Prose from Poetry Magazine

Peanut Butter and Poetry

Viewing poems through a journalist’s lens.
Photo of a red brick house covered in ivy.

My feelings about poetry are too rapturous and obsessive to explain formally; it’s like a wild ivy that grows creeping around your brickwork until, one day, you wake up and realize that you can never get rid of it because it’s holding the whole damn house together.

I don’t pretend to understand poetry fully. Through some alchemy
 of advanced placement credits and liberal art school general education requirements I wound up enrolled in an intro to poetry class during my freshman year of college, despite my determined plans to double major in dance and pre-med. Our professor challenged us to keep exploring the form. We read and talked about poems and listened to jazz. I graduated, four years later, as an English major with a deep love for the art and the way poetry allows for beauty in the messiness and mystery of being human.

Now, I am lucky enough to spend my days working to tell news stories through photography. And I know that what makes me love a poem is the same thing that makes me love a photograph. My favorite poems have always been distillations — nothing extra, just the tight packaging of a thought or a scene in lines, beautiful because they contain only the necessary and absolutely nothing else. A good photograph is like that, too — framed to encompass no more than it needs to tell the story, and beautiful despite sometimes reflecting hard or unpleasant truths.

I know that when my head gets all jammed up trying to solve a problem at work, I read a good poem and it feels like an ice rinse for my brain. I read poetry on the subway. I read poetry in bed before I fall asleep. I read poetry in the morning over a strong cup of coffee (or three) when I know I have a big day ahead of me. I’m not always adventurous about it; I’m often revisiting a poem that I know will put me in a certain mind-set. Those poems are touchstones when I need them most.

I found my first such poem on the first night of sleepaway summer camp, written in my mom’s neat handwriting in the front of the little journal that she had sent to Maine with me:

dive for dreams
or a slogan may topple you
(trees are their roots
and wind is wind)

trust your heart
if the seas catch fire
(and live by love
though the stars walk backward)

Even now, twenty years later, I vividly remember the yellow flashlight beam, the cool sheets, the breeze rattling the cabin screen, and how the little lowercase words cut straight through the terrible feeling of homesickness and made me feel strong and brave.

In college I loved all of John Berryman’s “Dream Songs,” but particularly 29, with its delicious language and strange, comforting
 conclusion:

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.

I’m no expert on love, but every single time I read Eileen Myles’s “Peanut Butter” I get a lump in my throat. The air escapes through my lips and it feels like a very long time before I can breathe in again:

I write be-
hind your
back. My thoughts
about you are
not exactly
forbidden, but
exalted because
they are useless,
not intended
to get you
because I have
you & you love
me.

And lately, I’ve been rereading Ada Limón’s “Flood Coming”:

The pulled-apart world scatters
its bad news like a brush fire,
the ink bleeds out the day’s undoing
and here we are again: alive.

The tributary of this riverine dark
widens into the mind’s brief break.
Let the flood come, the rowdy water
beasts are knocking now and now.

What’s left of the woods is closing in.
Don’t run. Open your mouth big
to the rising and hope to your god
your good heart knows how to swim.

I return to these poems, and so many more, for that same comfort I felt reading the E.E. Cummings poem by flashlight. They serve as reminders that life and love and being human are imperfect and wild things. They serve as moments of beauty in an everyday life that can feel so harried. We need art and poems and photographs to help us hold our bricks together. And maybe we don’t fully understand how they work or why, but we love them, and that’s enough.

Originally Published: October 2nd, 2017

Morrigan McCarthy is a photo editor at the New York Times, covering stories all over the United States on the national desk.

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In