Kathleen, I liked your post! And I agree the timely/timeless question is a bit of a false dichotomy. And, yes, most people I’ve asked are saying some version of “both.” Still, I think the question is worth asking, worth thinking about. I see a shift toward valuing “timeliness” or being more willing to talk about the pleasure of timeliness, of everydayness, not just the sublime. I’ve always been attracted to poems that describe everydayness, that feel as though they’re happening in real time, that are not recollected in tranquility. And, part of why I write is to fix myself in space and time. Recently, in order to push myself to be present, I started keeping daily blog where I record one-sentence descriptions. My rules are: no “I” and outside (the self, the apartment) whenever possible. Are these descriptions poetry? I’m not sure, but the practice is pushing me to exercise my powers of observation, my timely muscles.

I’m also rethinking the value of timelessness. Last year I asked a student, “but what do you want your poems to do??” and he said (evading my question), “well, of course I want my poems to be timeless…” and I blurted out, “like PLASTIC?” What would it mean to want a biodegradable poetry now that we know the horror of things that last and last and last?

Last Friday as I was waiting for my yeast to proof (I make challah every Friday and though I’m not religious love the way the ritual marks my week, marks time for my family), I heard Garrison Keillor on NPR’s “Sound Check” talking about his new book Good Poems: American Places. He said, “people don’t have time” and said he wanted to offer “poems people can get as they’re buttering their toast and yelling at their children… not everyone’s an English major.” Then he talked about Robert Frost (with reverence) and said that Frost’s poems are great because “they last.” And then he said that the poems in his new book are great because they are “about a here and a now.”

So, he too, wants poems that are timely and timeless even though or because people don’t have time. It’s all mixed up. By then the yeast had proofed, and I had added eggs, flour, oil, sugar, and salt. I continued thinking about this as I kneaded the dough for ten minutes, which feels like a long time when kneading dough. I wondered if poems are required to be timely in order to timeless? I wondered if these qualities are ineluctable. And then my time was up.

Next post: What Matt Rohrer thinks about this. Then, what Patricia Smith thinks about this.

Originally Published: April 5th, 2011

Poet and educator Rachel Zucker was born in New York and grew up in Greenwich Village, the daughter of novelist Benjamin Zucker and storyteller Diane Wolkstein. She earned her BA at Yale University and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.   Zucker’s expansive yet lyrical poems interrogate and deftly...