“Poetry is one vehicle for this humanizing, reanimating version of language, because the features of a poem insist upon a different value system. Rather than numbing or drowning out the difficult-to-describe but urgently sensed feelings that are part of being human, poetry invites us to tease them out, to draw them into language that is rooted in intricate thought and strange impulse. Rather than putting up a buffer between ourselves and those outside our immediate sphere, poems devise means to contemplate those others and to take in their perspectives.
Rather than solving, sidestepping or denying problems, poems bear witness to dark facets of experience, they give us vocabulary for the terror, the shame, the regret — as well as the terms of hope — resulting from the choices we make and those we consent to.
In other words, poems say, ‘Hey, come here, let me tell you what it was like.’ And they ask us to submit to another experience of reality. They disorient us from our home base, and they teach us to admit and submit to the feeling of vulnerability, to act upon empathy and curiosity, and to follow along allowing sense to accrue at its own pace and upon its own terms.”
From U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s remarks for her lecture at the Library of Congress. Read the entire thing here.
A bear batting at a beehive, how
clumsy the mind
always was with the heart. Wanting
what it wanted.
timidly the heart approached the business
of the mind. Counting
what it counted.
Light inside a cage, the way the heart —
Bird trapped in an airport, the way the mind —
How it flashed on the floor of the phone booth, my
last dime. And
I didn’t send
to find it now.
All this love I must have felt.
translated by Edith Grossman
Against a topaz sky
and huge windows starry
with delirious heartsease
and sensual red cayenne;
the sweet twilight breeze
fragrant with almond and Indian orange;
on the Moorish tiles,
wearing their spike-heeled shoes,
lowcut dresses and wide swirling skirts;
their long obsidian hairdos
in the style of the time;
perfumed, olive-skinned, smiling,
my aunts danced the mambo
and sang: “Doctor, tomorrow,
you can’t pull my tooth
even if I die of the pain.”
those evenings of my childhood
when my aunts were young and belonged to me,
and I danced hiding in their skirts,
our lives were a happy mambo—
Beloved, men in thick green coats came crunching
through the snow, the insignia on their shoulders
of uncertain origin, a country I could not be sure of,
a salute so terrifying I heard myself lying to avoid
arrest, and was arrested along with Jocko, whose tear
had snapped off, a tiny icicle he put in his mouth.
We were taken to the ice prison, a palace encrusted
with hoarfrost, its dome lit from within, Jocko admired
the wiring, he kicked the walls to test the strength
of his new boots. A television stood in a block of ice,
its blue image still moving like a liquid center.
You asked for my innermost thoughts. I wonder will I
ever see a grape again? When I think of the vineyard
where we met in October—when you dropped a cluster
custom insisted you be kissed by a stranger—how after
the harvest we plunged into a stream so icy our palms
turned pink. It seemed our future was sealed. Everyone
said so. It is quiet here. Not closing our ranks
weakens us hugely. The snowflakes fall in a featureless
bath. I am the stranger who kissed you. On sunny days
each tree is a glittering chandelier. The power of
mindless beauty! Jocko told a joke and has been dead
since May. A bullethole in his forehead the officers
call a third eye. For a month I milked a barnful of
cows. It is a lot like cleansing a chandelier. Wipe
and polish, wipe and polish, round and round you go.
I have lost my spectacles. Is the book I was reading
still open by the side of our bed? Treat it as a bookmark
saving my place in our story.
(here the letter breaks off)
I remember the king passed massive amounts
of inarticulate feeling into law.
I envied all the beautiful things.
Sometimes I called my own name.
I cursed myself why do I have so many
strange questions. I tried to cram myself
with gentler things so as to release
some suppressed inclination. My name is
Woodtangle. I remember my mother
when she wore yellow was beautiful
like a fish and then she died. I remember
thinking my father was mean but knowing he
was kind. I remember thinking my father was
kind but knowing he was mean. I remember thinking
all things made of themselves examples of the
same thing. And Everyman the next day would follow.
I remember thinking the world ended a long time ago
but no one noticed. I remember every dinner
at Vespaio with Tomaz and the Saturday night
the antique cars paraded by for any hour
And I couldn’t breathe for the fumes and I was happy.
I remember thinking the sexual significance of
everything seemed absurd because we are made of
time and air (who cares) and then I remembered
the day the king passed massive amounts of inarticulate
feeling into law he threw a cherry bomb into the crowd
and I thought it was fruit and ate it.
a song in the front yard
I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.
I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.
They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).
But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face.