“What is poetry which does not save nations or people?”
            – Czesław Milosz

Ask the question.
Not once but forty-nine times.
And, perhaps at the fiftieth,
you will make an answer.
Or perhaps not. Then
ask it again. This time
till seventy times seven. Ask
as you open the door
of every book of poems that you enter.
Ask it of every poem,
regardless of how beautiful,
that whispers: “Lie with me.”
Do not spare your newborn.
If the first cry, first line
is not a wailing for an answer,
abandon it. As for the stillborn,
turn the next blank white sheet over,
shroud it. Ask the clamouring procession
of all the poems of the ages –
each measured, white-haired epic,
every flouncing free verse debutante –
to state their names, where they have come from
and what their business is with you.
You live in the caesura of our times,
the sound of nations, persons, breaking around you.
If poetry can only save itself,
then who will hear it after it has fled
from the nations and the people that it could not save
even a remnant of for a remembering?

From Fault Lines. Copyright © 2012 by Kendel Hippolyte. Used with the permission of Peepal Tree Press.

The flower sermon:
critique is like a swoon
but with a step increase,
the awkward daughter who grows
to join the NBA.  All we want
(ever wanted) was to be on that
mailing list, parties at which slim caterers
offer red, yellow, black caviar
spilling off the triangular crackers
while off on the bay
rainbow-striped sails dip and bob and
twist.  The woman in the yellow raincoat sits
on a bench at the edge of the schoolyard
while two small children race
across the asphalt plaza.  Too many books
sail the moth.  A tooth that's lost
while flossing.  A short line
makes for anxious music.  Not breath
but civilization.  The president
of Muzak himself says
that humming along constitutes time theft.
First snow in the Sierras = cold showers here. 
The east is past.  Margin of terror.  The left
is where you feel it (dragging the eyes back
contra naturum).  We're just in it
for the honey.  Spackling paste
edits nails in wall when painted.  Elbows,
shoulders jammed together on the bus.
At each transfer point, glimpse how lives
weave past.  A woman with an interesting book
in her purse which I pretend not to see.  
Letters crowd into a thought.  Green paper
folded around long-stemmed roses
is stapled shut.  Rapid winter sunset
lacks twilight.  They take out the breast
and part of the lymph system.  I
stare through a lens at the near world.
Hot tea sits dark in its cup.
Seeing is deceiving.  Big tears
are eyes' response
to a dawn chill, first frost.
Clang of empty bottles in a paper sack.
The boulevard was a kind of free verse,
big noun skyscrapers, until the freeway
blew out the margin.  Baseball cap 
with the bill worn to the side or back.
Steam pours plume-like
from the roof of the new
senior tower.  Thus lawn-sprinklers
sweep the air.  This wool hat
itchy on your forehead, those
mysterious white sores
that dot the mouth.
New boots with Leather-Plus uppers
and waffler stomper soles.  The way
gas stations dwindled overnight,
now go the banks: people
huddle in the rain
as close as they can to the wall
lined up for the automated teller.
But I just want to snuggle.
Jumping the curb on my skateboard.  Even
before the war was over, vets
began to fill the J.C.s on the GI bill,
men playing rummy on the quad at lunch.
The way street folk make the sidewalk their bench.
Taking my glasses off, sensing
the muscles in the eye
flex as they refocus.  Cars
at a stop light, each with its own
lone rider.  Standing on the bus,
using both hands to hold on.
The sun in the trees still,
slowly rising.  Beeper on a belt.
The container inverted
shall never be repeated, fungus
in a hot tub.  A swamp entitled
Stanley Marsh.  Black spot
on the thumbnail is permanent.
Neo-social democrat sneaks back
into Lenin closet.  Not
democratic socialist.  Folding chair
triangulates space.  Shirt collar
as mock root for neck's trunk.
Small physical detail
enlarged (enraged)
refocuses the whole room
in the midst of the banquet.
Retrofit theory to text.
The idea of a doorstop
extends the wall.  Thin palms kept trim
along commercial strip.  Hollow is as
garbage truck sounds.  Ghetto barber:
shop behind bars.  Ask bus driver
to call out destination.
Chapped Lip Alert.
Man on a park bench
intent over crossword.
The sound of a piano
hung over the courtyard.  Bliss
approximates emotional state.
Gay nerds (complex style).  Drunk
on the streetcorner snaps to attention,
salutes the slow-cruising black-and-white.
Old manikin in used clothing store,
cheeks chipped, nose missing.  Bin
of loose sneakers in front of shoe shop.
Dreams prod you with their skewed
pertinence.  Like fingering around
in your pocket for a nickel, an
ambiguous coin, with your gloves on.
The pom-pom girl is sucking on a kiwi
as the sun rises, little startled bird.
Carved into nice pink slices, art
history is served
on seaweed-wrapped balls of rice.
At the checkout stand, the bagger
hooks the plastic sack into its wire
mould, dropping in the brown
spotted bananas before
the bottles of cider.
The close-out sale of
fiction at Dalton's
fails to attract 
afficionados from their new
improved "ring" frisbees.
Please don't call it xerox.
Just because it rhymes.  An absence
of form is pictured
on a milk carton.  The dumpsters
are ripe.  The present tense
calls up a terrific nostalgia
foreshadowing antacids.
Can you explain why Ezra Pound
and Ty Cobb were never,
not once, photographed
in the same room together?
The way cryotechnology
accounts for the Rolling Stones.
Heads of cauliflower
wrapped in plastic.  Half moon rising
in the red dusk sky, streetlamps on
illuminating nothing.  Twisting
the orange on
the glass juice squeezer.
Before dawn, alone
in the supermarket parkinglot,
hosing it down.  Van's awning
signals catering truck.  A leaf
had fallen onto the damp cement,
its image sharp years after.
Old green Norton anthology
perfect for doorstop.  Albino mulatto's
curiously blonde hair.  Linebreak muted
says I'm a normal guy.  To generalize
a detail (use of plurals)
entails violence.  Body language
at staff meeting very stiff.
Birds scatter high over
a schoolyard (asphalt
baseball diamond).  My own breath
instead of a lung.  Offhand,
by comments hidden in the brain,
we reiterate an old refrain.
My mind instead of an onion.
That these 20 year olds
call their shared housing
a commune seems quaint.
Old black woman with a cane
struggles to pull herself
onto the bus.  I strain
to see these words.  Chronicle
of Higher Medication.  Learning
that I can't pick my nose when
I read, because the gesture
bumps my glasses.  Our program is
compromise all positions
at all points, radical
at the cash bar.  The colon swells
while the dash is but a double
hyphen.  Thus paint freckles
an old ladder.  Hair, combed
from the part, over the large
bald dome, barely throws
strands of a shadow.  Men huddle
predawn in the vacant lot
for the grey trucks
that will carry them out
into the valley, hot day
harvesting crops.  Yuppie world
where everyone's successful, everyone's
white.  This guy's got great pecs,
strong deltoids, tight
abdominals, but through one nipple --
small gold safety pin.  This poem,
15 lines of free verse, defining
(and as if "as spoken to") a noun
naming a common household object
has been designed
to compete successfully for space
against cartoons in the New Yorker.
Man striding down the street,
whistling loudly.  Now that soft drinks
come in boxes.  The Gift of 
Security, the lock with 1,000
personal combinations: the only
lock in the world that let's you
set your own combination and change it
anytime, in seconds, without tools.
Because friends were coming over
for dinner, they began to think
about cooking in the early afternoon.
The honey in the 5 gal. can
had begun to crystallize, so she
put it in the oven to heat up.
Then a neighbor phoned (the details
here are less certain) and they
went over to smoke some dope
that had just been purchased.
This state expands one's sense
of time, of the moment.  To be
within the present can be
totally sensuous.  When they returned
later, the honey can had exploded,
tearing off the oven door.
Boiling honey (it was just like
napalm) clung to the ceiling,
floor and walls.  

From What (The Figures Press, 1988) by Ron Silliman. Copyright © 1988 Ron Silliman. Used with permission of the author.

Four tickets left, I let her go—
Firstborn into a hurricane.

I thought she escaped
The floodwaters. No—but her

Head is empty of the drowned
For now—though she took

Her first breath below sea level.
Ahhh       awe       &       aw
Mama, let me go—she speaks

What every smart child knows—
To get grown you unlatch

Your hands from the grown
& up & up & up & up
She turns—latched in the seat

Of a hurricane. You let
Your girl what? You let

Your girl what?
I did so she do I did
so she do so—

Girl, you can ride
A hurricane & she do
& she do & she do & she do

She do make my river
An ocean. Memorial,
Baptist, Protestant birth—my girl

Walked away from a hurricane.
& she do & she do & she do & she do
She do take my hand a while longer.

The haunts in my pocket
I’ll keep to a hum: Katrina was
a woman I knew. When you were

an infant she rained on you & she

do & she do & she do & she do

From Hemming the Water. Copyright © 2013 by Yona Harvey. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of Four Way Books, www.fourwaybooks.com.

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
’Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

From Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well By Maya Angelou. Copyright © 1975 by Maya Angelou. Reprinted with permission of Random House, Inc. For online information about other Random House, Inc. books and authors, visit the website at www.randomhouse.com.

   Ring out, ye bells!
   All Nature swells
With gladness at the wondrous story,—
   The world was lorn,
   But Christ is born
To change our sadness into glory.

   Sing, earthlings, sing!
   To-night a King
Hath come from heaven's high throne to bless us.
   The outstretched hand
   O'er all the land
Is raised in pity to caress us.

   Come at his call;
   Be joyful all;
Away with mourning and with sadness!
   The heavenly choir
   With holy fire
Their voices raise in songs of gladness.

   The darkness breaks
   And Dawn awakes,
Her cheeks suffused with youthful blushes.
   The rocks and stones
   In holy tones
Are singing sweeter than the thrushes.

   Then why should we
   In silence be,
When Nature lends her voice to praises;
   When heaven and earth
   Proclaim the truth
Of Him for whom that lone star blazes?

   No, be not still,
   But with a will
Strike all your harps and set them ringing;
   On hill and heath
   Let every breath
Throw all its power into singing!

This poem appeared in The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar (Dodd, Mead and Company, 1922). It is in the public domain.

is a field 

             as long as the butterflies say 

                                                                       it is a field 

with their flight

                                         it takes a long time 

to see

                         like light or sound or language

                                                                                      to arrive

and keep 

                                       we have more

than six sense dialect

                                                                      and i

am still

              adjusting to time

                              the distance and its permanence

i have found my shortcuts

                             and landmarks

                                                          to place

where i first took form

                                                                                           in the field

Copyright © 2022 by Marwa Helal. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 3, 2022, by the Academy of American Poets.

It would be easy to forgive,
If I could but remember;
If I could hear, lost love of mine,
The music of your cruelties,
Shaking to sound the silent skies,
Could voice with them their song divine,
Red with pain’s leaping ember:
It would be easy to forgive,
If I could but remember.

It would be easy to forget,
If I could find lost Sorrow;
If I could kiss her plaintive face,
And break with her her bitter bread,
Could share again her woeful bed,
And know with tears her pale embrace.
Make yesterday, to-morrow:
It would be easy to forget,
If I could find lost Sorrow.


This poem is in the public domain.

My friends are dead who were

the arches    the pillars of my life 

the structural relief when

the world gave none.


My friends who knew me as I knew them

their bodies folded into the ground or burnt to ash.

If I got on my knees

might I lift my life as a turtle carries her home?  


Who if I cried out would hear me?

My friends—with whom I might have spoken of this—are gone.

Copyright © 2022 by Marie Howe. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 22, 2022, by the Academy of American Poets.