On poetry (again)

Here’s a poem for you on this – still – Tuesday night. Mary Oliver’s The Ponds.

Every year
the lilies
are so perfect
I can hardly believe

their lapped light crowding,
the black
mid-summer ponds.
Nobody could count all of them –

the muskrats swimming
among the pads and the grasses
can reach out
their muscular arms and touch

only so many, they are that
rife and wild.
But what in this world
is perfect?

I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided –
and that one wears an orange blight –
and this one is a glossy cheek

half nibbled away –
and that one is a slumped purse
full of its own
unstoppable decay.

Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled –
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are
nothing –
that the light is everything – that it is more
than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading.
And I do.

(And, do you want to know my problem with reading poetry?

I learned – it was engrained in me, I think – a long time ago, that poetry – the reading of it, the writing of it, the way we reflect upon it – should be a solitary act. That we read poetry and we internalize it, we keep it to ourselves.

I was eighteen – a freshman in college, I remember – when I realized I was wrong. It was an introductory creative writing course: there were eight of us, and we’d gather around tables, assembled in a circle. She – the teacher – wanted us to improve our public speaking skills, and had us lead class – once, for thirty minutes – at some point during the semester. It was a simple enough task: pick a poem from a preselected anthology, have your peers read it the night before, and discuss.

I picked Leadbelly vs. Lomax at the Modern Language Association Conference, 1934*, and requested that none of my peers read it – or listen to it, because there was a recording – before class. We read it together, instead. And that – in that moment, and in that room – was when I realized that poetry didn’t have to be solitary, or internalized. That I could hold it [and give it away, if I wanted to].

Which is all to say: I’ve been reading a poem before bed since I moved to Washington, and this one – like all of Oliver’s poetry – is one I wanted to share, and give away.)

(* If you have five minutes to spare – and you do – you should listen to this poem by Tyehimba Jess. Read the poem first – however you think it should be read, [you’ll see] – and then listen to the audio. It’s a remarkable look at the way we take things – words – in, and how we treat them first when we read them, and second, when we hear them.)

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