It was everything that was needed, when everything was needed.
“The best use of literature bends not toward the narrow and the absolute but to the extravagant and the possible.”
from Upstream, by Mary Oliver
In the fourth grade, we received an assignment to write a poem. A few days later, we were to hand in our poems to the teacher, who would look them over that afternoon, and we would then recite them out loud to the class the next day. The morning after handing mine in, my teacher pulled me aside and told me she needed to see me after class; I would not be allowed to read my poem to the rest of the class, that day.
Crestfallen, I listened to the work of my friends, and cheered them on. That afternoon, before getting on the bus, my teacher pulled me aside and asked, “who taught you how to write this?”
I will not pretend that my submission was good, but it was different. Unlike the acrostics, haikus, limericks, and quatrains we were learning about in class and that most of my peers had written, my poem was three pages long, written in sestets with an aabbab rhyme sequence. It was an ode to a young lady in my class—I think her name was Michelle A—where I did not mention her, but instead how the world changed when she entered the room. The imagery was rudimentary and the diction plain, but it was different enough from what we were learning that my teacher was perplexed.
The honest truth was that I had discovered Wordsworth earlier that year and was so impressed by his poetry that I had spent weeks imitating his style. The nuance of his language and much of his content was above my head, but by the time I got around to reading “Lucy Gray,” it did not matter that I did not understand what he was saying, but instead that the musicality of his language was enthralling. I wanted to write poems that sounded like song, and so I attempted to do that in my sprawling three-page ode.
I did end up being allowed to read my poem in class the next day. The subject of the ode was oblivious; she did not see herself in the words, and like the rest of the class, thought me pretentious and too much of a try-hard. They were all right, of course. I didn’t know what I was doing, but instead was trying to impress others with my feeble imitation.
Into my late teens, I continued to write poetry, and was lucky enough to have a few of my pieces printed in small journals and magazines. And then, one day, I stopped. I stopped writing poetry, and I stopped reading it.
Until this year.
“The beauty and strangeness of the world may fill the eyes with its cordial refreshment. Equally it may offer the heart a dish of terror. On one side is radiance; on another is the abyss.”
from Upstream, by Mary Oliver
If we were all taught poetry in school the way that Mary Oliver teaches the art in The Poetry Handboo, we would all be poets today. Yes, there is discussion about meter and rhyme, but Oliver opens the book with an in-depth look at sound, at how the way we read poetry is an aural experience, and how it is that sound that makes poetry resonate—both metaphorically and literally, when read out loud. Reading this chapter, I am reminded of the first time I read Wordsworth, when I was not yet nine years old, and immediately realized that poetry was about the music you heard when you read it, and not about the strict adherence to form that we had been learning in school.
Oliver does remind us that form is important, along with diction, voice, tone, and so much more—that all of these go into the true musicality and resonance of the poem—but opening her handbook with sound was what made my heart stir. This is how I wish I was taught poetry: to learn how sound influenced the soul, and how poetry—how beautiful writing of any kind—could make the spirit flourish.
I have written out this passage from Oliver’s Handbook and left it on my desk as a reminder of what I can do, what I should do, when I write, and what I should listen for, when I read:
Language is rich, and malleable. It is a living, vibrant material, and every part of a poem works in conjunction with every other part—the content, the pace, the diction, the rhythm, the tone—as well as the very sliding, floating, thumping, rapping sounds of it.
I am diving back into poetry this year, and I am looking forward to the sliding, the floating, the thumping, the rapping.
“Writing actually sucks. Like you’re alone in your head for days on end, just wondering if you actually can die of loneliness, just wondering how healthy it is to make all this shit up, and just wondering if you did actually make this shit up, or if you just copied down your life or worse someone else’s life, or maybe you’re just feeding your delusions and neuroses and then advertising it to whoever reads your drivel.”
from This Accident of Being Lost, by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
My colleague and friend Adie was the first to hand me her copy of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love. It sat on my bookshelf for a few weeks, but once I picked it up, I could not put it down. Instead, when I had turned its final page, I quickly went on to read Simpson’s follow-up, This Accident of Being Lost, which was just as enthralling.
Most of the poetry we grew up reading was by white people, white men in particular. Eventually, in my late teens, I learned of Latin American poets like Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, and of Middle Eastern poets like el-Fagommi and Rasha Omran, but still, my exposure to poetry was still defined by the Western “classics.”
Simpson’s collections remind me that there is another view onto the world, that poetry is not just art or craft but also a reflection of life, an expression of emotion and vulnerability and questioning. It can be raw and incisive, and in Simpson’s writing, it most often is:
If I had ten minutes alone with you, I’d tell you that I love you. I’d tell you not to be scared, because it’s the kind of love that doesn’t want anything or need anything. It’s the kind of love that just sits there and envelops whoever you are or whoever you want to be. It doesn’t demand. It isn’t a commodity. It doesn’t threaten all the other people you love. It doesn’t fuck up and it doesn’t fuck things up. It’s loyal. It’s willing to feel hurt. It’s willing to exist on shifting terms. It’s willing to stay anyway. It doesn’t want. It’s just there. It’s just there and good and given freely, sewing up the holes unassumingly because it’s the only thing to do. There is so much space around it and the space shimmers.
When I was young, poetry was presented to me in one way. Now that I am re-immersing myself, I am excited to find the other paths through verse—the paths carved by people whose voices were often silenced and definitely need to be heard.
Then there is dissatisfaction,
the flesh, the heart and the soul,
and most especially the mind.
There I always an antagonised ideal
in this antagonistic world:
there is always a craving desire
to satisfy the flesh,
the heart, the soul
and most especially the mind.
And one never gets all
and there is always dissatisfaction.
from “Then there is dissatisfaction” by Manga J. Kingazi Mmgaha, in Summons: Poems from Tanzania
Early this year, I received a parcel in the mail. In it, a copy of Summons: Poems from Tanzania, and a note from a new friend I had made in the fall. In her note, she remarked upon a conversation we had when we first met, where I told her that I was born in Tanzania, and that she told me that she had worked in East Africa, many years ago at the start of her career, and still held a fondness for the region. The collection of poems was one of the mementos she had kept from her time there, and it was now mine to have.
It is a modest collection, and I did not connect with every piece, but it got me thinking: why is poetry not an appropriate way to learn about our own history? How can we discover who we are and from whence we came through verse—and why do we not do this more often?
There is a timbre of voice
that comes from not being heard
and knowing you are not being
heard noticed only
by others not heard
for the same reason.
from “Echoes” by Audre Lorde, in The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance
In elementary school, I learned that poetry was about beauty. I learned that a poem was written to extol, to recognize, to celebrate. We were given odes and sonnets to read, each talking about love and joy and sometimes heartbreak, but beautiful heartbreak. We weren’t taught that sometimes, poetry comes of anger, of despair, of rebellion, of revolt. We were taught that we could express the range of human emotion through verse, but then were driven towards only the emotions that echoed with pleasantness.
We were not taught that poetry was a way to speak truth to power. It took me far too long to realize this.
I finally understood this when I picked up Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric and read the now iconic but painfully true stanza:
because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying
Rankine’s Citizen is filled with vignettes, prose poems that punch you in the gut while you read them. They are not the poems of my elementary school days: they hurt, enrage, fill you with anguish. They are often harrowing, but they are exactly what we all must read in order to understand our current era. At times, we feel as though these are words used as weapons, verses used as bludgeons, emptiness on the page used as pauses to reflect and recover from the blows.
I am currently reading Audre Lorde’s The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance. Like Rankine does in Citizen, Lorde speaks of a life lived as a Black woman, and speaks the truth of all the joys and pains of that experience.
They are both speaking truth to power. They are both making sure we sit up and listen, and ideally, do something about the injustices they reference. They are using poetry to enlighten, to incite, to create change; they do this with power, with strength, and with beauty.
Perhaps my elementary school teachers were right: poetry is about beauty. They were just wrong in telling us what beauty could look like once it was in verse.
“First and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing—an artificial, a moment of seemly and robust wordiness—wonderful as that part of it is. I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company. It was everything that was needed, when everything was needed.”
from Upstream, by Mary Oliver
I am reading poetry, now, after many years away. I am not writing it just yet, but I am told by friends that it is inevitable that the more I read, the more I will be besieged by the desire to write. (I will perhaps hold off on writing three-page odes until I have had much more practice.)
For now, I am allowing myself to be enveloped by verse.
For now, I am allowing myself to listen to the sliding, the floating, the thumping, the rapping.
For now, I am allowing myself to see a poem as a place to enter, a place in which to feel.
For now, I am rediscovering poetry, and through it, rediscovering myself.
“Poetry is a river; many voices travel in it; poem after poem moves along in the exciting crests and falls of the river waves. None is timeless; each arrives in an historical context; almost everything, in the end, passes. But the desire to make a poem, and the world’s willingness to receive it—indeed, the world’s need of it—these will never pass.”
from A Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver