I am going to sign off from this year’s National Poetry Month in an uncharacteristic fashion. No commentary, no hoopla. Just a bonus poem by one of the most beautiful poets alive today, Naomi Shihab Nye.
by Naomi Shihab Nye
It is a good word, rolling off the tongue;
no matter what language you were born with
use it. Learn where it begins,
the small alphabet of departure,
how long it takes to think of it,
then say it, then be heard.
Marry it. More than any golden ring,
it shines, it shines.
Wear it on every finger
till your hands dance,
touching everything easily,
letting everything, easily, go.
Strap it to your back like wings.
Or a kite-tail. The stream of air behind a jet.
If you are known for anything,
let it be the way you rise out of sight
when your work is finished.
Think of things that linger: leaves,
cartons and napkins, the damp smell of mold.
Think of things that disappear.
Think of what you love best,
what brings tears into your eyes.
Something that said adios to you
before you knew what it meant
or how long it was for.
Explain little, the word explains itself.
Later perhaps. Lessons following lessons,
like silence following sound.
Published in Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Far Corner Books, 1995).
Already I’ve met the goal of reading poems by four poets I have never before recorded. But since I got excitable and couldn’t wait for week four, I counted that last one as a bonus.
So, now, officially for week four, I have two poems about my favorite creatures on the planet—birds. Both poems are written by Edward Thomas. One is about a bird of the daytime and one a bird of the night.
I’m actually a little surprised that I hadn’t recorded anything by Edward Thomas before. I remember reading “The Owl.” I think I heard it discussed on a podcast at some point, and possibly by Robert Pinsky. But I can’t seem to find that now. I remember being so impressed by it that I was eager to dig into it and try it out in my own voice.
Why I Record
Maybe you’ve figured that out about me by now; I either record a poem because I have fallen in love with it, or because it fascinates me, and I want to see how it works. Probably both. Language in action is what fascinates me, so reading, practicing the pauses, figuring out the pace, basically deciding on the right vocal interpretation is, in my opinion, is the best way to embrace a piece and understand it.
Maybe that’s true of singers and musicians too when there is a song they love. There is a deaf poet I know who brings his poems to life through sign language and I have to guess that the poems feel more complete to him once he’s done that. Just this morning I was discussing with a dear friend who reading my poems out loud is how I figure out where the bumpy spots are, what works and what doesn’t.
Good art makes you want to interact with it. And if it’s your chosen medium, like poetry is for me, you just naturally want to taste it. I swear, even reading poetry quietly in a waiting room, I’m hearing it in my head.
Edward Thomas and a Misunderstanding
But back to our poet for this last week of poetry month. Edward Thomas. You may or may not have heard of him. While some have referred to him as a war poet, it might be more accurate to say he was a nature poet who turned soldier and died as one. He was a Welshman who became good friends with American poet Robert Frost, who inspired him to turn many of the works in his notebooks into poems.
It has been speculated that the Thomas’ misunderstanding of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” is what led to his death in the war. John Green covers the theory in this video. This article in the Guardian also deeply delves into it and discusses the influence Frost had on Thomas and highlights some of their interesting correspondence.
Frost himself, long before the recent book by David Orr, warned that the poem was “tricky.” To be fair, plenty of people have talked about this, and even I took up the discussion in the description section of a video on my YouTube channel back in 2012, three years before Orr’s book.
That doesn’t make me special or smarter than Orr, or any of the professors I’ve been listening to and reading for 25 years. They all said some version of the same thing about how people fail to understand this poem, simply because they fail to pay attention. It’s just that Orr was savvy enough to put out a book on the topic through a popular press.
Frost is being kind to us when he calls it “tricky.” There is no special trick to interpretation. All you have to do is what most people haven’t done; read more than the first few and the last few lines of the poem. Because in the middle you’ll find the speaker arguing with his own false claims when he says:
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Got it? Both roads were the same, and the unreliable narrator stops to confess this fact to us before he ends by saying, not what is true but what he will be telling himself years later:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one . . .
Yeah, he took the one that was exactly the same as the other one, and there was no way he could have known what might have happened had he taken the other.
But isn’t this how we humans are? We make up our history retrospectively to fit our current outlook. And that, dear friends, makes for a much better and more honest poem, than the bullshit “I-did-it-my-way” mantra of self-independence that our culture has told us it meant, mostly, because nobody took the time to read the whole poem and see it actually said.
I wasn’t going to get into all of that. Too late! I’ve tainted your idea of Edward Thomas. But regardless of what he may have misunderstood about his friend’s popular poem, Edward Thomas was a very fine poet himself. He was also a bit of a tortured guy who struggled with poverty and fought with his wife, though by all accounts they did love each other, and she spoke well of him after his death. Look him up for yourself, and read some of his poems.
Here are two to get you started. I’ll save the close readings for our discussions in tbe comments. Happy Poetry Month!
The Hollow Wood
Out in the sun the goldfinch flits
Along the thistle-tops, flits and twits
Above the hollow wood
Where birds swim like fish—
Fish that laugh and shriek—
To and fro, far below
In the pale hollow wood.
Lichen, ivy, and moss
Keep evergreen the trees
That stand half-flayed and dying,
And the dead trees on their knees
In dog’s-mercury, ivy, and moss:
And the bright twit of the goldfinch drops
Down there as he flits on thistle-tops.
Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.
Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry
Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.
And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.
It was a break from all these snow flurries and colder temperatures the other day, so I decided to take the laptop outside and record a favorite poem. I was going to save this for week four, but sometimes good things just can’t wait.
This year and last, my son Micah and I have been recording poems again for National Poetry Month—not one per day like the crazy 2012 and 2013 years, mind you. And I don’t think I recorded any last year on YouTube. I believe all of them were on Sound Cloud in 2017. If you haven’t played much on SoundCloud, you should give it a try. it’s kind of the YouTube of audio.
Our one rule this year, aside from trying to read collectively from a wide range of poetry “eras,” was that we wanted to make sure we were each reading poems by poets we’ve never recorded before.
Full disclosure: Philip F. Clark is a good friend. We’ve followed each other’s blogs for some time and finally met face-to-face in NYC last year. I was honored when Philip asked me to read with him at the debut of his book, The Carnival of Affection. But still, I have never recorded his work!
Until now. The difficult thing was deciding which poem of Philip’s to read. I mean, it’s no wonder we were drawn to each other’s work. There is a deep soul kinship in our poems. It’s like they know each other and thus we are connected. I’m not sure how to say it less mystically.
Perhaps the way to express it is by explaining why I chose to record this piece. “Learning” feels very much like a poem I wrote called “Timothy,” about a young man showing his love the way he’d seen men do, “with a fist.” But the speaker in Philip’s poem comes to the conclusion to do the opposite of what he’d seen men do. So they are speaking from opposite ends of the growing-up experience.
We wrote these poems independently and unaware of the other. “Learning” was published in Philip’s recent book, and “Timothy” will be published shortly in my second chapbook. Raised by different fathers, yet brother poems, for sure.
Last year Micah (my youngest son) and I recorded at least a poem a week during April, each of us one poem by the same poet. This year we decided to each read different poets from various movements and time periods.
Our only real rule is that it has to be a poet we’ve never recorded before. And, friends, if you’ve followed us for any length of time, you already know that we record a lot of poems. It’s one of the best ways we know to really, thoroughly encounter a poet’s work. Better than trying on their clothes or eating off their plates, both of which could get you into a lot of trouble, especially if the author is still alive. And anyway, who wants to eat off a dead poet’s plate?
Where was I going with this? I think it was about clothes. I’m not sure. My thoughts seem so scattered these days. As Eileen Moeller says in this week’s poem, “Aging is a laundromat.” Read and listen to her poem yourself to discover what she means by that. I’ve included my recording of her poem “Dear Ezra” below. And if you’d like to follow along you can pull up the text by clicking right here.
You should also check out Micah’s’ recordings over at his blog, The Monkey Prodigy. His choice for week one was 17th-century novelist, dramatist, and poet Aphra Behn. Why the hell weren’t we studying her in school?
Follow both of us for poetry month 2018 for brand new recordings of at least eight poets between us. We’re bound to throw in lots of bonus poetry-month-ish material as usual.
This week the wonderful poet Nickole Brown was asking folks on social media for short, creative nonfiction pieces about sound for a class she is teaching on defamiliarization. I admit, I missed the acronym, CNF and was, as usual, thinking of poetry.
My mind went straight to a poem by William Stafford and my hands immediately reached for a favorite old paperback on my shelf. This tattered and stained copy of An Oregon Message has traveled with me from a bookstore in Indiana since, I think, about 1989. It was published in 87, and while I don’t know all the poems by heart, I do remember each by title, and I reread them from time to time.
I still vividly recall watching a video in Dr. Mary Brown’s class of Stafford reading his poem “Ask Me,” a piece I do know by heart and have recorded many times (look for the latest, upcoming soon). His poetry helped open my mind to what lines on a page can do, what vistas can be opened with minor alterations to diction and syntax.
For instance, in the poem “Ask Me” which begins with the iconic line, “Some time when the river is ice,” the poet says, “Ask me / mistakes I have made.” Not, “Ask me about,” or “ask me what mistakes,” but “Ask me / mistakes.”
That makes a reader stop, not because it’s incomprehensible, but because it varies a bit from the way we would expect the line to go. It slows us down and makes it difficult for our minds to remain on auto-pilot, slightly jostling our presuppositions about where the author is going with this statement.
That tendency of Stafford’s to place everyday language just off-center enough to make the line more vivid, the image fresh and new, was immediately more interesting to me than the deconstruction works I was reading for the first time then.
Rather than shatter the walnut of language into unnumbered pieces, sending meat and shell fragments alike skittering under furniture and into cracks in the floor, as it seemed the postmodernists were apt to do, Stafford chose to just crack the nut a little bit—and not always along the seam. This encouraged and tempted me to pry the rest open for myself. It was a revelation in what just a little non-conventionality in line endings, diction, and syntax could do. It was also a demonstration in the art of “less is more.”
So, while it’s not what Nickole was looking for, she was gracious and sent me a “thank you.” Perhaps there is something there she can use. I was happy to be reminded of the poem, in any case.
It’s been a few months since I’ve uploaded any readings to YouTube or SoundCloud, so reading this again inspired me to sit down and record a few favorites, starting with this one.
There are so many updates to do. My recent reading in New York City, camping, and hawk watching with my boys—heck I haven’t even told you yet about the poetry conference in Paterson, NJ this summer!
But we’ll get to all of that. At least you know there are things to say, and I know there is more to come. Meanwhile, my youngest son is back at his recording gig, reading poems out loud more frequently than I have been doing lately. In fact, in this post, he has a recording of himself as well as a recording of a young lady at Poetry Out Loud competition reading this particular poem.
I think they are both fine interpretations. I’ve heard others that were too dramatic. Yes, there is such a thing as too dramatic in poetry readings. Generally, I find it best to strike a more even tone. Not monotone by any means. But if you add too many sighs and lilts of voice, too much of anything that isn’t clearly already on the page, you risk limiting the dynamic range of what was written. I realize I am biased, but I think Micah’s reading here is a good example of the less-is-more principle. It expresses just enough emotion to show that it’s human language but allows the poem to do its work without getting in the way by over-presentation.