Dying to do so
Once I went to the graveyard in Worcester, Massachusetts and found Elizabeth Bishop and thanked her for her poems and stood around starting to feel sentimental except for the fact that, despite it’s being a perfectly clear blue-sky day, it began to snow heavy wet snow drops and my driver worried about getting me to Boston on time, so we had to leave the graveside before I really got the sentiment train rolling too fast down the hill. Which, I think, was Ms. Bishop telling me to edit myself a little in her presence, please. Restraint, said Ms. Bishop, is the better part of valor. And now, when I revisit her poems, I feel the power of her restraint all the much more.
I got to thinking about this trip to the graveside when I read Daisy Fried’s post and saw the image of little Maisie perched on Gregory Corso’s grave. Sunshine and shadow, a bit of childlike joy, and the implications of the physical sensations of a soft, warm tush on cold marble: the moment seems to have all the markings of a Corso poem!
And there was the time I was studying at Oxford University, living on High Street and feeling rather near to the center of it all. Nestled in my wee little room reading, for the first time, A Vision by William Butler Yeats: “Midnight has come and the great Christ Church bell/And many a lesser bell sound through the room.” And just then midnight came and with it the great Christ Church bell, and many a lesser bell as well, rang through the room. And so it was I entered A Vision less skeptical than I otherwise might, the spirit of the poem seeming, in that moment, alive and all around me.
There was the time I visited Guyana, and walked in places where the poet Martin Carter walked and thought, this is a tree that Martin Carter saw, a house that Martin Carter lived in, a jail that Martin Carter walked by, a market his mother may have shopped in, and thought, why yes, now there is more for me to understand. I also rode daily in a speed boat by the island mansion owned by Eddy Grant and sang each time his lyrics, “We’re gonna rock down to electric avenue,” while the speed boat engine gunned and took us higher up the river. And each time this happened I thought, well, life and language take us funny places sometimes, this is true.
In Chile I got a richer sense of Neruda. In Scotland I finally bonded with Bobby Burns. There was the trip to trinity site that made me think over and over of a Benjamin Alire Sáenz poem. Ann Spencer’s garden in Lynchburg, VA and the chance I had, once, to walk through her writing cottage, rather than just peering through the window at the life-revealing room. The trip to Springfield, IL where Vachel Lindsay’s house proved inhospitable and I took it somewhat personally. The first time I saw what an ice storm could do to trees and there, beside me, were the Roberts (Hayden and Frost) and their poems (“Ice Storm” and “Birches”) and, even more fully, thanks to these poems that had long lived in my mind, I understood what I was seeing.
I think of several of the threads begun here this month, about the possibility of poetry being political, about the chance that poetry might be able to do something about this legislated racism just ratified in Arizona, about the possibility that poet parents might help us rethink who our poetry communities can and should include. Those are just some of the threads these interactions with dead poets make me consider. Because I realize that each time I read a poem and then bring that poem into my living life I am richer, and I know another person, place, or thing so much more. So when we write poetry, when we read poetry, we get these opportunities to broaden the perspectives of those who walk beside us and those who will come a long way down the line. And so I continue to be excited, very very excited, about the conversations we’re having here, and the conversations we’re having out in the world of poetry, conversations that break down barriers and get those of us who are willing (and even some of us who aren’t) reading outside our comfort zones and reading and growing more and more and more.
And lest you think I think that all this responsibility rests with the poet, I want to assure you that I have just related all these moments of my growing ability to apprehend a wider world because I understand that much of the responsibility of a poem rests with the reader. It’s a conversation we’re having, one that I trust will go on and on and on.
They say I am
They say I am a poet write for them:
Sometimes I laugh, sometimes I solemnly nod.
I do not want to look them in the eye
Lest they should squeal and scamper far away.
A poet cannot write for those who ask
Hardly himself even, except he lies;
Poems are written either for the dying
Or the unborn, no matter what we say.
That does not mean his audience lies remote
Inside a womb or some cold bed of agony.
It only means that we who want true poems
Must all be born again, and die to do so.
(Note: The poem should be in three quatrains, this blog software and I do not get along.)
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...