It’s been a particularly busy and exhausting week. As Thursday approached, I considered what I would write about here on Harriet. I am committed to the idea of discussing, every Thursday, what I am reading that is exciting me, and yet today that didn’t feel quite right. What I want to share, instead, are a few of the poems that keep me coming back to poetry even when I believe I might just be too tired to read more than three lines of anything my hands hold before my eyes.

Kitchenette Building
We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”
But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms
Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?
We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.
--Gwendolyn Brooks
That’s a poem to return to. It’s hard opening consonants and staccato phrasing. That winding question, and then those brief exclamations in the first line of the final stanza. The sound and syntax of the poem duplicates the feeling of hurry up and wait, wait, wait, hurry now and wait that seems to be part and parcel of the brands of drudgery that argue against the primacy of poetry (the dream, in the locution of the poem). When I am tired I remember this poem, both its message and its execution, and then I am ready to dream about poems again.
Sometimes, when my mind is rebelling against some enforced stillness (think: line at the P. O.; think: waiting room lounge, BART platform, the long walk over asphalt in an over-crowded grocery store parking lot) the dreamy part of my brain turns to beautiful sounds:
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
Áll félled, félled, are áll félled;
Of a fresh & following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank…
Ah, Gerard Manley Hopkins and his brilliant "Binsey Poplars"! (Once I sat in the grove where had stood those same poplars, and though I was not at all in love with the man who took me to the spot, he is still precious to me for having taken me there.) I am always promising myself that I will re-memorize the whole poem. But, actually, I think perhaps it is the fact that I always end up coming home to find my Hopkins and re-read that poem, and many others besides, that keeps me from memorizing more than the first 8 lines.
What else does my mind turn to when it needs the comfort of a poem?
Yeats's "Adam's Curse" and "The Second Coming" and “Sailing to Byzantium” are some. Though I am not, and never will be, an old man, my heart (perhaps my soul?) is stirred every time I come to the lines, “Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/ For every tatter in its mortal dress,” and I, too, find myself wanting to sail off to Byzantium, wherever that may be.
Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me” and its celebration of the life she shaped against all odds and expectations.
Robert Hass’s “Privilege of Being” and the moment when the woman, running, admits, with no intended malice, “I woke up feeling so sad this morning/ because I realized/ that you could not, as much as I love you,/ dear heart, cure my loneliness.”
I turn in tired times to Thomas Hardy’s “The Voice.” I think it’s that break from the pattern at the end, where he really does sound like he’s “faltering forward” and “the leaves around [him are] falling” and “the wind” might be “oozing thin through the thorn from norward” and “the woman” might very well be “calling.” I think it’s the fact that the poem breaks down at the end, though of course it doesn’t break down at all. It’s the potential, but not awful, disaster that makes this poem something my tired mind recognizes and loves.
Even when I am most tired, I find myself turning to poetry. It’s a comfort to know my mind has such a consistent and sustaining love, even when I am most worn down by life:
…in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
(from Shakespeare’s Sonnet #29)

Originally Published: March 19th, 2009

Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.   Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...

  1. March 19, 2009
     Charles Godwin

    Thanks Camille, for reminding me to read "Binsey Poplars "again.. and again.. I LOVE the photo of you in front of your trusty Underwood, writing these interesting posts.

  2. March 19, 2009
     Shana Rose

    This post is so great for me. If I can't spend my days reading, examining, and talking about poetry, then at least I can live vicariously in the places where poets do.

  3. March 19, 2009
     Camille Dungy

    Charles, glad you were happy to be reminded of "Binsey Poplars." The sounds in that poem just swim. I adore it. And, though I do not mind being confused with the brilliance and beauty that is Gwendolyn Brooks, I must tell you and other readers that is Ms. Brooks, not Ms. Dungy, hard at work in the photo that opens my post.

  4. March 19, 2009
     Amanda Sandos

    Thanks for offering up great words to feed my process and my soul. I miss your classes!!! Please add me to your list, so I can read what you offer every week.
    Love, Amanda

  5. March 19, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Just lovely, Camille. Thanks for this.

  6. March 20, 2009
     Megan Quigley

    Posting your comments on my door in the English department--
    Always good to have students reminded why we read!

  7. March 20, 2009
     Charles Godwin

    Camille, thanks for identifying the photo. Pulling an old Penguin edition of Hopkins from the shelf to read "Binsey Poplars" again, I said a silent "thank you Camille" and turning a few pages came upon
    "I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
    High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
    In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,"
    So by reminding me to reread Binsey Poplars, you led me to reread The Windhover; Hmmm, maybe Hopkins remains off the shelf for a bit longer. Thanks again

  8. March 20, 2009

    One thing that is becoming apparent to me, vis-à-vis your posts, is that canon formation is a natural tendency. But the personal canon has little to do with the institutional one, and more to do with how poets become poets.
    John Ashbery’s Other Traditions, a compilation of his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures delivered at Harvard in 2000 is one of the most wonderful accounts of the formation of a personal canon to be published recently.
    You’re going about it in your own way, showing us how to read Gwendolyn Brooks along side Gerald Manly Hopkins, how to make ourselves “ready to dream about poems again.” This is not only practical (for us), but revealing about you. How you like the staccato line, the quick delivery of direct observation, how you situate yourself between the “shadow that swam or sank”…

  9. March 22, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    That's a nice point, Martin. I like this idea of the personal canon.