"Courage is in the air in bracing whiffs / Better than all the stalemate an’s and ifs"
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April is National Poetry Month, but in my tender heart, it’s a year-round practice. “More poetry,” my local bookseller often says when I present him with yet another copy of Seamus Heaney’s 100 Poems, my willful misinterpretation of a dinner host’s “just bring yourself!”
I’m afraid it gets much worse. In college, my thesis advisor often recited poetry in our meetings, which struck me as the most romantic thing a person could do, so I committed “When You Are Old” by W.B. Yeats to memory—and dozens more since.1 My most recent acquisition was unintentional: I was so taken with Wendy Cope’s “Letter,” my platonic ideal of workaholics in love, that it stuck.
The founders were embarrassing poetry monsters, too. “From your bright sparkling Eyes, I was undone,” wrote a young George Washington, living up to his vanilla reputation. Alexander Hamilton, then 17, was likewise in character in the Royal Danish American Gazette: “Cœlia’s an artful little slut." James Madison’s collegiate doggerel–“[She] took me to her private room / And straight an Eunuch out I come”–made me wonder if he’d had, by that point, any sexual experience at all. He likely had, I’d later learn: Madison may have raped his half-sister, who gave birth to his only biological child.2
I won’t subject you to more–some of you are still recovering from Woodrow Wilson’s “storm of love making with which you will be assailed”–but I will leave you with a few poets to (re)consider over the weekend:
In 1953, Sylvia Plath, then a twenty-year-old undergraduate at Smith College, won a month-long stint as a guest editor for Mademoiselle. In August, “the magazine for smart young women” published Plath’s poem, “Mad Girl’s Love Song.”
That title! On brand, right? Plath gonna Plath–or so we’ve been told.
Too many scholars and screenwriters have cast Plath as the reigning queen of 20th-century American depressives, reducing her to a one-dimensional figure moving towards inevitable, inescapable destruction. In this episode of “No Man’s Land,” I argue that we read life backward.
I tell this story with the help of Heather Clark, then hard at work on Red Comet. I hope you’ll check out the much-lauded biography, which “does not so much seek to correct the record as establish it in the first place.”
And there’s more: Books Plath read. Art Plath made. Letters Plath wrote. I’m always struck by her cool observations of Ted Hughes, high off his own supply (of extramarital affairs): “He began to talk, utterly unlike him, of how he could write & direct film scripts, how he was going to win the Nobel Prize, how he had been asleep all the time we were married.”
GEORGE MOSES HORTON
Born into slavery circa 1800, George Moses Horton became the first Black man to publish a book of poetry in the South–three years before he learned how to write. Horton hoped the profits from Hope of Liberty (1829) would buy his freedom, but instead, he was offered a kind of work release program.
For the next 30 years, Horton was able to write poetry because his enslaver profited from it.
He is gone out of glory to glory,
A smile with the tear may be shed,
O, then let us tell the sweet story,
Triumphantly, Lincoln is dead.
–Horton, “Lincoln is Dead”
As Horton’s fame increased, powerful people, including the governor, attempted to intervene, but his enslaver was unmoved. Slavery was legal–until it wasn’t. After the Civil War, Horton, 68, was finally free.
In 1961, Robert Frost intended to read “Dedication,” an original poem, at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy on 20 January 1961, but the sun's glare upon the snow-covered ground blinded him. He couldn’t read his text, so instead, he recited another, "The Gift Outright," from memory.
ON A RELATED NOTE
I have a friend who loves Keats. Everything is Keatsean. Just yesterday, he responded to a text with a Keats poem “you probably know.” I did not. I only really know “Ode to a Nightengale,” a banger I enjoyed unpacking in college, but attempts to learn more in subsequent years have failed. Annotated editions have left me feeling like a foggy-eyed traveler with a broken compass—until Susan J. Wolfson's A Greeting of the Spirit: Selected Poetry of John Keats. The book lives on my bedside table, where it will remain for some time, acquiring more and more book darts.
“My mother can’t die until her hair turns gray,” Elisa Gabbert writes in Normal Distance. I am, as a single, youngish mother to a tiny primate, startled by the line. I’ve thought about it, sure, but mostly I’ve tried to avoid thinking about it—and that’s what really gets me about Gabbert. I imagine her as Heaney described himself: Her “squat pen rests; snug as a gun,” casually pinpointing my anxieties and preoccupations, no matter how dull or profound. I recognize people I know and love in her poetry, too, and those I don’t. It’s a slim book, but there’s no rushing it.3 Normal Distance is like a subway car full of people absorbed by their phones, their books, their troubles; I stare at them as long as I can stand it.
May 17th: Interviewed by Christy S. Coleman. The Jamestown Settlement, Jamestown Yorktown Foundation. Williamsburg, Virginia.
June 14th: In conversation with Mattie Kahn.The Strand. New York, New York.
See you soonish! Until then, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram. If you’d like a personalized copy of my books, please order them from Oblong.
The poems have become my companions, and the act of memorizing them stays with me, too: I see myself repeating lines from Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” as I walk along the Russian River. I’m memorizing Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Speech to the Young: Speech to the Progress-Toward” on the Q train after an inspiring day curating the ACLU’s centennial.
My word choice is intentional. The family won’t submit DNA…which suggests they’re concerned about the results.