For creative writing, we have to write poems (I know, right!) And while this prose poem is by no means as awesome as my Fabulous New York Aunt Liz’s poem that appeared in the Kenyon Review (my other aunts live in suburbs, what can I say?) I kind of like this one. We had to do a prose poem, something involving a fairy tale, and an inversion poem, which frankly I still don’t understand. But I do understand the concept of prose poetry, and here is my attempt, which I am a little fond of:
There’s a girl on the edge of the bed washing her feet like jesus did, lately she’s been trying to be more like jesus but her brother says jesus only washed everyone else’s feet, she should stop being stupid and anyway she isn’t jesus. Her mother says what the hell are you doing there’s water everywhere and her father says listen to your mother don’t make trouble but the girl just keeps on washing her feet, in and out of the crevices, her toes, along the arches, bubbling soap. She’ll be like jesus if it kills her.
A great deal of how I learned to view the world came through books. I will, I am sure, be writing many versions of this post, many many many versions, because how I think about god, and courage, and truth, and the world in general is often connected quite directly to a youg adult novel.
But today let’s talk about the first poem I remember reading.
We were in London. I must have been about 10. I was reading Patricia MacLachlan‘s masterpiece of YA fiction, Baby, which is among my favorite novels ever. It’s basically about this girl, Larkin, who lives with her parents and her grandmother on this island. We don’t know where the island is, only that there are summer people and winter people. Her mother had a baby that died. Her best friend is Lalo, and he comes by a lot. Like all of MacLachlan’s YA lit, it is sparse and evocative. And beautiful.
They come home one day, Larkin and Lalo and her family, and there is a baby on the porch, with a note: This is Sophie.
They take Sophie in, raise her, until her mother returns. That scene, by the way, is a complete heartbreaker.
Larkin and Lalo have a teacher, Ms. Minifred, who believes in the power of words. She talks a lot about “wondrous words” and I suspect that part of my love for reading, my love for words in all their glory, is due to Ms. Minifred.
At any rate, it turns out that Ms Minifred had a brother who died, and before he died, he bookmarked a poem in a book of his. That poem, which is reprinted fully in the novel, is Edna St. Vincent Millay‘s Dirge Without Music. (this is also the book where I first learned of William Carlos Williams, whose poem about the red wheelbarrow is also printed in full: I remember walking through a London garden, the house of my parents’ friends, reciting it, the words crisp and cool).
I was so excited to read this poem. It was like lightening hitting me, suddenly. It was as if someone finally understood what I, with my Paralyzing Fear of Death, had been trying to explain. I read it, the way I remember, in a London taxicab, and I wanted to tell everyone about it, I wanted to tell my parents LOOK! here is what I’ve been trying to say!
Later I would find other poems helpful, Kahil Gibran’s “On Death” and of course all of that about not going gently into that great night and rage, rage against the dying of the light–and others–but this was the first.
In the book, Ms. Minifred tells the story of her brothers death and then she reads the poem, and there is a “terrible silence” in the room before the janitor, Rebel (he and Ms. Minifred are in love) stands in front of her, says “class is over. go home.”
I loved that poem. I still love that poem. It still hits me the same way. The bits about knowing but not being resigned. the bit about the light in your eyes being more precious then all the roses in the world. The opening line, it still slays me: “I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving/ hearts in the hard ground…” and that last bit just tears me open, every time:
“Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave/gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;/Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave./I know. But I do not approve. And I am not/resigned.”
There is a bit in the book when Larkin, confused and scared and sad by all the loss around her,not sure how poetry is going to help, looks at Lalo, her best friend, and says “poetry is just words.”
and Lalo says “that’s all we’ve got.”
in creative writing today we listened to the tail end of this TAL episode, which features writers riffing on the William Carlos William poem.
more or less a poem apologizing without actually apologizing.
anyway, then we did our own. here are mine, somewhat bitter, hastily done, and slightly, dare I say it–mean. But take the rule of writing class here–don’t confuse the writer and narrator!
This Is Just To Say
I made hotdogs tonight
and i told you
they were turkey
i find your religious rules silly
and pork is cheaper
i took the goldfish you won
at the fair
and flushed it
down the toilet
i needed the bowl for soup
and the game was rigged, anyway
i’m sorry that you are ugly, and stupid
with no prospects at all
but maybe if you tried harder,
someone would love you.
by Wendall Berry
1. How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.
2. For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.
3. What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.
4. In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.
5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.
Thanks Sean…a great TFS teacher who first showed me this back when I would totes have believed they actually *were* meeting!
We Who Are Your Closest Friends
We who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting,
as a group,
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift.
Your analyst is
in on it,
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband;
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us.
In announcing our
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
indeed against ourselves.
But since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center,
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your disastrous personality
then for the good of the collective.
Said The Poet To The Analyst
by Anne Sexton
My business is words. Words are like labels,
or coins, or better, like swarming bees.
I confess I am only broken by the sources of things;
as if words were counted like dead bees in the attic,
unbuckled from their yellow eyes and their dry wings.
I must always forget who one words is able to pick
out another, to manner another, until I have got
somethhing I might have said…
but did not.
Your business is watching my words. But I
admit nothing. I worth with my best, for instances,
when I can write my praise for a nickel machine,
that one night in Nevada: telling how the magic jackpot
came clacking three bells out, over the lucky screen.
But if you should say this is something it is not,
then I grow weak, remembering how my hands felt funny
and ridiculous and crowded with all
the believing money.
Now that the worst is over, they predict
Something messy and difficult, though not
Life-threatening. Clearly we needed
To stock up on water and candles, making
Tureens of soup and things that keep
When electricity fails and phone lines fall.
Igloos rise on air conditioners, gargoyles
Fly and icicles shatter. Frozen runways,
Lines in markets, and paralyzed avenues
Verify every fear. But there is warmth
In this sudden desire to sleep,
To surrender to our common condition
With joy, watching hours of news
Devoted to weather. People finally stop
To talk to each other – the neighbors
We didn’t know were always here.
Today they are ready for business,
Armed with a new vocabulary,
Casting their saga in phrases as severe
As last night’s snow: damage assessment,
Evacuation, emergency management.
The shift of the wind matters again,
And we are so simple, so happy to hear
The scrape of a shovel next door. – Phillis Levin