In January 2014, the Academy of American Poets helped launch the New York State Poetry Unites contest for the best short essay about a favorite poem. Participants were invited to write a 600-word essay about their favorite poem and its importance in their lives. The following essays were written by the contest's runners-up. Four winners were featured in short film profiles that were screened at a celebration that kicked off Poets Forum in New York City in October 2014.
Runner-Up Louis Altman
Circa 1989. Shortline from Monticello to Binghamton. The empty soda can rolled to the woman two rows up and across the aisle, clunkering slowly, half-intentionally I think. I didn’t stop it. She looked up, saw me holding The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens and said “Stevens is every guy’s first favorite.” I was somewhere south of twenty-five and north of shy. I couldn’t argue with her. I still can’t.
Now I am in the rusty cradle of middle age, elbows aching, married with an adopted son, old enough that if I die now nobody will say of me “what a tragedy, he died young.” I look to “The Idea of Order at Key West” to tell me why I try to love with urgency and know the world around me, why it has taken me so long to find my voice, to find cognizant community. In English 101 at Williams College for my first reading, I lacked life experience that would attune me to what I see now as the poem’s paradox: man’s limited means of direct contact and empathy with the larger world, the need for the interpreter-maker, and yet our inexhaustible capacity for love of the “body, wholly body,” of nature and the god we view with uncertainty. Since, I have courted death and live with some incapacity, found and lost loves that have “sang” the world to me, and married a beautiful, generous woman. I can identify with our primal need to hear the world sing with human sense as Homer did:
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.
I am mostly an intrepid skeptic, but recently came to faith.
Throughout “The Idea of Order at Key West” I see Stevens yearning to merge godhead, her works and man, asking poetry to move us beyond poetry:
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins...
This poem’s reflexive reflections like waves are without end, understanding insecure, advancing and receding, knowing itself a way of unknowing:
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves…
I have made many compromises and begin to find my order in my love for my wife, the synergy between mindfulness and love. The oracle of this poem, the consciously unknowable “she” has helped me realize that secondhand or not, if we look we don’t get answers per se, but enough sense of the world to want to remain in it, in light and darkness.
I am Louis Altman, a lawyer, vocational rehabilitation counselor, and an instructor of Law and Ethics in Counseling for SUNY Buffalo’s master’s program in Rehabilitation Counseling. I work in Albany and live in Kingston, so I do a lot of driving, praying, and thinking. Stevens’s “maker,” be she Shekina, Mary, or simply science, distills order out of the unknown, like fractals, the same substrate everywhere.
To me order and chaos are the same, save for a lack of information. I seek correspondences, underlying algorithms, never tiring of uncovery and discovery. The inscrutability we abide in Stevens’s poem becomes a littoral baptism and such vibrant life comforts, enthralls me. The harbor lights came on late in life; I recalled I have a son, a wife, a god, and I turned from the water.
Runner-Up Ben Kroup
I first read an English translation of Metai—a poem composed of 2,997 lines in hexameter originally written in a Lithuanian dialect in the 1700s by Kristijonas Donelaitis—as a young man in the 1960s. Reading it made me curious about the world of my grandparents, who had emigrated from tsarist Lithuania to the Mohawk Valley in 1905. They had all since passed away, but I wrote an open letter to my grandmother’s village and received a reply from her sister, who had started a family in Amsterdam, New York, but returned to Lithuania in 1914. Trapped by World War One and the Great Depression, she stayed and had nine more children—twelve in all. Despite the Cold War misgivings of my family and friends, I wrote and sent gifts to a half-dozen second cousins in the Soviet republic. Among the many gifts I received in return was an edition of Metai in Standard Lithuanian.
I knew some Lithuanian: That’s all my grandparents spoke, my parents were bilingual, and I had been taught the basics in parochial school in Amsterdam’s immigrant East End. At first, my godmother—a former teacher of Lithuanian—helped me translate the letters; but to strengthen my own knowledge, I bought a grammar, subscribed to Lithuanian newspapers from the US and USSR, and practiced on a few folk tales. When I tackled some stanzas of Metai, I discovered the existing English translation was bowdlerized, and I glimpsed a wry and earthy humor in the original. The poem was beyond my ability to fully translate, but it had helped trigger in me a serious interest in folk culture. I soon gave up a tedious career testing Thruway bridges for New York State and went back to college to study East European anthropology and folklore at Indiana University.
After graduate school and analyzing the Jack Tale in Ireland for a year on an IREX grant, marriage, a growing family, a career in public history, and restoring a Greek Revival house in Waterford, New York, left no time for nudging eighteenth-century Lithuanian hexameters into English. Housebound after surgery one autumn, I picked up Metai and began to line out pentameters on yellow pads. This was fun and therapeutic; but when I recovered, I put my manuscript aside to resume writing educational exhibits on New York’s Palatine Germans and Seneca Iroquois.
When I returned to Metai in late middle age, it became clear my dictionaries were no match for the poet’s dialect, so I asked a cousin in Vilnius to search the used-book stores for the twenty-volume Lithuanian equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary. The fat tomes began to arrive a few at a time—in no particular order—and I was then able to unravel the remaining elusive lines and spin them into Alexandrines (the pentameters of my first draft were too short to convey all the tone and color of the original). The last volume, XI, arrived about the time I retired. And working on and off, I completed my translation last January, near the tercentenary of the poet’s birth.
Most of all a joy to read, Metai also prompted me to explore my ethnic roots and extended family in Europe, led me to a meaningful career in minority history in New York State, and prepared me for a useful retirement working with publishers in the Lithuanian Diaspora. Although written in a distant time and place, the poem’s enduring wit and wisdom boosted my spirits in good times and bad, and continue to be a source of delight after half a century.
Runner-Up Martin Mahler
I just lost my wife. Caring for her during her long illness has been my purpose in living. How can I continue without purpose? My future is meaningless. I am ninety-five years old, totally blind, and mobility impaired, with nothing to look forward to.
I just read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Lament,” where she tells her young children that their father is dead. Her concluding lines are “Life must go on. I forget just why.” I have read those closing lines several times. I think about the word why often.
Judy and I have enjoyed a most active life. We participated in one hundred nine elder hostel weeks studying a great variety of subjects. We toured through a great many foreign countries.
We canoed the northern section of the Mississippi River from its head waters at Lake Itasca, all the way to Bemidji. We rafted down the Daschutes River in Oregon. We carried our canoes, portaging them over the islands, from lake to lake in northern Minnesota. We hiked, camped and cross-country skied in many places. We enjoyed a most adventurous life.
Judy had a magnificent zest for living and a spirit that bounced with enthusiasm. We went to the theatre an average of twice a month. We attended and taught classes at the retiree program at Brooklyn College.
I am finding the transition very difficult from an active life that we had enjoyed together to an empty future. Edna St. Vincent Millay asks, “why life must go on,” and I also wonder why. I had always been interested in current events, but now I find that I don’t care. The fact that I no longer have my Judy to share the news of the day leaves me, with the feeling that everything is meaningless. What once was stimulating is now irrelevant.
As I brood over my loss, Edna’s question “Why must life go on?” keeps haunting me. Because of my age and handicaps my few remaining years will likely be mostly homebound. I made some inquiries and found that there are some classes given over the telephone on conference calls. The Dorot University without Walls conducts a number of them and I just registered for seven of them.
I also arranged with a guide to help me get to two classes in the Lifelong Learning Program for Retirees at Brooklyn College. In addition I joined the U.S. Blind Chess Association and have begun to play with the other members over the phone.
As I consider what purpose I have in continuing to live, I find no grandiose objective, only small inconsequential ones.
I ask myself again, “Why must life go on?” I intend to prepare and become active in the classes I will be attending, and I am participating in a creative writing class every Saturday. I am also determined to win my next chess game and—I am even entering a contest. Thank you Edna St. Vincent Millay for provoking me to search for and to find the reasons why my life must go on.
Runner-Up Philip McCallion
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests
Well, actually, it’s a keyboard now, but when I first read “Digging” by Seamus Heaney in an English class at St. Mary’s Christian Brothers Grammar School on the Glen Road in Belfast, all my writing was done with a squat fountain pen.
It was also a time in Belfast when the continuation of the line…The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun…had you sit bolt upright that first time you saw it. Are the “Brothers” really going to allow us to talk about and admire guns? Well, no. Is a writer really as powerful as a soldier or an armalite-armed IRA man? Turns out it’s not about that kind of power. You have my attention Seamus Heaney. What else does this poem have to say? And there was more.
The urban Glen Road in Belfast was very far from rural Bellaghy in County Derry and men digging turf or digging up flowerbeds, but I “knew” the father and grandfather of his poem; men who led simpler lives than the life they wished for their offspring: one of education, letters, and—as my father (the man I did know) after his own twelve-hour day would say—“civil service” jobs, where you wear a shirt and tie, work inside, don’t break a sweat, and go home at five o’clock. Little did any of us know about the connected, always-on world that awaited. But if these fathers and grandfathers had lived to see this new world, I don’t think they would have been deterred.
Heaney, as he sat writing, yet watching his father, couldn’t help but admire. By God, the old man could handle a spade… I, too, remember examples of the striving for perfection my father applied to what others today would see as simple, even crude tasks—nothing was inconsequential; everything had its rhythm, its outcome. The world could change dramatically around them, but they would stay true to the rhythm. And for me that’s the influence of the poem.
Today I’m a university professor living in a different country than the one where I was born; rarely either wearing a tie or going home at five o’clock, despite my father’s “promise”; producing by writing rather than achieving by doing tasks well; and yet knowing just as much as our fathers that nothing we do in our work lives should be inconsequential; everything has its rhythm, its outcome.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests. I'll dig with it
I’m digging too.
Runner-Up Sharon DeSilva
Life for me ain't
been no crystal stair.
—Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son”
My name is Sharon Victoria DeSilva, a single mother of two beautiful children, Victoria and Miguel. I was born in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Port-of-Spain, the Capital of Trinidad and Tobago. On October 14, 1978, the Lord blessed my life by bringing me to Brooklyn, New York. It was in Crown Heights where I first read my favorite poem, "Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes. I was attending John Dewey High School, and the painful life I had lived for seventeen years was captured in this poem. I cried hysterically when I read it the first time. It made me recall my childhood years in Trinidad. I remembered my parents leaving my four siblings and me in search of the American dream. They left me, unknowingly, to suffer too many years of starvation, mental and physical abuse, confusion, and pain.
I thought that when I came to America my life would instantly get better, but I was wrong. I was molested, kidnapped, and almost killed, and became aware of the fact that a young, Caribbean, black, educated woman can be seen as a deadly weapon to both the black and white communities. The irony is that it is the white and black communities that educated and made me strong. I was able to work diligently to be blessed with three professional degrees. But life for me was no “crystal stair.”
I've been climbing stairs with splinters and boards torn up. Now that I'm a single mother of two beautiful children I constantly and consistently tell them about the dark roads I traveled and the broken stairs that I'm still climbing. I never thought that my strength to become an advocate for the voiceless would create such roadblocks in my life, but I'm grateful to God that I'm still climbing. My ability to fight for justice for all humankind resulted in failed opportunities for advancement at work, but my family and friends know I'm still climbing.
>My children are learning from my struggles in life because I never fell down—but stumbled many times. They know to love and accept all humankind and to fight for true love and peace while they remain on this earth. Their stairs are not as torn up as mine, and the stairs of their children should be filled with some crystals.
Runner-Up Helen Ruggieri
I attended a school so conservative that Allen Ginsberg was forbidden to step onto the campus. When students invited him to read, his appearance was cancelled by the administration, so it is not surprising that that mindset permeated the faculty and classes.
In a contemporary poetry class we were asked to pick a poet and lead a discussion concerning a poem we particularly liked. I selected James Wright’s work and his poem “A Blessing.” I loved the way it started from a specific place ‘just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota.’ It began so exactly with the description of the scene it was as if you were there in the soft dusk, watching the horses munching the tufts of spring in the darkness, the communion of species. I was probably gushing when I talked about the poem because I loved it so at a time when poetry had been turned from a joy to a puzzle to be unraveled.
The professor pointed out that the last line of the poem was not an earned conclusion. It had seemingly (or suddenly) appeared as a way to end the poem. Bowing to authority and needing to earn my degree, I agreed, but always held the ending as a gift that would sometimes comes from nowhere—felt knowledge that raises your spirit, elevates your life.
Years went by. I was attending a wedding reception held in the country. I got up from the picnic table where we were seated and walked over to an electric fence that encircled a nearby pasture. As I walked along the fence, a pig came over to watch me. Probably as bored as I was. “How ya doin,’?” I asked. I told him about the wedding and why I was there and how didn’t know anybody and that pretty soon I could leave. The pig listened attentively. What a great audience. Was a pig an appropriate subject for a poem? “Would you like me to write a poem about you?” I asked?
He fairly tapdanced on his trotters. I’d never been this close to a living pig before. He had long eyelashes and white skin with a tinge of pink. A few curly hairs sprung from his back. I talked to him for a bit and decided I should go back to the table and get a treat for him.
When I came back bearing carrots, I swear, the pig smiled at me. This pig likes me, I thought. And I liked him. He shuffled his trotters and looked up at me and smiled again. This pig knew about being alone. He was grateful for my company. In a sudden moment of clarity, I knew some things too. I knew that Wright had earned every bit of his conclusion by observing, by being in the moment, and I knew that at any moment I might break into blossom.
On the Monday morning following the wedding, I was riding along when, even with the windows closed, a terrible smell filled the car—ahead, a big rig pulled a load of pigs in a slatted trailer. Their snouts were pushed through the slats, and I thought I could feel their terror. I had to look away. I knew where they were headed. That’s my pig tale. Not as romantic as horses, but you take what comes whether you’ve earned it or not.