These Short Poems Have Been Saving Me

Lately I’ve had to call on words for little shots of strength. Some use tequila; I use poems short enough to memorize. Their lines float around in my head, counteracting the insidious words that are less productive, less kind.

Yes, I’m talking about the kind of life & soul rebuilding that comes at the end of one life phase and the start of another. Me, right now — I’m on a ship in new waters. Before, I’d been on a really nice boat. The kind that you’d point at if you were on the shores and say wow, how’d she get so lucky to score a place on that very plush Axelrodian yacht? It had beautiful interiors. But it was not going to any of the islands I wanted to visit; I was locked away in my suite and never could feel the wind flapping around my face. Now I’m in a scrappier sailboat, jumping from island to island. It’s rugged. The wind is temperamental, sending me off course occasionally. My hair has never been crazier, and I’ve never been happier.

By this I mean to say, I’m in the uncharted territory that comes after a break-up. So I’ve been navigating by constellations, and by poems I can call on for spiritual guidance. I don’t always know what they mean; I just know they speak to a part of me that does.

“Failing and Flying” by Jack Gilbert

 

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
^has there ever been a poem that better captures the bittersweet fondness that crusts over the end of a relationship? That you can’t call it failing, really? Just the end of something that might have once been good? “Coming to the end of OUR triumph.” It’s taught me not to beat myself up so much. It wasn’t a failure, really.
“Rain” by Raymond Carver

Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
and read. Fought against it for a minute.

Then looked out the window at the rain.
And gave over. Put myself entirely
in the keep of this rainy morning.

Would I live my life over again?
Make the same unforgiveable mistakes?
Yes, given half a chance. Yes.

This poem, too, teaches me to be kind to myself. It’s all been wonderful, this life — I’d make every choice again.

“may my heart” by ee cummings

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile

And this little poem reminds me not to let my heart freeze over.

What are your favorite short poems?

“Bloody Men” by Wendy Cope, Or: A Poem My Momma & I Love

In honor of Mother’s Day, a few days late.

My mom and I happened to be reading the same book of poetry the other day — a hokey anthology of love poems. Amidst 16th Century sonnets and dreary modern odes to love lost, our thumbs grazed this same poem by Wendy Cope. Later, we showed the other the poem, and exclaimed with glee.

I assume we were both drawn to Cope’s vernacular tone. That she sounds like someone talking to you in a bar, voice gravelled with experience. That she sounds like you might sound in a few years, if you get on the wrong bus. The poem’s both a warning, and a conspiratorial nod. We’ve all been at that bus stop. We’ve all boarded the wrong bus. And even when you think you’ve boarded the right one, you realize there is no right one, there are just buses, and views, and you.

You are the variable. You make the journey and the views as what you will.

So, without further ado: here’s “Bloody Men” by Wendy Cope.

Bloody men are like bloody buses –
You wait for about a year
And as soon as one approaches your stop
Two or three others appear.

You look at them flashing their indicators,
Offering you a ride.
You’re trying to read the destination,
You haven’t much time to decide.

If you make a mistake, there is no turning back.
Jump off, and you’ll stand there and gaze
While the cars and the taxis and lorries go by
And the minutes, the hours, the days.

 

“The Way It Is” by William Stafford

This poem comes to me when I need it. Frankly, that’s pretty often. But that’s alright. It’s a short poem, quite portable. Could certainly fit inside my pocket, under my tongue, or in the flap between my eyes where I store the compass that steers me around.

William Stafford wrote all of his poems first thing in the morning, a time of day when I’m usually fast asleep. I wonder if there’s some magic in letting the gears in your mind churn when most people are letting their subconscious lugubriously ice skate over their deepest fears and desires. By this I mean, is there more inspiration to be had when fewer people are awake to sip from the inspiration pool? Or to pray by it, hoping it shows them a vision in the rippling water? Or to smash its surface and try to capture the noise in words? Could be something

Stafford wrote this poem in particular 26 days before he passed. Wonder where the thread he followed led him.
The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

 

Why Memorizing Poetry is Actually Worth Your Time

My senior year of college I decided I was going to memorize “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I scrawled the verses over and over in class instead of writing notes. I sought refuge in the voice of another mind–one whose was miraculously more neurotic than my own mind was during that crazy year. Now the time when the poem was necessary has subsided but the poem remains. I was walking in twilight Manhattan the other day, and it shot into my head: “Let us go then, you and I, / when the evening is spread out against the sky / like a patient etherized upon a table.”

screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-12-52-54-am

my instagram post about Eliot, who I’m sure would have utterly reviled instagram were he around for it. and prufrock would not have had the nerve to follow anyone though surely he’d check out the ladies’ twitter pages a few times a day from his own anonymous account, where no one could see his thin legs

Yes, it’s good in the end to have things that’ll rattle through your mind that are more than just crappy pop song lyrics on the radio. (Although, diverging from point of post: I’m obsessed with that new Bastille song “Good Grief,” and I’ve been letting it roam around my head to an irritating degree lately).

It’s good, in the end, to read a poem so obsessively that you just, well, memorize it. I’m not at the point where I can whip out entire poems from the inside of my mouth flawlessly, like some Ivy League magic trick. But I can conjure up some convincing lines, and certainly have enough in my head to write in metallic sharpie on the little notebooks I carry around in my bag like I did the other day.

Why memorizing poetry’s actually worth your time.

  1. You’ll be reading poetry. There’s a misconception that poetry is stodgy, boring, and appropriate only for analyzing on standardized tests. This is false. Poetry is language at its best. With the fewest amount of words, a good poem can take you on the same emotional trip as a novel. Imagine that! I think people are scarred over by scarred over English teachers and ban poetry from their lives. This is a total shame, because you’re closing yourself off from all the somersaults language can do.
  2. People are impressed when you can quote poetry. Or Shakespeare. Or anything relevant, really. Is there anything cooler than having the appropriate line of literature for a situation? Don’t answer that question, it was meant to be rhetorical. I’m sure you can come up with things that you find cooler, but to me, there’s nothing sexier than effortlessly rolling out a line of verse. For example, when I became officially unemployed in September, I had a variation of Richard II’s opening line: “Now is the fall of our unemployment…” and it cracked me up for enough time to distract myself that I am unemployed. I also sometimes quote a particular love poem when I am in the particular mood, which is, at the very least, endearing in an earnest, 18th-century kind of way.
  3.  It’s a delightful mental exercise. The time for good old mental acrobats just for self betterment is marginalized. People go for runs, they do sudokus, they get facials all in the name of taking care of themselves. How about taking care of the soul?
  4. Finally, just having lines swimming around in your head can be a source of comfort, especially when they come up for air at just the right moment. I was on the train the other day, a day so beautiful that the sunshine was making it hard for me to read but I didn’t mind. I was excited for my destination (“joy is the ancitipation of joy”–rabih alameddine in his book an unnecessary woman) and a few lines of an Edward Hirsch poem came into my head. “My head is skylight / my heart is dawn” And that is what my head and heart were at the moment. He said it for me, better than I ever could’ve. For once I wasn’t struggling to put into words the world as I saw it, and felt it.

Okay, so those are the reasons that I read poetry to the point of memorization. I’m not deliberate about it–it just sort of happens.

If you’re going to start with a poem, I recommend Mary Oliver, because her poems are like iced tea at the end of a day spent at a lake in summer. You’re on an Adirondack chair. Someone’s just gotten up from the chair next to you, and it rocks gently. Someone’s cooking dinner, and you know you’ll eat outside, citronella candles ablaze illuminating bottles of wine and lots of food. Elsewhere you hear children laughing and your friends talking to each other. You have a book open on your lap but you’re not reading it. You’re drinking iced tea and watching nature flicker and move in the last moments of sunlight, when the light is at its most palatable. That is Mary Oliver.

So start with Mary O, and see where it goes.

Meadowlands by Louise Gluck

I went on a kick of reading everything Penelope-related. Anything that played with the Odyssey, I read it. Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood? check. Collection of modern Greek poetry by Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke? check.

HOW I missed Meadowlands by Louise Gluck is beyond me. 41XVK+SY29L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The book of poetry uses the Odyssey, and Penelope and Odysseus’s relationship, as a springboard for exploring power dynamics in relationships, love loss distance and growing apart, etc. They’re contrasted with a modern couple bogged down with the bitterness minutiae breeds. Ancient and modern, mythical and real, it’s all the same heart, so it’s all the same shit.

 

But of course the poems I liked the best were the ones that directly talked about the Odyssey. I thought “Siren” was a nice in-between. The siren is the woman who lures Odysseus in during his journey home, but in Gluck’s poem, she’s a distinctly modern woman. We’re not sure if this is a woman that Odysseus meets, or the unnamed male in the modern couple. Either way, though, it’s the voice of the siren that sticks with you. The humanizing of the “other woman.”

Siren

I became a criminal when I fell in love.
Before that I was a waitress.

I didn’t want to go to Chicago with you.
I wanted to marry you, I wanted
Your wife to suffer.

I wanted her life to be like a play
In which all the parts are sad parts.

Does a good person
Think this way? I deserve

Credit for my courage–

I sat in the dark on your front porch.
Everything was clear to me:
If your wife wouldn’t let you go
That proved she didn’t love you.
If she loved you
Wouldn’t she want you to be happy?

I think now
If I felt less I would be
A better person. I was
A good waitress.
I could carry eight drinks.

I used to tell you my dreams.
Last night I saw a woman sitting in a dark bus–
In the dream, she’s weeping, the bus she’s on
Is moving away. With one hand
She’s waving; the other strokes
An egg carton full of babies.

The dream doesn’t rescue the maiden.

***

Here’s a Penelope-centric one.

Penelope’s Stubbornness

A bird comes to the window. It’s a mistake
to think of them
as birds, they are so often
messengers. That is why, once they
plummet to the sill, they sit
so perfectly still, to mock
patience, lifting their heads to sing
poor lady, poor lady, their three-note
warning, later flying
like a dark cloud from the sill to the olive grove.
But who would send such a weightless being
to judge my life? My thoughts are deep
and my memory long; why would I envy such freedom
when I have humanity? Those
with the smallest hearts
have the greatest freedom.

 

I’m still thinking these poems through–poems where, as one reviewer said, “the ordinary becomes heroic”–but I loved these two in particular.

“The Ships” by C.P. Cavafy

I just began an internship at a literary agency, so I spend my days reading manuscripts for books that will probably never be published. Though the writing is sometimes crumbly and depressing, and though the plots are sometimes flimsy and ridiculous, I feel privileged; here I am, reading something that came out of someone’s mind. Reading an idea that someone has fallen in love with, and has taken time to nurture into actualization. How many ideas do I have a day that I let fly into the great wide Multiverse of ideas, for someone else to take? I like stuffing my head full of stories, even if I’m one of the few people who will be able to find out what happens next.

The experience of reading all these stories reminds me of the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy’s prose poem “The Ships.” He makes material the marketplace of ideas. In this extended metaphor, Cavafy writes about the process of writing and how difficult it is to pin down nebulous thoughts into concrete words. The journey from mind to page is “a difficult crossing” and much will get lost, or mistranslated, along the way. I love this poem especially for the part that he talks about in the end–the beautiful ships that sail far off, carrying the most exquisite of ideas. They’ll never be yours, but maybe, a whiff of their wonder will burrow itself into your work. And it’ll be enough.

“The Ships” by C.P. Cavafy

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Dimitri Gondicas


From Imagination to the Blank Page. A difficult crossing, the waters dangerous. At first sight the distance seems small, yet what a long voyage it is, and how injurious sometimes for the ships that undertake it.

Vladimir_Kush-Haven     The first injury derives from the highly fragile nature of the merchandise that the ships transport. In the marketplaces of Imagination most of the best things are made of fine glass and diaphanous tiles, and despite all the care in the world, many break on the way, and many break when unloaded on the shore. Moreover, any such injury is irreversible, because it is out of the question for the ship to turn back and take delivery of things equal in quality. There is no chance of finding the same shop that sold them. In the marketplaces of Imagination, the shops are large and luxurious but not long-lasting. Their transactions are short-lived, they dispose of their merchandise quickly and immediately liquidate. It is very rare for a returning ship to find the same exporters with the same goods.
Another injury derives from the capacity of the ships. They leave the harbors of the opulent continents fully loaded, and then, when they reach the open sea, they are forced to throw out a part of the load in order to save the whole. Thus, almost no ship manages to carry intact as many treasures as it took on. The discarded goods are of course those of the least value, but it happens sometimes that the sailors, in their great haste, make mistakes and throw precious things overboard.
And upon reaching the white paper port, additional sacrifices are necessary. The customs officials arrive and inspect a product and consider whether they should allow it to be unloaded; some other product is not permitted ashore; and some goods they admit only in small quantities. A country has its laws. Not all merchandise has free entry, and contraband is strictly forbidden. The importation of wine is restricted, because the continents from which the ships come produce wines and spirits from grapes that grow and mature in more generous temperatures. The customs officials do not want these alcoholic products in the least. They are highly intoxicating. They are not appropriate for all palates. Besides, there is a local company that has the monopoly in wine. It produces a beverage that has the color of wine and the taste of water, and this you can drink the day long without being affected at all. It is an old company. It is held in great esteem, and its stock is always overpriced.
Still, let us be pleased when the ships enter the harbor, even with all these sacrifices. Because, after all, with vigilance and great care, the number of broken or discarded goods can be reduced during the course of the voyage. Also, the laws of the country and the customs regulations, though oppressive in large measure, are not entirely prohibitive, and a good part of the cargo gets unloaded. Furthermore, the customs officials are not infallible: some of the merchandise gets through in mislabeled boxes that say one thing on the outside and contain something else; and, after all, some choice wines are imported for select symposia.
Something else is sad, very sad. That is when certain huge ships go by with coral decorations and ebony masts, with great white and red flags unfurled, full of treasures, ships that do not even approach the harbor either because all of their cargo is forbidden or because the harbor is not deep enough to receive them. So they continue on their way. A favorable wind fills their silk sails, the sun burnishes the glory of their golden prows, and they sail out of sight calmly, majestically, distancing themselves forever from us and our cramped harbor.
Fortunately, these ships are very scarce. During our lifetime we see two or three of them at most. And we forget them quickly. Equal to the radiance of the vision is the swiftness of its passing. And after a few years have gone by, if—as we sit passively gazing at the light or listening to the silence—if someday certain inspiring verses return by chance to our mind’s hearing, we do not recognize them at first and we torment our memory trying to recollect where we heard them before. With great effort the old remembrance is awakened, and we recall that those verses are from the song chanted by the sailors, handsome as the heroes of the Iliad, when the great, the exquisite ships would go by on their way—who knows where.

“Just Walking Around” by John Ashbery

This one got me where the best poems get you. The first line reminded me of a Neruda poem I used to read in high school when I was feeling my most despairingly romantic. Ashbery’s rendered same awe for the individual in a metaphor of journeying towards another person, a person who is so much more than a name.

And isn’t that what all relationships are? A journey towards knowing another person, even if, realistically, you can never wholly know another person (unless they’re in a Virginia Woolf book)? Anyway, maybe he’s talking about knowing himself, or another, or whomever. Either way, this poem read like a stroll towards somewhere sweet and mysterious, a place and a not-place, a name and a not-name. A person?

Just Walking Around

What name do I have for you?
Certainly there is not name for you
In the sense that the stars have names
That somehow fit them. Just walking around,

An object of curiosity to some,
But you are too preoccupied
By the secret smudge in the back of your soul
To say much and wander around,

Smiling to yourself and others.
It gets to be kind of lonely
But at the same time off-putting.
Counterproductive, as you realize once again

That the longest way is the most efficient way,
The one that looped among islands, and
You always seemed to be traveling in a circle.
And now that the end is near

The segments of the trip swing open like an orange.
There is light in there and mystery and food.
Come see it.
Come not for me but it.
But if I am still there, grant that we may see each other.

 

 

 

 

“Howl,” The Soundtrack of New York

The poem “Howl” transformed Allen Ginsberg, a fellow Columbian, into an “epic vocal bard.”

It’s something else to hear Ginsberg read “Howl.” This poem should be read, shouted, probably, from every rooftop in the city so it keeps vibrating, so the beat (or Beat?) goes on. My class on the Beat Generation just moved on to Ginsberg’s work, and I must say–it’s nothing short of electrifying. “Howl” hit me before I understood it. Hell, there’s so much I still don’t understand and that’s fine. It’s fine to be plunged into imagination blindly and be gripping around language for something concrete to hold on to, if that language is exuberant and exalting and inspiring and wants you to be angry and passionate and speak and wants you to be.

allen_ginsberg

“Howl” is a giant exhale. Each stanza is meant to take one breath to read, and the effect is certainly best appreciated if it’s read out loud. Ginsberg smashes words together that create sparks of understanding where you wouldn’t think there could be (“grandfather night,” “midnight streetlight smalltown rain,” “who ate the lamb stew of the imagination”). Each stanza’s a story about someone he knew. Each stanza is a world and a  whirlwind.

Most importantly I think it’s a poem that needs to be heard. It’s not a private poem. Allen Ginsberg is speaking to an audience–and the audience is not just you, but it’s all of America. So it should be read aloud because so much of it is aural, but also because it’s for an audience that’s bigger than yourself. Get swept up into the collective. Join the crew. He’s seen the best minds of his generation go mad, and he also goes mad, so we must conclude that he is truly one of the best minds of his generation.

Also, as a Columbia student, I’m so amused by the idea of a young graduate saying the best minds of his generation are these crazy wanderers, not his hotshot professors. I’m sure they loved that. Columbia isn’t fond of its Beat progenies and rarely acknowledges that on this very campus, a couple of scraggly students redefined American literature. But hey, it happened, and if you’re going to read it, howl it out loud, the way it should be read.

 

Klimt & the Beats

I came across this poem in the back of The Beat Reader. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of San Francisco’s famous City Lights bookstore and member of the Beat crowd, rendered Gustav Klimt’s iconic painting The Kiss into a poem. All paintings are itching for interpretation, and I like the story that he conjured up from the scene. When I was in Vienna this summer, I saw “The Kiss” and stopped dead in my tracks. I was mesmerized, and ever since have been more or less obsessed with Klimt. The sheer size and grandeur of the painting is incredible, and makes every dorm room rendition seem feeble. The painting incites inspiration upon impact.

the-kiss-1908(1).jpg!Blog

Here’s the poem.

“Short Story on a Painting of Gustav Klimt”

 

They are kneeling upright on a flowered bed

   He

       has just caught her there

                                 and holds her still

      Her gown

                     has slipped down

                                               off her shoulder

    He has an urgent hunger

                           His dark head

                                      bends to hers

                                                  hungrily

And the woman the woman

     turns her tangerine lips from his

            one hand like the head of a dead swan

                   draped down over

                                                 his heavy neck

                      the fingers

                         strangely crimped

                                     tightly together

       her other arm doubled up

                      against her tight breast

                           her hand a languid claw

                                                        clutching his hand

                               which would turn her mouth

                                                                         to his

       her long dress made

                             of multicolored blossoms

                                    quilted on gold

       her Titian hair

                    with blues stars in it

       And his gold

                          harlequin robe

                                            checkered with

                                                        dark squares

       Gold garlands

                     stream down over

                                             her bare calves &

                                                 tensed feet

Nearby there must be

                a jeweled tree

                        with glass leaves aglitter

                            in the gold air

It must be

               morning

                           in a faraway place somewhere

They

       are slient together

                                 as in a flowered field

           upon the summer couch

                                 which must be hers

  And he holds her still

                                 so passionately

        holds her head to his

                             so gently so insistently

           to make her turn

                               her lips to his

Her eyes are closed

                              like folded petals

She

     will not open

                        He

                            is not the One

“From Blossoms” by Li-Young Li

I’ve read this poem a million times but I’ll never enjoy it as much as the first time I heard it. I was sitting around a bonfire on the beach in Thasos, Greece, and my friend recited it from memory. It reverberated amongst us all, creating some real unity. Because this poem said it–it said how we felt. “There are days we live as if death were nowhere in the background,” like that day, like all those days we spent together in Greece.

This is just a beautiful poem and I want to share it with the world!

From Blossoms

by Li-Young Li

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.