We each carry lines of poetry with us. Words that others have written float back to us and stay with us, indelibly. We clutch these “life lines” like totems, repeat them as mantras, and summon them for comfort and laughter.
We asked you to share the lines of poetry that are the most vital to you, along with notes about the precise situation that summoned them to mind.
There is a pain – so utter –
It swallows substance up –
Then covers the Abyss with Trance –
So Memory can step
Around – across – opon it –
As one within a Swoon –
Goes safely – where an open eye –
Would drop Him – Bone by Bone.
—from “599” by Emily Dickinson
I thought of this Emily Dickinson poem when I got the news that the husband of a dear friend of mine had committed suicide. I do not know how my friend bears such pain. I believe it’s an act of courage for her to speak to anyone at all, much less at his funeral service, in which she gave everyone there the gift of trying through her grief to articulate how much she loved him.
Dickinson’s poem is an argument. The speaker doesn’t tell us what occasioned her pain, but lets us plug in our own. There is no information in the poem that separates her from us. The poem is made to be an experience instead of referring to one, which is precisely how she says she knows poetry in her famous remark to Higginson: “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way.”
No, I don’t think there is. Dickinson’s poems have certainly taken the top of my head off and they frequently put it back on when I need it.
...birds build—but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
—from “Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
These lines continue to sustain. They admit powerfully to a paralysis—spiritual, but also a paralysis of one’s ability to make or nurture art—and yet they yearn, ultimately, in those last lines, for sustenance. This is a very real statement of what it means to be human, to be self-aware, and to struggle—against God, yes, and against oneself and the need to create. The last four words alone have come to mind often, as prayer, as chant, as mantra, as life-saving music: “send my roots rain.”
Even such is time, which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust,
Who in the dark and silent grave
When we have wandered all our ways
Shuts up the story of our days,
And from which earth, and grave, and dust
The Lord shall raise me up, I trust.
—“The Author’s Epitaph, Made By Himself” by Sir Walter Raleigh
This poem, supposedly copied into Raleigh’s Bible the night before his execution in 1628, is talismanic for me because of the way the lines are both an act of contrition and humility before God, as well as a gesture of defiance toward the executioner. No matter the power of King James’s state to chop off Raleigh’s head, the invisible estate conjured by “the Lord shall raise me up, I trust” is as fierce as it is humble, as poignant as it is confident. I can’t characterize myself as a believer, and I seriously doubt that God, for Raleigh, was anything more than a convention: these lines, it turns out, are actually a version of the last stanza of a love poem, “Nature That Washed Her Hands in Milk” written about 1592. But God as a convention that invokes a higher sense of justice becomes for me, through Raleigh’s lines, a way of feeling through your own nerve-ends the actual, lived experience of an uncompromised and uncompromising sense of “they may get away with it now, but now won’t be always—a reckoning will come.”
And equally important to me is how the gravitas and sorrow of the first few lines, as they evolve into the almost jaunty avowal of eventual resurrection in the last line, provide me with a way to feel about such ambivalent events as Saddam Hussein’s execution: Saddam dangling from a rope is a complex image to overcome by overt moralizing, judicial justifications, or even an empathetic ear listening in on the hatred and pain that those whom he tortured and killed must feel toward him. At the same time, one can imagine Saddam feeling about his own execution in exactly the same way Raleigh seems to feel about his. And so embedded in that comprehensive and contradictory and ultimately blocked set of intuitions is the reason why I love these lines: they let no one outmaneuver their canny mix of indictment, sorrow, and nearly profane joy.
Would be a whistle, a hum, a high murmur, and, at last, a song,
The low song a lost boy sings remembering his mother’s call.
Not a cruel song, no, no, not cruel at all. This song
Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.
—from “Song” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly
In the early nineties I heard Brigit Pegeen Kelly give the first public reading of her poem “Song," of which these are the last lines. I remember feeling that something just happened to me: that the poem, and in particular those last lines, resonated in me more than any lines ever had—although I couldn’t quite understand why. More than a decade later I still can’t explain—but have come to love that mystery. Not a week goes by that I don’t say those lines to myself—as a celebration, consolation, explanation, or as an “inner song” in moments of utter confusion or doubt.
New York, New York
then the voice in my head said
WHETHER YOU LOVE WHAT YOU LOVE
OR LIVE IN DIVIDED CEASELESS
REVOLT AGAINST IT
WHAT YOU LOVE IS YOUR FATE
—from “Guilty of Dust” by Frank Bidart
I have been both comforted and frightened by those lines on countless occasions. To me they are a lasting example of how poetic power does not always depend on image and metaphor; poetic power can come in abstract language if there is enough emotional energy propelling it.
“What you love is your fate”—the central force shaping your life, according to this deeply romantic view, is your love. The idea is attractive, romantically, yet in “Guilty of Dust” there is a fierce sense that we may find ourselves loving in ways not only unwise but desperately troubling. Your love—your deepest and most impassioned desire-ardor-admiration—turns out to be a force controlling you even as you feel you are choosing to be defined by it. A frightening idea, yet preferable to the idea that you are controlled by animal needs, by chemistry, by economics, by tribal politics, or by some imaginary deity.
“What you love is your fate”—the essence of your life will turn out to be a pattern designed by your power to love. But Bidart’s lines say that you may rebel against this—with agonizing consequences.
Bidart is interested in people whose deepest desires are transgressive. In my own life, this has not seemed to be the case; but like most of us, I’m very familiar with desires, or kinds of love, that defeat and prevent other conceivable pleasures and satisfactions.
These lines from “Guilty of Dust” have come to me, for instance, when I see myself heading home toward wife and child—or, turning toward a book of poetry—when a beautiful young woman is leaving the room, leaving the building, getting into her car, going away. Or, when I see myself lifting and moving boxes of books from one apartment to another, one house to another, decade after decade. Or, when I imagine all the memorial services, years hence, at which I’ll praise the writing of a friend who has died—or I’ll be the deceased writer . . .
I once heard Bidart say “You’ve got to love what you love” (I think he was quoting Robert Lowell, who was quoting van Gogh) and this helped me: the realization that you can at least choose to love with vigor and imagination what you find yourself loving; there is thus some choice involved!
Back out of all this now too much for us
—from “Directive” by Robert Frost
I think of this line almost every day—it speaks to my own life (which is always too much for me ) and to our collective American life (we were so busy, we were so tired, we wish we had more time—maybe two weeks from Wednesday?): our dislocation in the midst of absolute overload of information, bereft of truth, impotent, generalized, lonely. Frost bring us back to the road that is not a road, and a house that is no more a house—to the source, a spring, near where the children has their little house of make-believe. Their small dishes still strewn about.
"Drink and be whole again," Frost writes, "beyond confusion."
Within the confines of my own consciousness I try, when I remember the line, to return to that source—to rest there, drink, and return returned to myself.
Bronxville, New York
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
One night late on my way home from college for Christmas, I was caught in a blizzard without the company of an intelligent guide (I was driving, instead of a horse, a ‘62 Buick Special). I had passed through the last small town and was halfway between nowhere and Dodge City, Kansas, when the road vanished beneath snow and my little car foundered badly. Realizing that no one was going to be passing by until the next day, I got out and started walking. Nothing. Nobody, nothing anywhere. At last the distant light of a farmhouse appeared, the only one, I discovered later, within miles. And if it hadn’t been for the family inside that farmhouse, I might simply have frozen to death. As I was walking toward it, I thought of this poem, and I knew that I would be able to keep my promises, and I felt ecstatically liberated. Never have I seen these last lines in “Stopping by Woods” read as liberating rather than duty-bound. So boring for students: Oh, this is a little lesson about obligations and responsibility. No time to ski, you’ve got chores to do before sleep, and you always will, and that’s the way life is; suck it up and live with it. But the misunderstanding here is not in the specific explanation; it’s in the very attempt at explanation. I hope they continue to teach in high schools the most over-taught poem in America; I just wish they would stop explaining it.
B. H. Fairchild
I have married my hands to perpetual agitation,
I run, I run to the whistle of money.
Money money money
Water water water
How cool the grass is.
Has the bird left?
The stalk still sways.
Has the worm a shadow?
What do the clouds say?
—from “The Lost Son” by Theodore Roethke
These lines come to me at moments of anxiety and distraction. I think they include a remarkable transition of rhythm and tone, an audible passage from panic to serenity, from the urgent insistence of “Money money money” to the slow counterpoint of “Water water water.” They work like a beta blocker on me. They slow my heart rate and calm me down.
We are poor passing facts…
—from “Epilogue” by Robert Lowell
I think about this line every time I see the news or read about the war.
The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.
When my father-in-law, Tom McGraw, who has not smoked in thirty-five years, called last June and told me he has lung cancer, I said to my wife bitterly, “The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.” And when Tom, woozy from the chemo, fell and broke his knee last September, I said it again with sorrow: “The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.” Eighty-five percent of lung cancer patients are dead in a year and I expected him to be gone by Christmas.
Instead, his knee has healed, he’s back to walking his dog a mile a day, and I say, with something like awe, “The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.” I will say it again in grief before too long because he does, good man, have lung cancer after all.
At the same time, I began obsessively mumbling to myself a garbled version of a song I hadn’t thought of in thirty years: “Gonna take a sentimental journey / Gotta take that journey home. / Got my bags, got my reservations, / Spent each dime I could afford, /Dum de dum, de dum de dum de dum dum, / I long to hear that ‘all aboard’.” The lyrics express, I suppose, my instinctive desire for a gentle transition into the afterlife for my good father-in-law—a sentimental journey, a journey home. But the famously opaque ending of Robert Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” is the one I chew on: “The Lord survives the rainbow of his will.”
When I was a child sitting in church, the preachers swooned over the goodness and mercy of God’s promise in the rainbow that came after the great flood. The Lord promised us he would never destroy the earth again by water. But even by age twelve, I did not have to tax my ingenuity to list plenty of ways that God could keep his deeply hedged promise and still eradicate the human race every hundred years for a millennium: fire, of course, but also plague, drought, famine, hydrogen bombs, radiation, asteroids, volcanic eruption, solar flares, and berserk robots. God, reassuring Noah and his drenched daughters, merely removes one arrow from the apocalyptic quiver. Yet the rainbows do seem like miracles and promises—don’t they?—every time we see one.
Lowell’s oracular and Elizabethan pronunciamento, which is a pleasure just to roll around on your lips, seems to say something profound, but what? It can be read as some sort of affirmation of God: He survives. But another reading is that God is by his nature inimical to humankind, one who has withdrawn his promise. To my understanding, the line captures much of the famous complexity of the Book of Job. God’s majesty, which includes death and suffering and God’s own inscrutability, cannot by circumscribed even by his willed impulse toward mercy. The rainbow is a cloying symbol of a reduced God who, however much he may desire, cannot strip himself of his power and become a one-dimensional God of pity, understanding, compassion. He is so completely other that he cannot be bound or reduced even to his own desire to spare us. It is comfort of a hard sort—and the meaning and the nature of the comfort shifts depending on how you say it, a truth I hear unfolding each time I say, “The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.”
Long enough have you timidly waded, holding a plank by the shore,
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer...
Truth to tell, I get to swim in the ocean for about a week each summer and it is one of the most ecstatic experiences I know. I love rising up and going down with the wave, just out past where they break. The lift and fall of a rhythm that large—it’s like a physical enactment of what happens when you read the greatest poems. But I also like to swim straight out for a while, reciting these lines to myself, feeling the strange way salt water sustains you, holds you up. Of course, I like these lines elsewhere also, since they are about courage and getting courage from great poets—Whitman is a great courage-giver. He wants to live fully and seems to want us to do so also, and that’s another thing I hear in these lines.
Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.
Some lines come back to comfort us, others to instruct, still others to remind us of those wonders which lie about us everyday. And then there are some that haunt us by the very fact that their insights, dark and unsettling though they are, have been tested on the pulse and proven true. Oddly enough, there’s something in the measure of these two lines, something in the dignity with which they state this elemental fact of nature, that I find has added greatly to my sense of the responsive possibilities the human heart has available to it in moments of sorrow and loss.
What he has not to say is a long
wonder the world can bear & be.
Once in a sycamore I was glad
all at the top, and I sang.
Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.
This August, driving on Highway 90 beside the Gulf of Mexico, from Florida to Louisiana, I remembered these lines by John Berryman.
My husband, my young daughters, and I were heading for New Orleans, where I grew up and where my parents live, because it was the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Along Hurricane Alley, as it’s now called, we saw nothing but pure devastation: whole Mississippi towns and communities erased. Empty house foundations threaded with weeds. Buildings scrawled with FEMA numbers, counting the dead. Uprooted trees, a yellowed, salt-bleached landscape.
But also: a single open restaurant in downtown Gulfport, serving po-boys. A woman mowing her grass, tending a tiny rose garden outside her trailer. A sign: We’re Coming Home!
And, oddly, Berryman’s work provides unexpected solace. I love his refusal of sentimentality here but also his recognition of the need to speak. His lines remind me of the sheer scope of this natural and unnatural disaster that struck the Gulf Coast, my shock that the world continues to churn on in the face of it, and the necessity of bearing witness to what has happened.
Glen Ridge, New Jersey
Implicitly Thy freedom staying Thee.
It’s a suspension bridge, of course, and the engineering feat is to make the bridge surface stable even when it is suspended from cables. (The Millennium Bridge in London failed to manage this when it first opened.) The idea that freedom is a path to stability appeals to my American soul, implying that there is something unstable about servitude. And the reader of a poem should be given the freedom—implicitly—to respond or not. “We do not like poems that have designs on us," said Keats. So browbeating poems have to go or those that so terrorize us we lose the ability to retreat from them.
Hudson, New York
They also serve who only stand and wait
—from “On His Blindness” by John Milton
I know the line is so commonly known as to be a cliche, but the ending of Milton’s sonnet on his blindness was something my father said many times under many circumstances. Usually it was in response to my complaint about postponing my own plans because others in the family (there were five of us children) had more immediate needs. And usually I was not trying to “serve” anyway—but my father would parry my clever “How much longer?” with a brightly quoted “They also serve who only stand and wait," and I would be unamused.
And then one day I read the poem, and having two uncles who were blind, I felt a strange, disturbing reassesment of my father’s habit. Waiting could be complicated, nuanced, even noble. My father may or may not have meant anything by quoting the line to me, but the poem was there, behind the single line, waiting for the moment when I would discover it.
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
It was 1967, I was 28 and had quit my job in New York and had gone to Spain with my wife to take a chance on becoming a writer. We traveled light, and the only book of poems I took with me was Wallace Stevens’ Collected Poems. I didn’t know much about poetry, except that I loved it, but I do remember—two or three times a week—reciting those lines to her over breakfast. They seemed both exotic and extraordinarily beautiful to me, and they remain so, though perhaps they were even more beautiful when I didn’t understand them.
He would be the lunatic of one idea
In a world of ideas, who would have all people
Live, work, suffer and die in that idea
In a world of ideas....
—from “Esthetique Du Mal” by Wallace Stevens
I’ve had these lines in my head for many years, which is quite possibly a sad, sad thing. I wish they were inscribed in the marble walls of the congressional chambers and in all the offices of all the scared little people who make terrible, singular decisions for the world.
New York, New York
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
These last ten lines of “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens come back to me again and again, most frequently when I am teaching. Sometimes I find myself reciting them by heart to students in the fourth grade, and sometimes to my graduate students. As I recite each line, I move one hand, sweeping it across like a conductor. I pause at each line break to show how lines calm you with their melody, like a lullaby, how reciting it and hearing it makes you feel as if you are being rocked in a cradle. I memorized and loved these lines because my teacher Galway Kinnell loved them and recited them by heart to his students. Once, after I recited them to a fourth grade class and asked them what the lines meant, a student immediately raised his hand and said, “A long time ago, there was a big bang, and the universe came from that. But our earth is also quiet and beautiful.”
Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange relation.
—from “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction” by Wallace Stevens
Since my husband was diagnosed early in 2005 with an Alzheimers-type dementia, poetry has been more of a lifeline than ever. The Stevens line now means for me, among other things, that one perceives everything newly, and that relations, or resemblances, are both absurd and sustaining. The dementia creates nonsense, but relating things creates sense. In trying to think about the situation, I constantly have recourse to similes; for example, the mental confusion is like a cloudy day where the sun keeps breaking through; I function as a shock absorber (for “the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to”?). Stevens’s luminous and mysterious line suggests connections.
New York, New York
The world of dew
is the world of dew.
And yet, and yet—
—“Haiku” (1819) by Issa
This haiku is by the Japanese poet Issa and was written in 1819. I love it for its simplicity, its haunting repetitions. When the image in the first line becomes repeated in line two, I see the mirror there in the drop of water. The delicacy of that world, those worlds, is reiterated in the final line, where the final repetition sounds to me like a kind of beautiful hopefulness sometimes, a kind of resigned grace at other times. The world is continually new and eternally the same. Does it help to know that Issa wrote this poem shortly after his infant daughter, Sato, died of smallpox? These lines are with me virtually every morning, when I walk outside into the deep, old-growth trees behind our house. We live in the country, in rural Ohio, and the rain and snow and dew and frost live there with us, lit by the sun, shadowed by the clouds. Sometimes the news of war limns the branches too, and sometimes the serenity of solitude. It is always the same world. And yet....
Life in itself
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
—from “Spring” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Even before Eliot named April cruel, Millay was there asking questions about the significance of that month’s facile promise and eternal return. I admire the bravado with which she parcels out her wildly irregular lines. As well as the way she formally emphasizes April’s momentary hope—set against life’s continual difficulty and occasional danger—by setting “April” on a line of it’s own. That bold gesture also delays ever so slightly the final disquieting image of April as some babbling daffy aunt who runs down a hill throwing flowers onto the new green. When have I thought of these lines? Endless times. And not just in April. Once in March I was in Austin, Texas, while back home in Chicago, which was home then, it was still cold and trees were just sticks stuck in the cold ground. In and out of Austin, the highway medians were filled with wildflowers. There have been times since then when, in an icy March, I’ve thought of that Austin scene; the recollection of those strewn flowers that mark the roadways there takes me straight to the image of Millay’s April as one who mindlessly and wantonly makes the moment pretty but delivers no lasting relief to those who feel the world leaning hard against them.
Mary Jo Bang
St. Louis, Missouri
I shut my eyes and there’s our living room,
The piano’s playing something by Chopin,
And Mother and Father and their little girl
Listen. Look, the keys go down by themselves!
I go over, hold my hands out, play I play—
If only, somehow, I had learned to live!
The three of us sit watching, as my waltz
Plays itself out a half-inch from my fingers.
—from “The Player Piano” by Randall Jarrell
In Jarrell’s poem (of which these are the last lines), a woman old enough to be a grandmother considers the lost opportunities, or simply the years, of her life: The memory on which the poem ends speaks to the ways in which, no matter what we have done with ourselves, we can wish we had done something else, and to the helplessness and loss in even the most assertive and well-enjoyed life. It also speaks to the helplessness of parents, who can save their children from many things, with luck and attention, but not from regret itself. I admired the lines even before we had our first child, Nathan Miles, born in January 2006; now that he’s with us, Jarrell’s stanzas mean even more.
St. Paul, Minnesota
I ran up to a man with a white flower on his breast.
I who always go to the end of the line, I said
Help me. He looked at my ticket, he said
Make a left and then a right, go up the moving stairs and then
run. I lumbered up the moving stairs,
at the top I saw the corridor,
and then I took a deep breath, I said
Goodbye to my body, goodbye to comfort,
I used my legs and heart as if I would
gladly use them up for this,
to touch him again in this life...
—from “The Race” by Sharon Olds
I remember reading “The Race” for the first time standing in line at a bookstore. The line was very long and I read the whole breathy poem, first published in The New Yorker, as I stood with other book buyers. Olds’ poem whooshed into my own breath, my heartbeat quickening.
I feel a deep connection to all of Sharon Olds’ work, but this poem particularly seized me and wouldn’t let go. I read the poem on the subway home and kept reading it. It wasn’t until I was home, having unpacked my purchases, that I realized there were periods—nine strategically placed periods—none of them end stops until the last final line. In essence, I’d read the poem so many times that I memorized “The Race” without meaning to. I didn’t know that I would need this poem more than a decade later when, on September 11, 2003, I had to make a flight, similar to the speaker in Olds’ poem, after my parents were in a near-fatal accident. Airports had changed since Olds’ poem. Security had been heightened and I was traveling on a one-way ticket, bought on the anniversary of a national tragedy (which made for its own difficulties), but I met my equivalent of a “man with a white flower on his breast," and Olds’ lines, truly a form of solace, came back to me. And I repeated them like a mantra on the long flight back to my own father and mother.
Evah mo’nin’ on dis place,
Seem lak I mus’ lose my grace.
—from “In the Morning” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar
In this poem, a working mother wakes her children, tells them to do their ablutions and get dressed, makes breakfast, gets everyone together around the table, and says grace before they eat. At one point she loses her temper and threatens her slow-poke son, then she says these lines. They came to mind often when my children were young and I was trying to hurry them up. They made me laugh at myself and realize that it didn’t really make any difference if we were one or two minutes late.
East Haddam, Connecticut
My Lord, I loved strawberry jam.
—from “A Confession” by Czeslaw Milosz
I first heard these lines when I served on a panel with Milosz at the Holocaust Museum. It struck so many chords, hearing these words from a survivor—a guilty survivor—whose artistic life was so oddly Job-like, dedicated to questioning history’s injustices (including the loss of so many members of his family and friends). So for him to confess a love of strawberry jam seems to me so life-affirming; it reminds us of life’s sensual pleasures and gifts in the face of our feeling powerless to nudge the universe a littlle closer to goodness. It’s a line that honors both conscience and pleasure, so naturally when I listen to the news these days—about the war, the changes in the Supreme Court, the increasing gulf between rich and poor—the line makes me want to live life more fully and act on my ideals simultaneously.
Under the thunder-dark, the cicadas resound...
The kisses not for our mouths, light the dark summer.
—from “Dark Summer” by Louise Bogan
These are the first and last lines of Bogan’s poem, an old favorite, but one that didn’t fully haunt me until 1987. I had just bought a house in the Adirondacks, a wonderful wreck, and had also just fallen in love with a man who was unavailable. The property had what was once called a sand pool, that is, a rectangular hole in the ground with a rubber liner. It was fifty years old, and full of branches, leaves, and animal carcasses, including the skeleton of a deer. Also ten thousand frogs.
I used my grief as an engine to clean it out. I learned the chemistry, repaired the old pump, and turned it into a sparkling if frigid (it was spring-fed) pool. I swam laps every day, but kept hitting the walls because the blue liner was nearly impossible to see. To solve the problem, I let some water out and painted the first line of Bogan’s poem on the shallow end, and the last line on the deep end. So as I swam, I could see the wall coming.
It comforted me in the way that poetry can: I had company in my solitude. Now, twenty years later, I’m married to the man. The pool was long ago bulldozed under (too much trouble and too cold).
Keene, New York
A yak is a prehistoric cabbage: of that, at least, we may be sure.
—from “Notes from the Air” by John Ashbery
I find myself returning to this line in my head for its radiant goofyness, which is like a hit of pure oxygen in these tin-aired times. Every imaginative act is a declaration of liberty. I feel set free by this line, its wackyness seems crucial, its recklessness utterly companionable.
Iowa City, Iowa
A few days
are all we have. So count them as they pass. They pass too quickly
out of breath: don’t dwell on the grave, which yawns for one and all
Will you be buried in the yard? Sorry, it’s against the law. You can only
lie in an authorized plot but you won’t be there to know it so why worry
—from “A Few Days” by James Schuyler
I find it almost impossible to memorize poetry, but for some reason the first few lines of “A Few Days” by James Schuyler are probably the only poetry that has worked its way into my memory without any effort. I find his calm yet totally involved conversational tone, as well as his peculiar and wonderful inversion of starting with a huge generalization and then moving into the specific (which is, to make my own huge generalization, the opposite of how contemporary American poetry typically moves), extremely moving and inspiring as a writer and human being, which seem in Schuyler to be the same thing.
New York, New York
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their life with forethought
of grief, I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
—from “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry
I’ve relied upon this piece as a suggestion of higher thought in an assortment of situations, including suggesting we need take time to notice beauty surrounding us during times of extreme trauma and pain. That concern and worry are not the same. That introspection is the key to solution. That young parents often grieve for their actions when reality hits and they realize they have brought children into an imperfect place. That destruction is cyclical and only grace and love can halt it. That fear for the planet can be remedied in noticing and appreciating the planet and that simply being human doesn’t grant a higher quality of life. That instead, the wood drake and heron are true to prosody in living and we could take some simple lessons from them and fit better into the world in which we do live—given a moment. That wild is a human presumption that has little to do with the connotation. That the universe, the day-blind stars, will continue for eons without us, regardless of our status on this planet, and on that we can rely, find continuity (comfort) and relax into the shape of the world.
Allison Adelle Hedge Coke
to this sea of received silence
why should I sign my name?
—from “The Weather of Six Mornings” by Jane Cooper
When I emptied myself, I resonated. Jane Cooper is a poet of deep spiritual attention with a similarly intense commitment to material conditions. I found in her work a place where the poet herself had a profound purpose. In another poem about not having a child, she referred to her own body as a used “violin.”
What is the body’s urge to create further bodies? A gesture against mortality, I suppose. And what is mortality? I think beyond the mere fear of death (mere?), it is also distress at the soul’s silence after the passing of the body. Literally: The dead do not speak.
In another poem, Cooper remembers as a child being treated by a doctor who served in the Civil War. She realizes that her own mortal body connects that war with the war of “smart bombs” and the leveling of cities. How long before her body will “shiver apart” she asks.
Who are we, mortal in the world? Is it the world that is mortal or are we? Are we our names or our bodies or something else? Is it the something else that is named or is it only our physical form? In Islam, one of the parents’ most serious responsibilities is the giving to the child its appropriate name.
What does it mean for us to sign our name to a deed? And is a poem a mere “work?” I am grateful indeed when poems “arrive,” but more frequently it is me who is doing the arriving.
New York, New York
On a recent visit to New York, I stopped in at the office of the Academy of American Poets and heard about the new Life Lines project. I immediately loved the idea that the Academy was going to collect and publish the lines of poetry that live most intimately with people in their actual lives. That’s what poetry has always been about for me—to quote Robert Frost, “[my] utmost ambition is to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of, to lodge a few irreducible bits.” As I thought about the plans for Life Lines, the way I learned that this idea had really moved me was that it forced four lines of Auden’s poem “In Memory of W.B.Yeats” into my awareness:
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
Auden’s lines arose in me as suddenly and freshly as a fountain, and were as impossible to ignore as being doused with cool water in the middle of a desert. They expressed and clarified what moves me most about the Life Lines project: that it makes room for, among other things, poetry’s capacity for healing—and that it reminds us of poetry’s potential presence in any situation.
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
Suitable for carving; and got me through a hospital stay and other relatively small crises.
The reeds give
way to the
wind and give
the wind away
—“Small Song” by A. R. Ammons
This is the entire poem “Small Song” by A. R. Ammons. I read it for the first time about ten years ago, when I didn’t like poetry at all. One could say I loathed poetry for trying to tell me what I already knew or for trying to confuse me with what I could never know. These four lines were the first lines I ever enjoyed, because at once I could and could not make out what they were telling me.
These seven words (a few repeated) couldn’t have been any simpler and yet they made (and still make) my mind do little circus tricks. As in Yeats’s famous line, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” I still keep trying to discern which is which. Are the reeds only reedy because they’re moved by the wind, or is the wind only windy because we detect its effects? It is, of course, not necessary to decide between the two. But no matter how many times I read these lines, I feel compelled to pick one over the other—as if I’m on a sinking ship and must choose between my two children, only one of whom I can save.
“Small Song.” Copyright © 1969 by A. R. Ammons, from The Selected Poems, Expanded Edition by A. R. Ammons. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Given an airplane, chance
encounters always ask, So what
are your poems about? They’re about
their business, and their father’s business, and their
monkey’s uncle, they’re about
how nothing is about, they’re not
—from “20-200 on 747” by Heather McHugh
These lines give me such comfort! They comfort me with their humor, with their sassy attitude. I need that when conversation draws to an abrupt halt. “I’m a poet,” I say, in response to “What do you do?” In the stunned silence that follows, my mind runs through the possibilities, none of them good. Maybe they think I’m too dumb to be a poet. Maybe I am too dumb to be a poet. When they recover, the inevitable next question is “What are you poems about?” Surely not an unreasonable question—maybe even a friendly attempt to understand what I do—but one which I can’t seem to answer. “They’re not about about.”
And how that line helps me when I’m writing, trying to untether myself from narrative. To let the words go where they will, without having to justify themselves.
Venders and political men
Pour from the barrel, new lies on the old, and are praised for kindly
Wisdom. Poor bitch, be wise.
No: you’ll still mumble in a corner a crust of truth, to men
And odds disgusting-You and I Cassandra
—from “Cassandra” by Robinson Jeffers
My entire writing life has been a war to tell my stories, either in poetry or fiction. When promising situations go badly because I have been stereotyped before my arrival (expected to be grateful, quiet, and polite like a clone of other black women), setting up what is usually in inevitable clash. This often happens because all people want is a black poet without distinctions being made. There is no consideration given to the poet. They are sorely uninterested in Wanda Coleman, who she is or how where she comes from affects her work. The poetry is almost irrelevant, because “we all know” what African Americans have been about for four-hundred-odd years. That we are individuals, often intellectuals, have competing styles and clashes, never seems to have entered into the discussion.
Los Angeles, California
Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang
—from “Sonnet LXXIII” by William Shakespeare
In 1951, in a huge lecture hall filled with restless and very young students, I heard I. A. Richards read Shakespeare’s seventy-third sonnet in his sonorous, unforgettable voice. I became an instant English major. The line that resonated with me most, despite my conviction that I would never grow old myself, was “bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” Through the years, that line has come back to me over and over again as I watched first my grandparents, then my parents, my uncles and aunts, conspicuously age. Now, of course, it runs through my head, it even gives me pleasure, every time I look in the mirror with my glasses on.
But the sea
which no one tends
is also a garden ...
—from “Of Asphodel that Greeny Flower” by William Carlos Williams
Walking towards the sea, dark, crashing on the shore of Bolgatty Island at the mouth of Kochi harbour, and the rain coming down, and all the broken junk of my life and spent canisters of motor oil, and plastic bags, and tiny children trying to sell garlands of jasmine, and fishermen in frail canoes—so many of them put out of work by the large, mechanized trawlers—I had seen lines of fisherfolk at the road’s edge selling bags made of torn netting stitched together. The sea scraped up by those trawlers, emptied out. "But the sea / which no one tends / is also a garden" ... Those lines by William Carlos Williams, which I first read as a teenager, rose up and held me in a fierce music.
New York, New York