Friday, April 15, 2011

Words to Keep

Perhaps, like me, you might at first resist the idea of the subtitle for Poem in Your Pocket for Young Poets: 100 Poems to Rip Out & Read, edited by Bruno Navasky. Rip the page from a book? I still grapple with whether it’s truly okay to underline favorite phrases in pencil or mark the margins. Of course, you don’t have to rip out the pages.

But that idea of owning the poem, ripping it out, sticking it in your pocket and committing it to memory—or taking it out to share it with someone else—is a valuable idea. It took me a long time to feel as if I “owned” a book, that it was truly mine, to mark up and dog-ear. It’s still easier for me to take a pencil to a set of galleys or a paperback than a hardcover. But part of the fun is revisiting where I’ve been. The notes I made in the margins of my books in college are fun to look back on now. Do the same passages move me today that moved me then?

In his acceptance speech for the Claudia Lewis Award for Poetry for Guyku: A Book of Haiku for Boys, poet Bob Raczka said that he often goes back to the words of Mary Oliver:

“Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

At the risk of sounding a refrain, allow me to repeat: that’s what poetry does best. It teaches us to live in the moment, to see things anew. I’m taken with May Swenson’s “Analysis of Baseball” (in Poem in Your Pocket) because she drills down to the game’s essence, the relationship between bat, ball, and mitt. She invites us to review our own experience of the game and see if her observations match up with ours. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but during that time of reflection, we relive some great moments in baseball and sharpen our minds.

If you are not already a poetry lover, I’m betting that Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist Connie Schultz can convert you with this week’s piece, “The Familiarity of a Poem.” She admits, “I was in my 40s before I was willing to share my love of poetry.” Now she has a poem delivered to her inbox every Monday. If you’re already a poetry convert, you likely know about Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, which offers a new poem every day. (Today’s poem is by William Wordsworth.)

Like Schultz, I, too, bristle at the idea of relegating Black History or Women’s History or Poetry to one month out of an entire year. But if that monthly theme grabs the attention of just one person and opens his or her eyes to a fact or a person or an event or a poem that he hadn’t known about before, then I’m all for it. Then let the newly anointed come along with the converted among us, who celebrate all year long.

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