Monday our office celebrated the beginning of April and the official start of National Poetry Month at the Poetry and Literature Center, and already it seems off to a promising start. This week, we’ve had two poetry readings at the Library: one to celebrate our new Witter Bynner Fellows, Sharon Dolin and Shara McCallum, and another in our series of “Conversations with African Poets and Writers” featuring Omekongo Dibanga (a writer whose family originally hails from the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Even in our office, we’ve been busy preparing the launch of a new web initiative to debut as part of the festivities.
Within the coming month, you should be seeing a new addition to our menu, “Poetry of America.” As part of our 75th year celebrating Poetry Month at the Library of Congress, we’ve compiled a new series of recordings from some of the most iconic poets of our generation speaking about the poems they love and they see as an integral part of our culture as Americans.
After reading and listening to many wonderful poets, we couldn’t help but be a little moved. We decided to kick-off the month by blogging about some of our most beloved poems. We hope you’ll join in and discuss poems you love in our blog’s comments section!
Caitlin Rizzo, Office Assistant:
“The Western Wind” by anonymous
O Western wind when wilt though blow
That small rain down can rain—
Christ, that my lover were in my arms
And I in my bed again.
“The Western Wind” is a poem I find myself drawn to again and again—I don’t go very long without hearing its music in my head. There’s something about that second line, “That small rain down can rain,” that enchants me. In many ways, it’s a rather awkward line, even clumsy in the way it seems to repeat itself, but there’s also a sense of wilderness there. The syntax frees itself to feeling, gives itself over to experience by breaking the typical confines of the sentence’s simple structure in a way that mirrors the growing desperation of the speaker. “Christ” comes harshly on the propulsion of an em dash and the stop of a line break, the poetic language of “O”s and “wilt”s suddenly falls away revealing such a simple, animal sentiment in its longing for rest and company. The 16th century poem remains anonymous, and even that seems to add to the poem’s resistance to the domestic routines of our Western culture. Since the 16th century we’ve been begging to stay in bed, begging for nature to interrupt our forced cycles of industry, and yet here we are centuries later, and every morning I still wake up and think of this poem as I peel away the covers.
Kelly Yuzawa, Office Detail and the head of our “Poetry of America” Initiative:
“Eating Poetry” by Mark Strand
I love this poem, by the Poet Laureate from 1990-1991, because it expresses what I find true about good poetry: that it’s both fortifying and slightly dangerous. Reading a great poem can change you, or at least make you see the world differently for a time. We library folk can be a little serious and set in our ways, so the image of the poetry reader as a ravenous dog threatening the quiet librarian with his joy makes me smile.
At the Poetry and Literature Center, where I get to work three mornings a week, I consume poetry as part of my job. When I return to my cubicle in the quiet part of the library, I sometimes feel like the speaker of this poem, as if I have ink on my chin and a whiff of wildness about me.
Rob Casper, Head of the Poetry and Literature Center:
“Coal” by Audre Lorde
When I lived in Cambridge, MA, many years ago, I heard Peter Davidson give a talk on his tenure as poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly. I have forgotten almost everything he said, save for one comment I have lived by ever since. When asked how to determine a good poem from a bad one, Davidson said the former made him slow down when reading it.
“Coal” by Audre Lorde is a poem that demands, then rewards, slow reading. It begins with the singular “I,” then does nothing less than reconfigure the world. So much depends on subtle shifts, though—in this poem, which uses anaphora as incantation, the difference its opening pronouncement, “I / Is the total black, being spoken / from the earth’s inside,” and its penultimate line, “I am black because I come from the earth’s inside,” seems momentous. The first line, after all, begins by breaking rules of subject/verb agreement (and the poem continues to operate by its own rules—say, with the use/non-use of periods). But it’s hard to say more without simply repeating lines. All too often I turn to the idea that a poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully, but “Coal” makes me feel it with fervor—and reminds me that poems are made to investigate meaning-making. In this extended metaphor, there are so many echoes of arguments—about how our words are shaped by power and privilege and rage and love. “Love is another kind of open” is, I would argue, one of the best lines ever written, and the fact that it comes before “Some words / bedevil me” makes it all the more lovely. Of course there is play between “coal” and “diamond,” but Lorde never rests on properties—hers is a constantly evolving force of speech.
Getting back to Stevens, though—I can’t properly explain my love for this poem. “Coal” is so beautiful in its containment, its endless complexity. I want to read it over and over and over, say it aloud and in my mind. I want to fully feel it. It makes me feel incapable and awed, makes me a believer, and it lets me know there’s something essential I share with Ms. Lorde and the mysterious logic of her most famous little lyric.