about poetry

from a talk given at the Blacksburg Library in 2014

My three sisters and I were raised on poetry and politics. We had little of the other arts in our home, but a great deal of poetry. We cut our baby teeth on A Child’s Garden of Verses: “I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, and what can be the use of him is more than I can see.” “When I was sick a lay abed, I had two pillows at my head.” And on Edward Lear: “The owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat…” and Kipling’s “Boots, boots, boots marching over Africa, boots boots boots marching up and down again….” Our mother served up poems with breakfast, sometimes breaking our hearts: “The little toy dog is covered with dust, but sturdy and staunch he stands.”. Or, while pulling cinnamon toast from the oven, she might irreverently recite: “Willie dressed in the best of sashes fell in the fire and burned to ashes. After a while the room grew chilly cuz no one wanted to poke poor Willie.”

The year I lived with my grandparents in Wisconsin, my grandmother and I read terribly sad 19th Century poems together every night at bedtime. I was 8 years old and a thousand miles from my family. I would guess I welcomed the chance to cry over the noble dead from the War Between The States, and the lost children of the industrial revolution: “The spring is come, but O the joy it is too late, my little boy—he could not wait.“ Or, a particular favorite, the poem titled, “Oh My God Can Joe Be Dead?” My grandmother and I climbed the stairs each night reciting a poem about a French soldier who never returned from WWI. “There is dust in my eyes, and I cannot see, Viva La France, Viva la France,” We wept, taking each step in rhythm to the poem.

Back in Louisiana, together with my 2 best friends Goo & Hopper—I read poems of passion and tragedy, such as the The Wreck of the Hesperus, and Invictus. We dramatically recited lots of Whitman to one another: “Captain my Captain, the fearful trip is done…” We memorized Christina Rossetti’s,” When I am dead my darling, sing no sad songs for me, plant thou no lilacs at my head…” At ten, I began writing my own poems, keeping them to myself. “The world is round O so round, it isn’t all sky, it isn’t all ground....”

I was such a terrible student that I was shipped off to be straightened out by the nuns in a small boarding school, set far back in Cajun country. It was there that I became—to my eternal gratitude—immersed in a life of reading and writing. Strict, straight-laced Mother Marheinkie introduced us to the sonnets and soliloquies of Shakespeare: “The quality of mercy is not strained, it dropeth as the gentle rain of heaven upon the place beneath.” She gave us Tennyson, “The old order changeth yielding place to the new, and God fulfills himself in many ways…” And, of course, our beloved Emily: “I’m nobody, who are you? Are you nobody too?”  “Because I could not stop for death, death kindly stopped for me.” At that beautiful old school, nestled among ancient oak and pine trees, my virginal classmates and I read, debated, and memorized works by Dante, Blake, Milton, and Dylan Thomas.

After the nuns—in that blink-of-my-eye between high school and marriage--I found the beat poets: Ginsberg, Snyder, and especially Ferlingetti: “Johnny Nolan has a patch on his ass, kids chase him through screen-doored summers…”

When the youngest of my three children was less than a year old, I had a health crisis. An arrogant surgeon treated me as my husband’s chattel and treated my body as an out-of-order baby dispenser. It was then that I found the feminist poets: Path and Sexton, Alice Walker, and Marge Piercy: ”We sat across the table./he said, cut off your hands/they are always poking at things/they might touch me/I said yes.” Margaret Atwood: “You fit into me/like a hook into an eye/a fish hook/an open eye.”

The following years were very difficult ones and I began to write feverishly. That desperate writing, and my precious children, were the lifelines that kept me above water during the very darkest of all my times.

In 1980, the year my sisters and I were orphaned, a kind man, named Bud Smith, maneuvered a scholarship for me to go and work with twelve other aspiring poets at the Reynolds Homestead. Our teacher was the formidable poet A.R. Ammons, our hosts the incredible Dave and Mary Britt. Those ten days at Critz, Virginia began an earth change for me. Most of my fellow students went on to become accomplished and widely published poets. Regrettably, I was not among them. 

In my really wonderful later years I’ve come to love the poetry of Sharon Olds: “Go and do what you must do, and I will tell about it.” Primo Levi, Maxine Kumin, Galway Kinnel: “…my broken arms heal themselves around you,”  Kinnel said, writing of his infant daughter. I read and re-read the stunning nature poems of Mary Oliver, and Rilke’s powerful work: “Once and no more. And we, too, once. And never again. But this having been once, though only once, having been once on earth—can it ever be cancelled?”

For almost thirty-five years I have written, read, and worked beside two wonderful, wonderful poets: Mary North and Diane Goff. We have weathered many a storm, worn many a quill pen to a nub. We are blessed in one another. 

Now, tonight, in the cusp of my 68th year, I have River Bow, my first little book of poems, coming into the light.

On New Year’s, 2012, my resolution was that I would write at least one poem every single day. Some days I wrote four or five. Most of the 27 poems in River Bow were written in  2012.  Almost all of them detail life beside the ancient New River.