Six Poems to Love
One of my favorite things about reading or watching interviews with fiction authors is that, inevitably, they will be asked: how do you cure writer’s block?
The answer, constantly, is waiting. Writer’s block is not a tight muscle that can be massaged loose, or an overdue bill to be paid. It’s a moment of creative absence, which will pass in its own time. The best that a writer can do is bear it. But there is one answer that I’ve heard many times, from many writers, about what helps them resolve writer’s block:
I could look up studies that show how reading poetry makes a person more creative, thoughtful, empathetic, and a better sleeper. I’m sure they exist. There is this bizarre notion that poetry is an intellectual medium, only accessible to those who hold an MA in Literature and experience melodramatic levels of artistic ennui. Countless times I’ve asked friends why they don’t read poetry, and the common response is that they “don’t understand it.” But poetry is not a genre, it is a form, and not understanding it is like saying that you don’t understand film, or music, or comics. Not that it is wrong to not understand music; only that it is very possible and common to understand and enjoy it, which does not involve some strawman hoity-toity gatekeepers in professorial robes.
I also read poetry when I have writer’s block, though it’s not often new poetry (I reserve that for periods where I take a break from writing). Rather, I revisit the poems that made me want to write poetry, like reading scripture to remind oneself of one’s connection to spirituality (I even read psalms sometimes, especially in the King James version). So, for my first installment in this blog, I wanted to tackle two questions: what poems do I love, and why do I love them? Hopefully, by reading this, you’ll feel closer to poetry, and will crack open a book of it the next time you’re in a lull.
Jacqueline Lapidus, Whale after Orgasm
This is the shortest poem on the list, so I’ll present it in its entirety:
As that tremendous wave subsides
all forty feet of her sleek skin
shudder, and a huge sigh
ripples outward to the ocean’s
farthest reaches while
her 25-ton body languidly
drifts into sleep with a cetacean smile
I found this poem in an anthology called Wanting Women: An Anthology of Erotic Lesbian Poetry, a book that goes with me everywhere I travel. There is so much to love in this piece: the perfect marriage of playfulness and sensuality (the best sex, in my opinion), the word choice (the last two words might as well be tattooed lovingly on my brain), the tender imagery. This is a poem of feminine agency – there is no partner for the whale, just her enjoying herself – and true body positivity, giving a giant creature a moment of delicate power, literally shaking the whole ocean with pleasure.
Olga Broumas, Sometimes, as a child
without thought, effortless
as a mantra turning
in the paused wake of your dive, enter
the suck of the parted waters, you’d emerge
clean caesarean, flinging
live rivulets from your hair
Olga Broumas’s debut book, Beginning With O, should be taught in Freshman year. Meditations on Greek mythology and female relationships weave around Broumas’s arresting lines, but none has struck me more than this, the poem’s opening piece. “your own breath arrested.” she writes, “you could feel your bones / glisten / translucent as spinal fins.” Like Whale After Orgasm, this is a poem in the water, of a young Greek diver on a warm day, in her lover’s memory. When I read it I feel breathless, caught in the beautiful moment of the diver piercing the water.
Mary Oliver, The Sunflowers
Their bright faces,
which follow the sun,
will listen, and all
those rows of seeds -
each one a new life!
hope for a deeper acquaintance;
each of them, though it stands
in a crowd of many,
like a separate universe,
is lonely, the long work
of turning their lives
into a celebration
is not easy.
Wild Geese and The Summer Day are the most often cited Mary Oliver poems (both remarkable: Wild Geese reduces me to tears and deserves its own blog post, The Summer Day’s “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” has become its own mantra, for better or worse), but it was The Sunflowers that found me first, so I will love it the most. Like many of Oliver’s poems, this is a meditation on a singlular moment that contains a multitude of meanings, almost as a directive to the reader. The placement of the word “lonely” when describing such a beautiful object as a sunflower catches me every time, as does the final sentiment. The message to me, is that even the most beautiful of living things can feel the smallness of loneliness, that even among a field of sunflowers we can find a little sadness, a little humanity.
Sylvia Plath, Lady Lazarus
Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.
The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut
As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
Before we get into it: yes, this is the poem where Sylvia Plath compares herself to a Holocaust victim. It’s wrongheaded and harmful and there have been (and should always be) examinations of this. Regardless, this poem is my favorite of Plath’s, not just because it has the classic hallmarks of a Sylvia Plath poem (depression, suicide, a fat yet staccato rhythm) but because it’s hilarious to read. Plath attempted suicide several times in her life, and her writing about it is essential (there’s a scene in The Bell Jar that is a masterclass in dark humor). Lady Lazarus is about the fatalistic feeling that, instead of being doomed to die, Plath is doomed to survive: “like a cat I have nine ways to die.” There’s a horrendous presumption that women who read Plath are dramatic yet vapid (let’s not forget Woody Allen’s pompous missive that Plath was an “interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college-girl mentality” ugh), but in actuality Plath’s work is complex, funny, and biting. I return to this piece when I need a pick-me-up, especially for the final stanza: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.”
E. E. Cummings, o by the by
what wonderful thing
is the end of a string
(murmurs little you-i
as the hill becomes nil)
and will somebody tell
me why people let go
In high school and the first few years of university I went through a significant E.E. Cummings phase. There was a poem of his that I memorized and wrote on the back of every new planner I had, I bought as many of his books as I could find, on and on. Cummings’s work is diverse and complicated: most think of him as the writer of whimsical romantic poems (how many tattoos say “i carry your heart in my heart”?) but he covered what can only be described as a gamut. Some of my favorite of his poems are about childhood and Spring, which Cummings often describes as a sensual, natural state of being that adulthood corrupts. That’s apparent here, in one of the few Cummings poems that has stuck with me over the years. The poem is a description of a kite’s flight (“it dived like a fish / but it climbed like a dream”), but it’s really about the ending of something beautiful, and the impossible burden of understanding that. Is it the end of childhood? Or a relationship? Why do people let go?
T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
What can be said about Prufrock that hasn’t been said already? Eliot’s second-most famous poem (third, if you consider Cats to be a T.S. Eliot poem) is an examination of mediocrity told through some of the most beautiful phrases conceived in the 20th century. “Do I dare to eat a peach?” “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons” “In the room the women come and go / talking of Michaelangelo.” I will walk around my apartment and read this out loud to myself several times over just to taste the words. It is a friend to me, my coffee-stained copy of The Waste Land and Other Writings has traveled the country for ten years, and has given me comfort that no other work has: that even as you are plain, mediocre, or feel meaningless, the expression of life itself is beautiful and worthy. The poem never deigns to be aspirational – it ends with the imagery of drowning – but is a monument to art and writing, and the finest example of what poetry can do for its reader.