Somehow when we are in the process of making some kind of self-transformation—pushing ourselves out there further, maybe taking some risk that we never believed we would take before—sometimes a poem will come to us by some sort of magnetic attraction.
-from a 1994 interview with The Progressive
Because altruists are the least sexy people on earth, unable
to say “I want” without embarrassment,
we need to take from them everything they give,
then ask for more,
this is how to excite them, and because it’s exciting
to see them the least bit excited
once again we’ll be doing something for ourselves,
who have no problem taking pleasure,
always desirous and so pleased to be please, we who above all
can be trusted to keep the balance.
Stephen Dunn, from Different Hours
How untouchable the girls arm-locked strutting
up the main hall of Central High unopposed
for decades looked. I flattened myself against
the wall, unnerved by their cloudsea of élan,
which pounced upon any timid girl regrettably
in their way, their high-wattage lifting slow motion
like curls of light strands of honey. The swagger
behind their blue-tinted sunglasses and low-rider
jeans hurt boys like me, so vast the worlds
between us, even the slightest whiff of recognition,
an accidental side glance, an unintended tongue-piercing
display of Juicy Fruit chew, was intoxicating
and could wildly cast a chess-playing geek into
a week-long surmise of inner doubts, likelihoods,
and depressions. You might say my whole life led
to celebrating youth and how it snubs and rebuffs.
Back then I learned to avoid what I feared
and to place my third-string hopes on a game-winning
basketball shot, sure it would slow them to a stop,
pan their lip-glossed smiles, blessing me with their cool.
-Major Jackson, from Hoops
That said, it’s important to keep the audience in mind, because communication is the object, and communication is a two-way street. It’s also important to keep tone in mind–some words just make us seem formal, prissy, uppity. Words should always be considered for how they contribute to tone.
Words that are abstract, colorless, or hijacked unnecessarily from another category of speech are the worst culprit: “impact” as a verb for example, or all those silly -ize verbs, including “utilize,” or just examples of someone trying to be hypercorrect (“myself” is a good example; another is “whom” when “who” is correct).” —Constance Hale
April Bernard: Recently I’ve been trying to explain to students why poems are sometimes so difficult and about the aesthetic of difficulty. My best explanation involves the premise that a poem is capturing a moment of absolute intense emotion. In the throes of an intense emotion, you can’t possibly write; your back is flat on the floor. So by the time you get to writing the poem, you’re trying to capture that emotion and put it in a usable form.
I think the difficult, elaborated aspects of a poem are like the wrapping on a present. It becomes a means of conveyance to hand the poem to somebody else because you can’t just hurl the emotion at them. You have to give it to them in a form that is stable and that won’t explode. It’s like putting dynamite in a nice box and then you hand the box, which is the poem, to the other person and the other person has to unpack it. If you’re lucky, they will enjoy the unwrapping. Part of the purposeful difficulty of the poem is meant to prolong the unwrapping process and to prolong the expectation.
April Bernard, from a 2001 interview in Post Road Magazine
Sherod Santos: My going to Paris was prompted by a number of things, some related to writing, some not. It was an unhappy period, and I felt like leaving everything behind and starting all over again — the kind of thing, I fear, my background made all too easy to do. Looking back on it now, I realize how foolhardy a move it was. I arrived with only about $300 in my pocket and no idea what I was going to do or where I was going to go. To make things worse, I didn’t have a green card and didn’t have enough money to survive until I got one. So I pretty much drifted from place to place asking about work. Finally, the concierge at this small, dilapidated hotel near the Place d’Odeon — the Hotel Racine, on Rue Racine — offered me about fifty cents an hour plus an attic room to take up coffee and croissants to guests in the morning. The concierge could get away with paying me so little because I didn’t have a green card, but it seemed about enough to scrape by on. I’d work from five in the morning until noon, then I’d make my way to the American Library, where I’d staked out a comfortable spot for reading and writing, which I’d do until nightfall. And then there was Paris waiting outside with all its various adventures. I rarely broke that routine, and I think that’s the point at which I began to fall in love with the enormous difficulty of making poems. Before that, I think the difficulty had frightened, perhaps even embarrassed me a little; after that, I began to crave the hard labor of it, and to feel a bit vague and half-hearted when I wasn’t engaged in that labor. Had I not crossed that threshold, I suspect I’d eventually have given up writing, or that writing would’ve eventually given up me. Was that the secret I’d gone there to find? Things are never that simple, but I do know that when I returned to the States there was no longer any doubt about what I was going to do with my life.
From an Interview with Sherod Santos
So—you’ve all heard a lot about M on this blog, but I don’t believe I’ve ever told you the story of how we met.
Well, I think I’m finally ready. In an “I just published it in the New York Times“ sense.
The best part, in my opinion, is that a lovely artist named Brian Rea has rendered our story—and I absolutely want to frame it and hang it in our house. Commencing a search for Brian Rea.
In spring, the sweet young spring, decked out with little green, braceleted with the song of idiotic birds, spurious and sweet and tawdry as a shopgirl in her cheap finery, like an idiot with money and no taste; they were little and young and trusting, you could kill them sometimes. But now, as August like a langourous replete bird winged slowly through the pale summer toward the moon of decay and death, they were bigger, vicious; ubiquitous as undertakers, cunning as pawnbrokers, confident and unavoidable as politicians. They came cityward lustful as country boys, as passionately integral as a college football squad; pervading and monstrous but without majesty: a biblical plague seen through the wrong end of a binocular: the majesty of Fate become contemptuous through ubiquity and sheer repetition.
We all have known
Good critics, who have stamped out poet’s hopes;
Good patriots, who, for a theory, risked a cause;
Good kings, who disembowelled for a tax;
Good Popes, who brought all good to jeopardy;
Good Christians, who sat still in easy-chairs;
And damned the general world for standing up.—
Now, may the good God pardon all good men!
-Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from book 4 of Aurora Leigh
“The name Psmith is a comic invention of genius, perfect for the character. The absurdly contrived plot was one of PGW’s best (and he was a master of such things); in moments of gloom I think back to Psmith, masquerading as a sensitive poet, inspecting the line ‘across the pale parabola of joy’ and hoping he will not be asked to explain it. How many times have I read it? 10? 15? 20? Surely not more than 20? But if not only because I devoured as many other PGWs as I could get my hand on, because otherwise even Psmith might grow stale.”
—Helen Dewitt on rerererereading Wodehouse.
When they taught me that what mattered most
was not the strict iambic line goose-stepping
over the page but the variations
in that line and the tension produced
on the ear by the surprise of difference,
I understood yet didn’t understand
exactly, until just now, years later
in spring, with the trees already lacy
and camellias blowsy with middle age,
I looked out and saw what a cold front had done
to the garden, sweeping in like common language,
unexpected in the sensuous
extravagance of a Maryland spring.
There was a dark edge around each flower
as if it had been outlined in ink
instead of frost, and the tension I felt
between the expected and actual
was like that time I came to you, ready
to say goodbye for good, for you had been
a cold front yourself lately, and as I walked in
you laughed and lifted me up in your arms
as if I too were lacy with spring
instead of middle aged like the camellias,
and I thought: so this is Poetry!
—Linda Pastan, from Carnival Evening