We each carry lines of poetry with us. Words that others have written float back to us and stay with us, indelibly. We clutch these "Life Lines" like totems, repeat them as mantras, and summon them for comfort and laughter.
The Academy of American Poets asked you to share the lines of poetry that are the most vital to you, along with notes about the precise situation that summoned them to mind. Some of these "life lines" appear, below.
|Browse Life Lines by Poet|| |
|On Lines by Emily Dickinson|| |
There is a pain – so utter –
It swallows substance up –
Then covers the Abyss with Trance –
So Memory can step
Around – across – opon it –
As one within a Swoon –
Goes safely – where an open eye –
Would drop Him – Bone by Bone.
—from “599” by Emily Dickinson
I thought of this Emily Dickinson poem when I got the news that the husband of a dear friend of mine had committed suicide. I do not know how my friend bears such pain. I believe it’s an act of courage for her to speak to anyone at all, much less at his funeral service in which she gave everyone there the gift of trying through her grief to articulate how much she loved him.
Dickinson’s poem is an argument. The speaker doesn’t tell us what occasioned her pain, but lets us plug in our own. There is no information in the poem that separates her from us. The poem is made to be an experience instead of referring to one, which is precisely how she says she knows poetry in her famous remark to Higginson: “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way.”
No, I don’t think there is. Dickinson’s poems have certainly taken the top of my head off and they frequently put it back on when I need it.
To know just how He suffered – would be dear –
To know if any Human eyes were near
To whom He could entrust His wavering gaze –
—from "688" by Emily Dickinson
Read recently at the funeral of a young man who died suddenly, surprisingly, and alone, at the age of twenty-six, with no apparent cause or explanation, and lay for a time undiscovered, this poem by Emily Dickinson named the mystery uncannily and precisely as I believe nothing else could have, and performed a kind of grace.
New York, New York
I felt my life with both my hands
To see if it was there—
I held my spirit to the Glass,
To prove it possibler—
—from "#351" by Emily Dickinson
On days I feel alienated or isolated I recite these lines to myself. The idea that one's existence—which often seems ephemeral, marginal—can be felt like a solid object in one's own hands is very comforting and reassuring. I like to imagine what my life might look like as a weaving or collage, what colors and textures it might contain. I also like Emily's neologism, "possibler." I can't help but wonder what would have happened if she had used this word in an English composition class.
|On Lines by Gerard Manley Hopkins|| |
...birds build -- but not I build; no, but strain,
Time's eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
—from "Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord" by Gerard Manley Hopkins
These lines continue to sustain. They admit powerfully to a paralysis--spiritual, but also a paralysis of one's ability to make or nurture art--and yet they yearn, ultimately, in those last lines, for sustenance. This is a very real statement of what it means to be human, to be self-aware, and to struggle--against God, yes, and against oneself and the need to create. The last four words alone have come to mind often, as prayer, as chant, as mantra, as life-saving music: "send my roots rain."
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes its self; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
—from"As Kingfishers Catch Fire" by Gerard Manley Hopkins
As someone who has struggled to find my calling, my specific purpose in life, Hopkins reminds me that as a "mortal thing", I can do "one thing and the same". Hopkins asserts that my purpose, what I do, flows out of who I am. Finding my calling in life is intertwined with finding the real me. Contrary to how people define themselves by what they do, Hopkins believes that what one does, flows from who they are. Every time I read "Kingfishers", Hopkins encourages me to continue searching for why I am here and to do that "one thing and the same."
|On Lines by Mark Strand|| |
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
—from "Keeping Things Whole" by Mark Strand
I first encountered this poem buried in the depths of an anthology for a course on Contemporary American Literature. I was never assigned the poem by the professor, but I find myself continually returning to this quatrain because of its utter simplicity and complete transcendence. This poem has altered my perception of the life I act upon each day, reminding me of all that our planet contains within its atmosphere and how desperately everything seeks a feeling of connectedness. Strand acknowledges that separation is unavoidable, that feeling void or isolated occurs around every bend of existence; but, he insists, in a voice that is unimposing, that we have to keep going because absence breeds unity and unity breeds absence. One cannot exist without the other. I remember this poem on those days when I feel ready to give up, to plunge headfirst into complacency. Eventually, Strand's words replay themselves in my mind. I overcome these feelings and, simply put, keep moving.
Beaufort, South Carolina
|On Lines by Wislawa Szymborska|| |
We, too, can divide ourselves, it's true.
But only into flesh and a broken whisper.
Into flesh and poetry.
—from "Autotomy" by Wislawa Szymborska
These lines, like the primal word "cleave," which means both to cling and to separate, describe each moment of my life, lived and then past, the lost moment having carried me on to the next moment to which it clings, and so the impossible and necessary separation from my young self as I age, and they describe each significant relationship, my children grown who are still my "children," my husband of many years who is their father but is no longer my husband, my father gone from this world twenty years whose grave I don't visit but whose spirit is with me, my mother who shares her coffee with me now that I am long past being a child, my love beside me who goes and comes out my door each day to face his own day, all my selves, each change of name, the lines that mattered then and now and still, my flesh and poetry.
Katherine Durham Oldmixon
|On Lines by Sir Walter Raleigh|| |
Even such is time, which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust,
Who in the dark and silent grave
When we have wandered all our ways
Shuts up the story of our days,
And from which earth, and grave, and dust
The Lord shall raise me up, I trust.
—"The Author's Epitaph, Made By Himself" by Sir Walter Raleigh
This poem, supposedly copied into Raleigh's Bible the night before his execution in 1628, is talismanic for me because of the way the lines are both an act of contrition and humility before God, as well as a gesture of defiance toward the executioner. No matter the power of King James's state to chop off Raleigh's head, the invisible estate conjured by "the Lord shall raise me up, I trust" is as fierce as it is humble, as poignant as it is confident. I can't characterize myself as a believer, and I seriously doubt that God, for Raleigh, was anything more than a convention: these lines, it turns out, are actually a version of the last stanza of a love poem, "Nature That Washed Her Hands in Milk" written about 1592. But God as a convention that invokes a higher sense of justice becomes for me, through Raleigh's lines, a way of feeling through your own nerve-ends the actual, lived experience of an uncompromised and uncompromising sense of "they may get away with it now, but now won't be always—a reckoning will come."
And equally important to me is how the gravitas and sorrow of the first few lines, as they evolve into the almost jaunty avowal of eventual resurrection in the last line, provide me with a way to feel about such ambivalent events as Saddam Hussein's execution: Saddam dangling from a rope is a complex image to overcome by overt moralizing, judicial justifications, or even an empathetic ear listening in on the hatred and pain that those whom he tortured and killed must feel toward him. At the same time, one can imagine Saddam feeling about his own execution in exactly the same way Raleigh seems to feel about his. And so embedded in that comprehensive and contradictory and ultimately blocked set of intuitions is the reason why I love these lines: they let no one outmaneuver their canny mix of indictment, sorrow, and nearly profane joy.
|On Lines by Cid Corman and Robert Duncan|| |
There are things to be said. No doubt.
And in one way or another
they will be said. But to whom tell
the silences? With whom share them
now? For a moment the sky is
empty and then there was a bird.
—from "There Are Things to be Said" by Cid Corman
There is no life that does not rise
melodic from scales of the marvelous.—
—from "The Venice Poem" by Robert Duncan
When Phoebe, one of our beloved Afghan Hounds died, I wanted to send out a notice, along with pictures, to some of her friends. She had been a commanding presence not only in our home, but in the show ring, where her antics marked her as having the true spirit of the ever-entertaining Afghan. Her elegance, beauty, and idiosyncrasies left us truly bereft. It was only right that I should think of Cid Corman's words when my own failed me. These, along with two lines of the incomparable Robert Duncan, became the epitaph for this lovely being who had dominated our home for fifteen years. Since then, these words have become a kind of mantra, coming to me unbidden, at the times of other losses in our lives.
|On Lines by Adrienne Rich|| |
Nervy, glowering, your daughter
wipes the teaspoons, grows another way.
—from "Snapshots of a Daughter-In-Law" by Adrienne Rich
In high school my friend Eve and I spent a lazy afternoon lying on the great lawn and reading poems from our Norton Anthology out loud to each other, hungry especially for the voices of women, voices that echoed our own burgeoning feminism and sketched out roads we ourselves might travel. Adrienne Rich's nod to this nervy daughter's journey into the unexpected touched me deeply. As a lesbian, I knew that my life, too, would be full and difficult and uncharted. Rich taught me that I was not alone.
New York, New York
|On Lines by Brigit Pegeen Kelly|| |
Would be a whistle, a hum, a high murmur, and, at last, a song,
The low song a lost boy sings remembering his mother’s call.
Not a cruel song, no, no, not cruel at all. This song
Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.
—from "Song" by Brigit Pegeen Kelly
In the early nineties I heard Brigit Pegeen Kelly give the first public reading of her poem "Song," of which these are the last lines. I remember feeling that "something just happened to me": that the poem, and in particular those last lines resonated in me more than any lines ever had—although I couldn’t quite understand why. More than a decade later I still can’t explain—but have come to love that mystery. Not a week goes by that I don’t say those lines to myself—as a celebration, consolation, explanation, or as an "inner song" in moments of utter confusion or doubt.
New York, New York
|On Lines by Frank Bidart|| |
then the voice in my head said
WHETHER YOU LOVE WHAT YOU LOVE
OR LIVE IN DIVIDED CEASELESS
REVOLT AGAINST IT
WHAT YOU LOVE IS YOUR FATE
— from "Guilty of Dust" by Frank Bidart
I have been both comforted and frightened by those lines, on countless occasions. To me they are a lasting example of how poetic power does not always depend on image and metaphor; poetic power can come in abstract language if there is enough emotional energy propelling it.
"What you love is your fate"—the central force shaping your life, according to this deeply romantic view, is your love. The idea is attractive, romantically, yet in "Guilty of Dust" there is a fierce sense that we may find ourselves loving in ways not only unwise but desperately troubling. Your love—your deepest and most impassioned desire-ardor-admiration—turns out to be a force controlling you even as you feel you are choosing to be defined by it. A frightening idea, yet preferable to the idea that you are controlled by animal needs, by chemistry, by economics, by tribal politics, or by some imaginary deity.
"What you love is your fate"—the essence of your life will turn out to be a pattern designed by your power to love. But Bidart's lines say that you may rebel against this—with agonizing consequences.
Bidart is interested in people whose deepest desires are transgressive. In my own life, this has not seemed to be the case; but like most of us, I'm very familiar with desires, or kinds of love, that defeat and prevent other conceivable pleasures and satisfactions.
These lines from "Guilty of Dust" have come to me, for instance, when I see myself heading home toward wife and child—or, turning toward a book of poetry—when a beautiful young woman is leaving the room, leaving the building, getting into her car, going away. Or, when I see myself lifting and moving boxes of books from one apartment to another, one house to another, decade after decade. Or, when I imagine all the memorial services, years hence, at which I'll praise the writing of a friend who has died—or I'll be the deceased writer . . .
I once heard Bidart say "You've got to love what you love" (I think he was quoting Robert Lowell who was quoting Van Gogh); and this helped me: the realization that you can at least choose to love with vigor and imagination what you find yourself loving; there is thus some choice involved!
|On Lines by Robert Frost|| |
Back out of all this now too much for us
—from “Directive” by Robert Frost
I think of this line almost every day—it speaks to my own life (which is always too much for me ) and to our collective American life (we were so busy, we were so tired, we wish we had more time—maybe two weeks from Wednesday?) our dislocation in the midst of absolute overload of information, bereft of truth, impotent, generalized, lonely. Frost bring us back to the road that is not a road, and a house that is no more a house—to the source, a spring, near where the children has their little house of make believe. Their small dishes still strewn about.
Drink and be whole again, Frost writes, beyond confusion.
Within the confines of my own consciousness I try, when I remember the line, to return to that source—to rest there, drink, and return returned to myself.
Bronxville, New York
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
—from "Reluctance" by Robert Frost
There are some lines of poetry that seem to circle back at unexpected times to comfort but also to disturb us. My 12th grade English teacher presented these words to our class about 30 years ago, as we were about to embark into the big wide world. My teacher had found lines that managed to sum up all I was feeling at the time; I found it nearly impossible to accept that I was having to leave the cocoon of home and the enchantment of that class (and my teacher - oh, it was a monumental crush!). I certainly showed no grace in that leave-taking. Literature became my obsession because of that class, and I went on to major in English in college, and later to change careers from law to teaching high school English. At the end of each school year, when I am feeling particularly wistful about saying goodbye to my students, I hand out this poem, and I manage to pile on to the present wistfulness the longing I feel for those long gone days of my youth. Every ending pulls these words to my mind, and I realize that grace isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Janet Davis Karman
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
—from "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost
One night late on my way home from college for Christmas, I was caught in a blizzard without the company of an intelligent guide (I was driving, instead of a horse, a '62 Buick Special). I had passed through the last small town and was halfway between nowhere and Dodge City, Kansas when the road vanished beneath snow and my little car foundered badly. Realizing that no one was going to be passing by until the next day, I got out and started walking. Nothing. Nobody, no thing anywhere. At last the distant light of a farmhouse appeared, the only one, I discovered later, within miles. And if it hadn't been for the family inside that farmhouse, I might simply have frozen to death. As I was walking toward it, I thought of this poem, and I knew that I would be able to keep my promises, and I felt ecstatically liberated. Never have I seen these last lines in "Stopping by Woods" read as liberating rather than duty-bound. So boring for students: oh, this is a little lesson about obligations and responsibility. No time to ski, you've got chores to do before sleep, and you always will, and that's the way life is, suck it up and live with it. But the misunderstanding here is not in the specific explanation; it's in the very attempt at explanation. I hope they continue to teach in high schools the most over taught poem in America; I just wish they would stop explaining it.
Earth's the right place for love.
—from "Birches" by Robert Frost
It is during those moments that I am hiding in my work, those days when I have spent more time writing than talking to people, and especially during those periods when the work is not coming well that I find myself circling back to Frost's line. The lines pop into my head, always taking me by surprise. I never recall the whole poem, or even the latter part of the line, "I don't know where it is likely to go better," but his are the words which remind me that I do need to get outside of myself, my mind, and my work to make a connection with someone—to, perhaps, even find love. My heart drops, into my stomach, at the visceral fear and ache those words inspire. Nevertheless, I need to stop fearing hurt, for "earth's the right place for love."
Rachel A. Wortman
Concord, New Hampshire
|On Lines by Allen Ginsberg|| |
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at
dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient
heavenly connection to the starry dynamo
in the machinery of night
—from "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg
This poem was read to me when I was 19. I was in Paris on leave from a base in England and three of us had been given this guy's name and phone number and told he would let us stay with him for a couple of days. He read the whole poem as we drank wine and sat on the floor of his apartment. It started me on my road to discovery in poetry. I am 68 and still write poetry to this day. It comes to mind often in conversation with people regarding poetry. I have started a poem talking about current generations and "how i have seen the worst minds of current generations assume power in high places"
Little River, South Carolina
I want to be known as the most brilliant man in America
—from "Ego Confession" by Allen Ginsberg
Sometimes when I feel most down, when I feel most detached and obscure and like I'm doing no good for anybody, I think about this line of poetry and it makes me laugh and gives me guidance. It's a line that on first glance appears to boast the highest form of pomposity. But on closer inspection the line betrays not pretension, but rather what it means to be selfless. After all, what does it mean to be brilliant? To be smart? Nah. To be superior? No. To be brilliant is to glow. To shed light from within. So in my day-to-day I can at least aspire to be remembered as someone who—even if not the "most brilliant"—at least gave some of what was inside and who brought a little more light into the world.
|On Lines by Theodore Roethke|| |
I have married my hands to perpetual agitation,
I run, I run to the whistle of money.
Money money money
Water water water
How cool the grass is.
Has the bird left?
The stalk still sways.
Has the worm a shadow?
What do the clouds say?
—from "The Lost Son" by Theodore Roethke
These lines come to me at moments of anxiety and distraction. I think they include a remarkable transition of rhythm and tone, an audible passage from panic to serenity, from the urgent insistence of "Money money money" to the slow counterpoint of "Water water water." They work like a beta blocker on me. They slow my heart rate and calm me down.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go
—from "The Waking" by Theodore Roethke
I encountered this poem when I lived in Europe and picked up any book I found that was written in English. These words spoke immediately to something deep in me, but I didn't know then that they were a prophecy for my life. Now it is thirty years later, and although I'm in a place I love, I found where I needed to go only by going there. I never had a plan, I never said "in five years I want to be doing this," I just took the next step that led to the next step. So when people ask me how I came to be doing what I do, (I'm a chaplain) I can either tell them a long, involved story or I can say I learned by going where I had to go.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
|On Lines by T. S. Eliot|| |
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
—from "Burnt Norton" (Part 1 of "Four Quartets") by T. S. Eliot
These lines, especially the last two, seem to follow me wherever I go. In a rather sober and heavy poem these lines stand out like cherry blossoms on a leafless tree. They are feathery and joyous, the first delight being a talking bird. I think of these lines when I am walking through a park and see birds chirping in the trees. I imagine them silently urging me on into the realm of unreality.
New York, NY
|On Lines by William Stafford|| |
"How far could you swim, Daddy,
in such a storm?"
"As far as was needed," I said,
and as I talked, I swam.
—from "With Kit, Age 7, at the Beach" by William Stafford
How often have we stood in life’s storms weathering all that comes our way? I first heard these lines read through the voice of a community member at an annual event put on by friends of William Stafford. In attendance, was my own daughter. Who at the conclusion of the poem said to me, "Mommy, lets go to the beach", I knew then, Stafford’s words transcend age. Although she did not understand how far we swim as parents and adults, she understood Kit's fear and how holding on to Daddy’s hand was security. Often times when I am swimming, I think of William Stafford and his simplistic honesty of life in these lines. I then smile, knowing there were others before me who swam just as far and one day my own daughter will swim.
|On Lines by Henry Taylor|| |
My young son lurches halfway down the stair
or shrieks and totters midway through the climb
from the wobbling bookcase to the rocking chair.
I freeze and hold my breath.
—from "Green Springs the Tree" by Henry Taylor
This poem is particularly meaningful to me as older parent of a young child, when I am confronted with the countless times when our own vulnerability is put to test in trying to protect him from harm. How many times I have wished to be endowed with super powers, as the Spider Man or the Incredible Hulk, when attempting to reach out to break the fall of a hair-raising, semi-acrobatic jump of my son from the top of a mango tree to the perilous watery instability of a wading pool! Dr. Spock, the guru of child rearing, didn't offer any help for any of these situations. So, this poem holds a powerful meaning to me now, as I envision many older parents trembling nervously as they witness the fortuitous uncertainties of their kids' daring shenanigans.
|On Lines by Robert Lowell|| |
We are poor passing facts…
—from “Epilogue” by Robert Lowell
I think about this line every time I see the news or read about the war.
The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.
—from “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” by Robert Lowell
When my father-in-law, Tom McGraw, who has not smoked in thirty-five years, called last June and told me he has lung cancer, I said to my wife bitterly, “The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.” And when Tom, woozy from the chemo, fell and broke his knee last September, I said it again with sorrow: “The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.” Eighty-five percent of lung cancer patients are dead in a year and I expected him to be gone by Christmas.
Instead, his knee has healed, he’s back to walking his dog a mile a day, and I say, with something like awe, “The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.” I will say it again in grief before too long because he does, good man, have lung cancer after all.
At the same time, I began obsessively mumbling to myself a garbled version of a song I hadn’t thought of in thirty years: “Gonna take a sentimental journey/Gotta take that journey home./Got my bags, got my reservations,/Spent each dime I could afford,/Dum de dum, de dum de dum de dum dum,/I long to hear that ‘all aboard’.” The lyrics express, I suppose, my instinctive desire for a gentle transition into the afterlife for my good father-in-law--a sentimental journey, a journey home. But the famously opaque ending of Robert Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” is the one I chew on: “The Lord survives the rainbow of his will.”
When I was a child sitting in church, the preachers swooned over the goodness and mercy of God’s promise in the rainbow that came after the great flood. The Lord promised us he would never destroy the earth again by water. But even by age twelve, I did not have to tax my ingenuity to list plenty of ways that God could keep his deeply hedged promise and still eradicate the human race every hundred years for a millennium: fire of course, but also plague, drought, famine, hydrogen bombs, radiation, asteroids, volcanic eruption, solar flares, and berserk robots. God, reassuring Noah and his drenched daughters, merely removes one arrow from the apocalyptic quiver. Yet the rainbows do seem like miracles and promises—don’t they?--every time we see one.
Lowell’s oracular and Elizabethan pronunciamento, which is a pleasure just to roll around on your lips, seems to say something profound, but what? It can be read as some sort of affirmation of God: he survives. But another reading is that God is by his nature inimical to humankind, one who has withdrawn his promise. To my understanding, the line captures much of the famous complexity of the Book of Job. God’s majesty, which includes death and suffering and God’s own inscrutability, cannot by circumscribed even by his willed impulse toward mercy. The rainbow is a cloying symbol of a reduced God who, however much he may desire, cannot strip himself of his power and become a one-dimensional God of pity, understanding, compassion. He is so completely other that he cannot be bound or reduced even to his own desire to spare us. It is comfort of a hard sort--and the meaning and the nature of the comfort shifts depending on how you say it, a truth I hear unfolding each time I say, “The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.”
Back and forth, back and forth
goes the tock, tock, tock
of the orange, bland,
ambassadorial face of the moon
on the grandfather clock.
—from "Fall 1961" by Robert Lowell
The poem begins with a powerful suspension of detail. Though we might surmise from the first line—"Back and forth, back and forth"—that we are looking at a clock of some sort, Lowell strings out the stanza, deferring the actual mention of the clock until the final line. If we take into consideration the historical context (that America was in a dangerous Cold War stand-off with the Soviet Union) and Lowell’s own personal past (he was manic depressive and was hospitalized on many occasions for breakdowns), then these types of obsessive sound games and suspensions become all the more significant. Lowell is able to dramatize both personal and national fears by reverberating and suspending sound textures in the poem. What's unnerving is how we have all experienced this type of anxiety-ridden fall recurring each year since 2001. I can hardly read the lines anymore without shuddering.
|On Lines by Walt Whitman|| |
I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition...
—from "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman
Being in prison, I have found that some lines help sustain me. The flow of Whitman’s lines is like elephants marching in a single file. When I was a kid, I used to run with a pack of semi-wild dogs. I'd whistle and the dogs would come out of nowhere. These lines set my spirit free, give it wings to glide beyond prison walls and strength to bear the prison conditions—freedom whenever I sit and watch the birds, ants, or whatever nature I can find.
Spoon Jackson B-92377
Long enough have you timidly waded, holding a plank by the shore,
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer...
—from "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman
Truth to tell, I get to swim in the ocean for about a week each summer and it is one of the most ecstatic experiences I know. I love rising up and going down with the wave, just out past where they break—the lift and fall of a rhythm that large—it's like a physical enactment of what happens when you read the greatest poems. But I also like to swim straight out for a while, reciting these lines to myself, feeling the strange way salt water sustains you, holds you up. Of course, I like these lines elsewhere also, since they are about courage and getting courage from great poets—Whitman is a great courage-giver. He wants to live fully and seems to want us to do so also and that's another thing I hear in these lines.
|On Lines by Richard Hugo|| |
Not my hands but green across you now.
—from "The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir" by Richard Hugo
I first read this poem in college, at the University of Utah, and its first line was so mysterious, so full of possibility, and scanned so well that it has stayed with me ever since. I became so fascinated by the line, the poem, and the book that I made two trips to Montana just to visit Kicking Horse Reservoir and some of the other places Hugo wrote about in his fine collection. Now, whenever I sit down to start a poem, that line comes to me almost like a ghost, like Hugo telling me to make every line of my own as powerful as that one of his.
|On Lines by John Berryman|| |
Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.
—from “Dream Song #1” by John Berryman
Some lines come back to comfort us, others to instruct, still others to remind us of those wonders which lie about us everyday. And then there are some which haunt us by the very fact that their insights, dark and unsettling though they are, have been tested on the pulse and proven true. Oddly enough, there’s something in the measure of these two lines, something in the dignity with which they state this elemental fact of nature, that I find has added greatly to my sense of the responsive possibilities the human heart has available to it in moments of sorrow and loss.
What he has not to say is a long
wonder the world can bear & be.
Once in a sycamore I was glad
all at the top, and I sang.
Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.
—from "Dream Song 1" by John Berryman
This August, driving on Highway 90 beside the Gulf of Mexico, from Florida to Louisiana, I remembered these lines by John Berryman.
My husband, my young daughters and I were heading for New Orleans, where I grew up and where my parents live, because it was the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Along Hurricane Alley, as it's now called, we saw nothing but pure devastation: whole Mississippi towns and communities erased. Empty house foundations threaded with weeds. Buildings scrawled with FEMA numbers, counting the dead. Uprooted trees, a yellowed, salt-bleached landscape.
But also: a single open restaurant in downtown Gulfport, serving po-boys. A woman mowing her grass, tending a tiny rose garden outside her trailer. A sign: We're Coming Home!
And, oddly, Berryman's work provides unexpected solace. I love his refusal of sentimentality here but also his recognition of the need to speak. His lines remind me of the sheer scope of this natural and unnatural disaster that struck the Gulf Coast, my shock that the world continues to churn on in the face of it, and the necessity of bearing witness to what has happened.
Glen Ridge, New Jersey
|On Lines by Ezra Pound|| |
And then went down to the ship.
—from "Canto I" by Ezra Pound
I think of Pound's line, for reasons that remain obscure to me, whenever I leave a house or building and descend a flight of steps. Perhaps my childhood in a fishing village is at fault—the ships docked by a clapboard wharf, and you had to descend a gangway to a floating raft to reach them.
|On Lines by George Herbert|| |
I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve;
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament and love.
—from "Bitter-Sweet" by George Herbert
I was twenty-seven years old when I first read these lines on the frail page of an old poetry anthology. For most of my life, especially in my teen and college years, I had struggled with bouts of severe depression. But my chief struggle had been to reconcile my malaise with a strong belief in the redemption of humanity and all of the ugliness that made me sad, by a beauty-loving God. Herbert's words gave me permission to find beauty and even art in the tension rather than the resolution of living. This poem became an umbrella under which I could stand in awe and delight of this world's mystery and still feel sorrow and grief for all of life's pain. Living in that tension keeps my faith honest and the melancholy at bay.
Brooklyn, New York
|On Lines by Hart Crane|| |
Implicitly Thy freedom staying Thee.
—from "To Brooklyn Bridge" by Hart Crane
It's a suspension bridge of course and the engineering feat is to make the bridge surface stable even when it is suspended from cables. (The Millennium Bridge in London failed to manage this when it first opened.) The idea that freedom is a path to stability appeals to my American soul, implying that there is something unstable about servitude. And the reader of a poem should be given the freedom—implicitly—to respond or not. "We do not like poems that have designs on us," said Keats. So browbeating poems have to go or those that so terrorize us we lose the ability to retreat from them.
Hudson, New York
|On Lines by William Wordsworth|| |
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
—from "The World Is Too Much With Us" by William Wordsworth
As I've gotten older, I seem to be turning back to the poetry classics for inspiration. Does that mean I've become conservative? I hope not. But these famous lines seem as appropriate now as when they were written at he beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps the sentiment is more appropriate in light of the Consumer Society, not to mention the fear of ecological disasters like global warming. We should all be planting trees.
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
—from "Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" by William Wordsworth
When I was in my fifties and still troubled by the things I perceived life had done to me and the things I had done to life and other people, I found these lines spoke to me. I memorized them, and have recited them almost daily during my morning walks. They comforted me, and helped me keep a proper perspective. Now that I have reached sixty- five, and what I consider the "years that bring the philosophic mind," I simply enjoy them.
Castle Rock, Colorado
|On Lines by Kenneth Koch|| |
O what a physical effect it has on me
To dive forever into the light blue sea
Of your acquaintance! Ah, but dearest friends,
Like forms, are finished, as life has ends!
—from "In Love With You" by Kenneth Koch
In a 1994 short story recently reprinted in Kenneth Koch's Collected Fiction, a gorilla gives the author these rhymed lines in his sleep. That seems like a fair enough way to talk about the strangeness of inspiration, and these lines have always struck me as a very good first introduction to the energy and insight of all the arts only poetry can convey—not a linguistic exercise, but a confusing, exciting experience that makes complete sense at the time, and then makes a different complete sense afterwards.
New York, New York
I love your development
From the answer to a simple query to a state of peace
That has the world by the throat…
—from “To ‘Yes’” by Kenneth Koch
My son’s illness is eight years old and has no name. It started when he was 14. He is now 22. It is taking away his ability to walk and to reason. It is getting worse, some years more rapidly than others. Doctors continue to look for a name to call it. Until they find one, it is known to us by the names of its symptoms -- progressive spastic paraparesis, Bence-Jones proteinuria, subcortical dementia – and intimately by its subtle violence, the anonymous thief ravaging our dreams and twisting our son’s life.
He had been healthy and characteristically happy, our firstborn. We had named him Isaac; he chose to be called Ike when he became a teenager. During the second half of 1997, as he approached his fifteenth birthday, his walk became stiff-legged, progressively awkward, lurching. The pediatrician referred us to an orthopedist and he to a neurologist, and we began the leap across the divide from “before” and “normal” with no idea that eight years later we would still be suspended, waiting for an “after,” a diagnosis, a place to land.
Continue reading Life Line >
Adapted from Blue Peninsula
|On Lines by Carl Sandburg|| |
But all of the others got down and they are safe
and this is the only one of the factory girls
who wasn't lucky in making the jump when the fire broke.
It is the hand of God and the lack of fire escapes.
—from "Anna Imroth" by Carl Sandburg
I found this poem a few years ago, and it reminded me vividly of my junior year in high school. That year five people I knew all died within a period of three months. It was the first time I was ever directly affected by death, and it was difficult to accept and understand. I couldn't fully articulate my conclusions about mortality then, but when I found this poem it spoke for me.
Death often feels random and coincidental or you can find practical reasons for its occurrence; such as a lack of fire escapes, icy roads, the wrong medicine. . . but, in every single case there is also a sense of providence. Reasons beyond what we know that seem to better explain what happened. Death still holds mystery like a tragic miracle. This poem said what I couldn't about tragedy.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
|On Lines by W. B. Yeats|| |
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name …
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
—from "Easter 1916" W. B. Yeats
On a cool, rainy Sunday in mid-November, these words came to me as I was standing among throngs of protesters at the entrance of Fort Benning, Georgia, home to the School of the Americas (SOA), which has since been recast in a more Orwellian note, Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, whose mission, nonetheless, has remained the same in the last several decades: training the Latin American armed forces in military skills and tactics.
One tradition adopted by the annual mid-November gathering against the SOA consists in a procession of hundreds of protesters, each carrying a cross naming an individual killed, tortured, or disappeared by SOA graduates in Latin America over the years. One by one, hundreds of such names would be proclaimed aloud.
From a poem commemorating the Irish compatriots killed during the 1916 Easter uprising against the British Empire to the annual summon of Latin American victims against the American Empire, the act of naming assumes such a central role in bearing witness, for it not only makes real the victims that are the object, but also makes the witnesses that are the subject own those victims. Naming thus gives life to the dead and, in the same breath, transforms the living. A terrible beauty is indeed born.
Victor W. Liu
Ann Arbor, Michigan
|On Lines by Dylan Thomas|| |
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
—from "Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas
At each moment of my life that has required me to summon up more strength than I think I have, these lines have spurred me on. I know that I do not have to accept blindly any of the myriad demands society makes upon me. It is even more meaningful to me now that my father is aging. He, who was once a mountain of a man, as handsome and wild as any movie star of the 50's, is now a graying shadow, smaller than me and unable to protest against any of pills, and creams, and injections which prolong his life. I long to see him angry again and to feel the terror and awe of a little girl who has been caught with her hand in the cookie jar.
|On Lines by W. S. Merwin|| |
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
—from "Separation" by W.S. Merwin
I came across these lines while up late one evening in a library sorting through the detritus of life. I had just finished one of those emotionally absorbing, puppy-dog romances we all have in college. Although relatively brief, it was a very intense time. This poem really stuck to me because I had the experience where, for about a month after the breakup, I couldn't divest myself of her presence. She had influenced my outlook on life, attitudes, speech patterns, and hobbies so deeply that I found myself marveling that everything I did was stitched with her color. This poem perfectly captured what I was feeling at the time and it has been engraved in me ever since.
Yorktown Heights, New York
|On Lines by C. K. Williams|| |
And within me, along
with the garbage, faces, faces
and voices, so many
lives woven into mine,
such improbable quantities
of memory; so much already
forgotten, lost, pruned away—
yet the doves, the doves!
—from "Doves" by C. K. Williams
I first read this poem as the birthday of a dear friend who died in January of 2003 neared in late November. The poem in its entirety says so clearly what my jumbled thoughts about her loss and other losses have meant in my life, but the final stanza is the one that says it all, and reminds me each time I read it that joy underwrites everything.
Nan L. Glass
|On Lines by John Milton|| |
They also serve who only stand and wait
—from “On His Blindness” by John Milton
I know the line is so commonly known as to be a cliche, but the ending of Milton's sonnet on his blindness was something my father said many times under many circumstances. Usually it was in response to my complaint about postponing my own plans because others in the family (there were five of us children) had more immediate needs. And usually I was not trying to "serve" anyway-- but my father would parry my clever "how much longer?" with a brightly quoted "They also serve who only stand and wait," and I would be unamused.
And then one day I read the poem, and having two uncles who were blind, I felt a strange, disturbing reassesment of my father's habit. Waiting could be complicated, nuanced, even noble. My father may or may not have meant anything by quoting the line to me, but the poem was there, behind the single line, waiting for the moment when I would discover it.
Awake, arise, or be forever fallen.
—from Paradise Lost, Book 1 by John Milton
If I were stranded on a desert island, I would want Paradise Lost with me. This line is spoken by Lucifer to rouse his companions who lie stunned after their defeat and great fall from Heaven. I love its cadence. Maybe taking words to heart from a fallen angel isn't wise, but this line speaks to me of the necessity of taking action, not simply succumbing to despair. It also rousts me out of bed some mornings, saving me from the other deadly sin of sloth.
Newport, Rhode Island
|On Lines by Wallace Stevens|| |
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
—from “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens
It was 1967, I was 28, and had quit my job in New York and had gone to Spain with my wife to take a chance on becoming a writer. We traveled light, and the only book of poems I took with me was Wallace Stevens' Collected Poems. I didn't know much about poetry, except that I loved it, but I do remember -- two or three times a week -- reciting those lines to her over breakfast. They seemed both exotic and extraordinarily beautiful to me, and they remain so, though perhaps they were even more beautiful when I didn't understand them.
He would be the lunatic of one idea
In a world of ideas, who would have all people
Live, work, suffer and die in that idea
In a world of ideas....
—from “Esthetique Du Mal” by Wallace Stevens
I’ve had these lines in my head for many years, which is quite possibly a sad, sad thing. I wish they were inscribed in the marble walls of the congressional chambers and in all the offices of all the scared little people who make terrible, singular decisions for the world.
New York, New York
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
—from “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens
These last ten lines of "Sunday Morning" by Wallace Stevens come back to me again and again, most frequently when I am teaching. Sometimes I find myself reciting them by heart to students in the fourth grade, and sometimes to my graduate students. As I recite each line, I move one hand, sweeping it across like a conductor. I pause at each line break to show how lines calm you with their melody, like a lullaby, how reciting it and hearing it makes you feel as if you are being rocked in a cradle. I memorized and loved these lines because my teacher Galway Kinnell loved them and recited them by heart to his students. Once, after I recited them to a 4th grade class and asked them what the lines meant, a student immediately raised his hand and said, “A long time ago, there was a big bang, and the universe came from that. But our earth is also quiet and beautiful.”
Life's nonsense pierces us with strange relation.
—from "Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction" by Wallace Stevens
Since my husband was diagnosed early in 2005 with an Alzheimers-type dementia, poetry has been more of a lifeline than ever. The Stevens line now means for me, among other things, that one perceives everything newly, and that relations, or resemblances, are both absurd and sustaining. The dementia creates nonsense, but relating things creates sense. In trying to think about the situation, I constantly have recourse to similes; for example, the mental confusion is like a cloudy day where the sun keeps breaking through; I function as a shock absorber (for "the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to"?). Stevens's luminous and mysterious line suggests connections.
New York, New York
|On Lines by Issa|| |
The world of dew
is the world of dew.
And yet, and yet—
—"Haiku" (1819) by Issa
This haiku is by the Japanese poet, Issa, and was written in 1819. I love it for its simplicity, its haunting repetitions. When the image in the first line becomes repeated, in line two, I see the mirror there in the drop of water. The delicacy of that world, those worlds, is reiterated in the final line, where the final repetition sounds to me like a kind of beautiful hopefulness sometimes, a kind of resigned grace at other times. The world is continually new and eternally the same. Does it help to know that Issa wrote this poem shortly after his infant daughter, Sato, died of smallpox? These lines are with me virtually every morning, when I walk outside into the deep old-growth trees behind our house. We live in the country, in rural Ohio, and the rain and snow and dew and frost live there with us, lit by the sun, shadowed by the clouds. Sometimes the news of war limns the branches too, and sometimes the serenity of solitude. It is always the same world. And yet....
|On Lines by Edna St. Vincent Millay|| |
The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky, --
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat -- the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.
—from "Renascence" by Edna St. Vincent Millay
I was younger than the poet when I first read this long, bravura poem she had written at nineteen. I was so enthralled by her immense talent that I gave up writing poetry for good, sparing the world one more low-talent poet but giving it one more devoted reader. Later, I visited Camden, Maine and stayed at the Whitehall Inn, where Millay had been working when she wrote "Renascence." The small exhibit of her poems was a shrine for me. Today I have an immensely talented granddaughter who writes fiction and poetry and advises me on good poetry books. The generations have closed the gap and I am the instrument.
Alice W. Snyder
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Life in itself
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
—from "Spring" by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Even before Eliot named April cruel, Millay was there asking questions about the significance of that month's facile promise and eternal return. I admire the bravado with which she parcels out her wildly irregular lines. As well as the way she formally emphasizes April's momentary hope — set against life's continual difficulty and occasional danger — by setting “April” on a line of it's own. That bold gesture also delays ever so slightly the final disquieting image of April as some babbling daffy aunt who runs down a hill throwing flowers onto the new green. When have I thought of these lines? Endless times. And not just in April. Once in March I was in Austin, Texas while back home in Chicago, which was home then, it was still cold and trees were just sticks stuck in the cold ground. In and out of Austin, the highway medians were filled with wildflowers. There have been times since then when, in an icy March, I've thought of that Austin scene; the recollection of those strewn flowers that mark the roadways there takes me straight to the image of Millay's April as one who mindlessly and wantonly makes the moment pretty but delivers no lasting relief to those who feel the world leaning hard against them.
Mary Jo Bang
St. Louis, Missouri
|On Lines by Randall Jarrell|| |
I shut my eyes and there's our living room,
The piano's playing something by Chopin,
And Mother and Father and their little girl
Listen. Look, the keys go down by themselves!
I go over, hold my hands out, play I play—
If only, somehow, I had learned to live!
The three of us sit watching, as my waltz
Plays itself out a half-inch from my fingers.
—from "The Player Piano" by Randall Jarrell
In Jarrell's poem (of which these are the last lines) a woman old enough to be a grandmother considers the lost opportunities, or simply the years, of her life: the memory on which the poem ends speaks to the ways in which, no matter what we have done with ourselves, we can wish we had done something else, and to the helplessness and loss in even the most assertive and well-enjoyed life. It also speaks to the helplessness of parents, who can save their children from many things, with luck and attention, but not from regret itself. I admired the lines even before we had our first child, Nathan Miles, born in January 2006; now that he's with us, Jarrell's stanzas mean even more.
St. Paul, Minnesota
|On Lines by Sharon Olds|| |
I ran up to a man with a white flower on his breast.
I who always go to the end of the line, I said
Help me. He looked at my ticket, he said
Make a left and then a right, go up the moving stairs and then
run. I lumbered up the moving stairs,
at the top I saw the corridor,
and then I took a deep breath, I said
Goodbye to my body, goodbye to comfort,
I used my legs and heart as if I would
gladly use them up for this,
to touch him again in this life...
—from "The Race" by Sharon Olds
I remember reading "The Race" for the first time standing in line at a bookstore. The line was very long and I read the whole breathy poem, first published in The New Yorker, as I stood with other book buyers. Olds' poem whooshed into my own breath, my heartbeat quickening.
I feel a deep connection to all of Sharon Olds' work, but this poem particularly seized me and wouldn't let go. I read the poem on the subway home and kept reading it. It wasn't until I was home, having unpacked my purchases, that I realized there were periods—9 strategically placed periods--none of them end stops until the last final line. In essence, I'd read the poem so many times that I memorized "The Race" without meaning to. I didn't know that I would need this poem more than a decade later when, on September 11, 2003, I had to make a flight, similar to the speaker in Olds' poem, after my parents were in a near-fatal accident. Airports had changed since Olds' poem. Security had been heightened and I was traveling on a one-way ticket, bought on the anniversary of a national tragedy (which made for its own difficulties), but I met my equivalent of a "man with a white flower on his breast," and Olds' lines, truly a form of solace, came back to me. And I repeated them like a mantra on the long flight back to my own father and mother.
|On Lines by Paul Lawrence Dunbar|| |
Evah mo'nin' on dis place,
Seem lak I mus' lose my grace.
—from "In the Morning" by Paul Lawrence Dunbar
In this poem a working mother wakes her children, tells them to do their ablutions and get dressed, makes breakfast, gets everyone together around the table, and says grace before they eat. At one point she loses her temper and threatens her slow-poke son, then she says these lines. They came to mind often when my children were young and I was trying to hurry them up. They made me laugh at myself and realize that it didn't really make in difference if we were 1 or 2 minutes late.
East Haddam, Connecticut
|On Lines by Czeslaw Milosz|| |
My Lord, I loved strawberry jam.
—from "A Confession" by Czeslaw Milosz
I first heard these lines when I served on a panel with Milosz at the Holocaust Museum. It struck so many chords, hearing these words from a survivor—a guilty survivor—whose artistic life was so oddly Job-like, dedicated to questioning history's injustices (including the loss of so many members of his family and friends). So for him to confess a love of strawberry jam seems to me so life affirming; it reminds us of life's sensual pleasures and gifts in the face of our feeling powerless to nudge the universe a littlle closer to goodness. It's a line that honors both conscience and pleasure, so naturally when I listen to the news these days—about the War, the changes in the Supreme Court, the increasing gulf between rich and poor—the line makes me want to live life more fully and act on my ideals simultaneously.
|On Lines by Louise Bogan|| |
Under the thunder-dark, the cicadas resound...
The kisses not for our mouths, light the dark summer.
—from "Dark Summer" by Louise Bogan
These are the first and last lines of Bogan's poem, an old favorite, but one that didn't fully haunt me until 1987. I had just bought a house in the Adirondacks, a wonderful wreck, and had also just fallen in love with a man who was unavailable. The property had what was once called a sand pool, that is, a rectangular hole in the ground with a rubber liner. It was fifty years old, and full of branches, leaves, and animal carcasses, including the skeleton of a deer.
Also ten thousand frogs. I used my grief as an engine to clean it out. I learned the chemistry, repaired the old pump, and turned it into a sparkling if frigid (it was spring-fed) pool. I swam laps every day, but kept hitting the walls because the blue liner was nearly impossible to see. To solve the problem, I let some water out, and painted the first line of Bogan's poem on the shallow end, and the last line on the deep end. So as I swam, I could see the wall coming.
It comforted me in the way that poetry can: I had company in my solitude. Now, twenty years later, I'm married to the man. The pool was long ago bulldozed under (too much trouble and too cold.)
Keene, New York
|On Lines by John Ashbery|| |
I am still completely happy.
My resolve to win further I have
Thrown out, and am charged by the thrill
Of the sun coming up. Birds and trees, houses,
These are but the stations for the new sign of being
In me that is to close late, long
After the sun has set and darkness come
To the surrounding fields and hills. . .
. . . and the eidolon
Sinks into the effective "being" of each thing,
Stump or shrub, and they carry me inside
On motionless explorations of how dense a thing can be,
How light, and these are finished before they have begun
Leaving me refreshed and somehow younger. . .
—from "Evening in the Country" by John Ashbery
I am grateful to my college English professor, Joan Dayan, for the gift of this pastoral elegy. When I encountered these lines, at the age of 19, I felt old, worn out and near death, in the wake of my father’s sudden death in an accident after a long, chronic illness. My modus operandi -- to compete aggressively “to win further” academic achievements – now seemed bankrupt. This poem provided a very necessary roadmap out of misery to a “new sign of being” and perhaps a path back to my youth. These words have stayed close to me for 20 years. Re-reading the magnificent whole of the poem recently, I decided that it is a psalm for our time, offering the rest and refreshment of “motionless explorations” without denying the difficulties of the way: “the incredible violence and yielding/Turmoil that is to be our route.”
Eunice J. Panetta
New York, New York
A yak is a prehistoric cabbage: of that, at least, we may be sure.
—from "Notes from the Air" by John Ashbery
I find myself returning to this line in my head for it's radiant goofyness which is like a hit of pure oxygen in these tin-aired times. Every imaginative act is a declaration of liberty. I feel set free by this line, its wackyness seems crucial, its recklessness utterly companionable.
Iowa City, Iowa
|On Lines by James Schuyler|| |
A few days
are all we have. So count them as they pass. They pass too quickly
out of breath: don't dwell on the grave, which yawns for one and all
Will you be buried in the yard? Sorry, it's against the law. You can only
lie in an authorized plot but you won't be there to know it so why worry
—from "A Few Days" by James Schuyler
I find it almost impossible to memorize poetry, but for some reason the first few lines of “A Few Days” by James Schuyler are probably the only poetry that has worked its way into my memory without any effort. I find his calm yet totally involved conversational tone, as well as his peculiar and wonderful inversion of starting with a huge generalization and then moving into the specific (which is, to make my own huge generalization, the opposite of how contemporary American poetry typically moves), extremely moving and inspiring as a writer and human being, which seem in Schuyler to be the same thing.
New York, New York
|On Lines by Mary Oliver|| |
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
—from "The Summer Day" by Mary Oliver
I wasn’t thrilled when those lines started slipping into my thoughts. “What precious life?” I asked in response. “How can you call this a life at all?”
Every time those words snuck in, I tried to push them – and all poetry – away. After all, what had poetry ever done for me?
That’s how I felt last year when I got laid off as a writer/editor for a nationally known newspaper. I’d spent 13 years trying to promote and publicize the genre. In fact, I’d made it my personal mission to show readers how poetry can touch and transform their lives. It had certainly done so for me, making good days seem more vibrant and bad ones a bit more bearable.
But that was before the layoff came and everything I’d created was quickly erased. My online column came down within weeks, as did the special poetry section I’d developed on the paper’s website.
Friends tried to assure me that no one could obliterate what I’d done, but I felt no consolation. I was still raw and angry, and for weeks I couldn’t stand the thought of having to build a new career – or of anything poetry related. I stopped reading poems, stopped writing them. I even removed the Magnetic Poetry pieces from my refrigerator door.
Then those lines surfaced, uninvited. And the more I tried to ignore them, the more persistent they became.
Over and over I heard: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?”
The only way to banish the question was to replace it with something else. I flipped through Mary Oliver’s “New and Selected Poems” until I found this in “Wild Geese”: “You do not have to be good./ You do not have to walk onyour knees/ for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting/ You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
Suddenly I could recall what I loved about poetry, how it reaches that inner core, which even pain can’t touch.
I also remembered that poetry doesn’t make any promises. It can’t give you a career or self-esteem. The most it can do is to remind you how it feels to be alive this very moment. Somehow, that’s enough.
|On Lines by Pablo Neruda|| |
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind.
—from "Poetry" by Pablo Neruda
Every time I recite those lines I close my eyes and smile.This poem is about the great awakening Neruda experienced when he first started writing poetry. For me, it describes what I feel when I read something that really affects me. When I read a poem with beautiful lines such as "When You Are Old" by Yeats or a poem that I connect with personally like "Variations on the Word Love" by Margaret Atwood, I sometimes go back to Neruda's words. It describes perfectly the elation involved after reading a truly great poem.
|On Lines by Anna Akhmatova|| |
One less hope becomes
One more song.
—from "Song about Song" by Anna Akhmatova
I may have come upon these lines when I was in my early twenties, during the months following my mother's death; I'm not sure. I do know that they struck me memorably as an indelible truth that marks human beings. We speak our unrequited desires in poems and/or are quenched by poems that speak for us. Akhmatova, who lived an often turbulent life, understood well where poems come from and why we need to write and hear them.
Andrea Hollander Budy
Mountain View, Arkansas
|On Lines by Wendell Berry|| |
Within the circles of our lives
we dance the circles of the years,
the circles of the seasons
within the circles of the years...
And then we turn aside, alone,
out of the sunlight gone
into the darker circles of return.
from "Song (4)" by Wendell Berry
I don't know when I first heard this poem. Like a nursery rhyme, it arrives on my tongue reflexively; it chants its way into loss and post-partum joy and global crises and the magnificence of robin egg blue. I guess it could be likened to a 12-step slogan&em;jolts me out of myopic aloneness into essential aloneness, gently cups my chin and says "look up and out."
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their life with forethought
of grief, I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
—from "The Peace of Wild Things" by Wendell Berry
I've relied upon this piece as a suggestion of higher thought in an assortment of situations, including suggesting we need take time to notice beauty surrounding us during times of extreme trauma and pain. That concern and worry are not the same. That introspection is the key to solution. That young parents often grieve for their actions when reality hits and they realize they have brought children into an imperfect place. That destruction is cyclical and only grace and love can halt it. That fear for the planet can be remedied in noticing and appreciating the planet and that simply being human doesn't grant a higher quality of life. That instead, the wood drake and heron are true to prosody in living and we could take some simple lessons from them and fit better into the world in which we do live; given a moment. That wild is a human presumption that has little to do with the connotation. That the universe, the day-blind stars, will continue for eons without us regardless of our status on this planet and on that we can rely, find continuity (comfort) and relax into the shape of the world.
Allison Adelle Hedge Coke
|On Lines by Sylvia Plath|| |
O my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.
—from “Poppies in October” by Sylvia Plath
Thirty years ago, and I was recovering from my own feeble attempt to end my life. A brave high school teacher gave me two gifts upon my return to school: Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. About Springsteen, she said, “He’ll teach you how to get out alive,” an obvious lesson for any malcontent 17-year-old boy in Boise, Idaho. She said nothing about the book of poetry. That night I opened the book, and read the inscription, which instructed me to read “Poppies in October” and not to read any of the other poems until I could “get this one.” These final lines of the poem initially stunned me, because I immediately recognized the utter self-absorption, that the “I” could somehow cause this acute, inordinate, and unnatural beauty before death. Fortunately, I went beyond my own self-pity and arrived at a more grounded reading. The poem wasn’t about the “I” at all, but about the gift and pain of witnessing: a lament to God because the poet must see and take in that kind of terrifyingly alive beauty. I went back to Maggie, my teacher, and talked to her about what I found. She said, “Good. Now do something big with it.”
Today, I live in a town even more provincial, complacent, and homogenous than Boise. I teach at a nondescript state university, bedded with a lovely 401k plan and a light teaching load. These failures in heeding Maggie’s wise counsel are obvious even to me. All the same, Plath’s lines give me hope and humble me, that I still see those madly vibrant poppies, all pointless in their sex and color and defiance.
Fort Myers, Florida
Like a diver on a lofty spar of land
Atop the flight of stairs I stand.
A whirlpool leers at me,
I cast off my identity
And make the fatal plunge.
—from "Family Reunion" by Sylvia Plath
Basically, this poem, especially the last lines, are constantly running through my head before and during every family party or get together that I attend. There is no intricate or involved reason for it beyond the fact that it simply hits dead on to what I feel and think because I do cast off my identity, and I do have an aunt who is "fat always and out of breath." Peace.
Jamesburg, New Jersey
|On Lines by Langston Hughes|| |
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
--from "Hold Fast to Dreams" by Langston Hughes
As I reread this beloved poem, I remember that fragile, gentle child who hugged the pine tree by her grandmother's front door and pretended it hugged her back, that the rain whispered those soft reassuring words that parents say to comfort the very young.
My life was in constant chaos—threatening and brittle. A place where there was too much anger, too much sadness, too much fear, too much guilt, too much blame and not enough money and never enough love. Especially NEVER enough love. I withdrew into the the only sanity and safeness that I knew—poetry and nature. I read endlessly, wrapping myself in the poems that offered promise and hope. I sought the fog as it slipped a gossamer grey shawl; across the blue veins of the sleeping mountains, the icy wind that howled through naked willow trees on frozen nights, moonlight spilling across the ghost white fields, the tall silent pine tree that predictably guarded my Grandmother's front door, the pirouetting of the crab apple tree as she scattered her translucent petals on late spring afternoons, the sad solemn scent of lilacs heavy with June's new rain.
From the advice of that one poem I learned that dreams were vital and that words were magic! I could capture the things I treasured, so that even on a hot July day I could have the magic of that first snowfall or in the darkness of a moonless winter night I could hear the soft sighing in my mother's garden. I held fast to my dream of moving beyond my childhood. Poetry—both in reading the poems of others and writing my own—gave me my way out.
Diana Lynn (Davis) West
|On Lines by Jane Cooper|| |
to this sea of received silence
why should I sign my name?
—from "The Weather of Six Mornings" by Jane Cooper
When I emptied myself, I resonated. Jane Cooper is a poet of deep spiritual attention with a similarly intense commitment to material conditions. I found in her work a place where the poet herself had a profound purpose. In another poem about not having a child, she referred to her own body as a used “violin.”
What is the body’s urge to create further bodies? A gesture against mortality, I suppose. And what is mortality? I think beyond the mere fear of death (mere?), it is also distress at the soul’s silence after the passing of the body. Literally: the dead do not speak.
In another poem, Cooper remembers as a child being treated by a doctor who served in the Civil War. She realizes that her own mortal body connects that war with the war of “smart bombs” and the leveling of cities. How long before her body will “shiver apart” she asks.
Who are we, mortal in the world? Is it the world that is mortal or are we? Are we our names or our bodies or something else? Is it the something else that is named or is it only our physical form? In Islam one of the parents’ most serious responsibilities is the giving to the child its appropriate name.
What does it mean for us to sign our name to a deed? And is a poem a mere “work?” I am grateful indeed when poems “arrive,” but more frequently it is me that is doing the arriving.
New York, New York
|On Lines by Nikki Giovanni|| |
i wanta say just gotta say something
bout those beautiful beautiful beautiful outasight
with they afros
walking down the street
is the same ol danger
but a brand new pleasure
—from “Beautiful Black Men” by Nikki Giovanni
My connections to the poem are past, present, and, most importantly, for the future of my fourteen-year-old. Seven years ago I drove the ninety miles from work to Giovanni’s evening reading at a university near my home. I arrived ill-equipped, having forgotten to pack the volume of poetry I’d planned to ask her to sign. Embarrassed, I carried through Plan B: asking Giovanni to sign page 1984, my favorite poem’s location in the bulky anthology I’d needed for class that morning. The page itself was crinkled from many readings. Pen poised, Giovanni glanced from her dumpy middle-aged petitioner to the poem, and raised an eyebrow. “Please dedicate it to my son,” I asked. “He’s too young for the poem now, but he’ll need it in another ten or twelve years.” Sooner or later I’ll find the right person to hand him the autographed poem. A mother does not tell her beautiful beautiful beautiful black son how handsome he really is.
Janice M. Alberghene
Dover, New Hampshire
|On Lines by Robert Penn Warren|| |
I did not know what was happening in my heart.
—from "Tell Me a Story" by Robert Penn Warren
I find myself quietly speaking the lines of this poem when I'm alone, and I seem to involuntarily place a hand to my chest when I voice this line. I need to hold back the ache that comes in times of uncertainty. Often it's not a matter of knowing what is in my heart, but being strong enough to put those feelings into words.
|On Lines by Frank O'Hara|| |
And someone you love enters the room
and says wouldn't
you like the eggs a little
And when they arrive they are
just plain scrambled eggs and the warm weather
from "For Grace, After A Party" by Frank O'Hara
Much of the poetry I love creates an expansive feeling in my chest as I read or remember it&em;I shake, or my eyes well up, or I have to put the book down and rest. Frank O'Hara doesn't do this. Frank O'Hara is my poetry for walking around, drinking a coke, driving in the summer and tying my shoes. I've mentally separated the last lines of the difficult "For Grace, After A Party," and now they exist as my own occasional feeling of pure contentment, and come to mind whenever I take a nap in a sunny place, or feel like the world is an especially good place.
North Bennington, Vermont
...how terrible orange is,
—from "Why I Am Not A Painter" by Frank O'Hara
Visiting Las Vegas the color of the terra cotta roofs and the fat woman at the slots reminded me of what Frank O’Hara wrote: “how terrible orange is, and life,” except that her dress was blue, and I would have felt the same I bet but unable to put into words had he written how terrible some other color is, because what is really terrible and beautiful is life, and for all of us who can’t be poets all the time and those of us who can’t be poets at all, words are what wait for us in poems, and not just captions for a cartoon contest based on the delights and sorrows of others, not just names for our illnesses - instructions for their cure, or lines to help us get lucky, but directions to where we are, which is the desert, let’s face it, and what we need to get our hands on like Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller at the well is water.
Norman Lang Siegel
Beckley, West Virgrinia
|On Lines by Edgar Allan Poe|| |
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love–
I and my Annabel Lee
—from "Annabel Lee" by Edgar Allan Poe
I read the poem in Vincent Clemente's life-changing English class in 1967, and shed a tear for the the narrator's loss and the angels' gain, of the breathtaking Annabel Lee. The above lines, with a life of their own, have been surfacing ever since. They established indelibly that time is a place—a kingdom by the sea. We leave and return. To have the wind thus knocked out of me at 15 years old initiated that ride through the circuitries of time which is writing poetry. I have since been writing along the curves of time, back and forth to the kingdom by the sea.
"But we loved with a love that was more than love" is a perfectly ripe peach before the eyes of a young girl. And who wouldn't want to consume it by saying it over and over and over? The four lines come to me after a dream by the ocean, on a walk through my neighborhood on a night lit by yet another full moon, or when I turn my head for no apparent reason in time for a shooting star. The lines come to me in moments of loss or regret, and with the sensation of mortality and the inevitable departure from the kingdom by the sea. Or is it a return?
|On Lines by W. H. Auden|| |
On a recent visit to New York, I stopped in at the office of the Academy of American Poets and heard about the new “Life Lines” project. I immediately loved the idea that the Academy was going to collect and publish the lines of poetry that live most intimately with people in their actual lives. That’s what poetry has always been about for me—to quote Robert Frost, “[my] utmost ambition is to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of, to lodge a few irreducible bits.” As I thought about the plans for Life Lines, the way I learned that this idea had really moved me was that it forced four lines of Auden’s poem “In Memory of W.B.Yeats” into my awareness:
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
Auden’s lines arose in me as suddenly and freshly as a fountain, and were as impossible to ignore as being doused with cool water in the middle of a desert. They expressed and clarified what moves me most about the Life Lines project: that it makes room for, among other things, poetry’s capacity for healing—and that it reminds us of poetry’s potential presence in any situation.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
—from “Funeral Blues” by W.H. Auden
This poem has been one of my favorite poems since it was read as an elegy in the movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” It has been a lifeline in the last year with the passing of my Grandmother from Alzheimer’s disease. She was a constant in my life and this poem is an illustration of what the week following her death felt like, not only for me, but for my Grandfather and Mother. I have come to realize that good can come, but I revisit my favorite stanza frequently in my mind when my thoughts drift to her. It helps me to remember that life is short and to cherish every moment as if it were the last because it isn’t going to last forever.
West Springfield, MA
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
from "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" by W.H. Auden
Suitable for carving; and got me through a hospital stay and other relatively small crises.
|On Lines by A. R. Ammons|| |
The reeds give
way to the
wind and give
the wind away
—"Small Song" by A. R. Ammons
This is the entire poem "Small Song" by A. R. Ammons. I read it for the first time about ten years ago, when I didn't like poetry at all. One could say I loathed poetry, for trying to tell me what I already knew or for trying to confuse me with what I could never know. These four lines were the first lines I ever enjoyed, because at once I could and could not make out what they were telling me.
These seven words (a few repeated) couldn't have been any simpler and yet they made (and still make) my mind do little circus tricks. As in Yeats's famous line, "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" I still keep trying to discern which is which. Are the reeds only reedy because they're moved by the wind or is the wind only windy because we detect its effects? It is, of course, not necessary to decide between the two. But no matter how many times I read these lines, I feel compelled to pick one over the other—as if I'm on a sinking ship and must choose between my two children, only one of whom I can save.
"Small Song". Copyright © 1969 by A. R. Ammons, from The Selected Poems, Expanded Edition by A. R. Ammons. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
|On Lines by Paul Muldoon|| |
Were I embarking on that wine-dark sea
I would bring my bow along with me.
—from "Making the Move" by Paul Muldoon
This is a lovely poem about the break-up of a marriage, about the betrayal of trust. The poet, looking at the gaps in the bookshelf (Such books as one may think one owns / Unloose themselves like stones / And clatter down into this wider gulf / Between myself and my good wife) thinks about fidelity and invokes Penelope, that figure of heroic faithfulness, whom Ulysses entrusted with his bow when he set off on his journeys. These lines heartbreakingly show how the most heroic act is to makes oneself vulnerable for love, to (in this case literally) disarm oneself -- and how it takes a Ulysses, a true hero, to be betrayed and yet love again. The poet, and most of us, aren't up to it; we carry our bows with us.
|On Lines by Jason Shinder|| |
Nothing is smooth.
The light is always rough,
anxious. But for the stubborn fact
we imagine things will be clearer
we go on. The angels, for whom we work,
will let us into paradise, say
look, that's all, a mist
you cannot see as long as you are in it.
—from "Dedication" by Jason Shinder
Recently, I suffered with late-stage breast cancer; my prognosis was not hopeful. For months I found myself too weak to do much but lie in bed. Depression was constant. I found this poem, one I'd known but previously overlooked, on an afternoon when the pines outside my hospital window wore a coat of ice; I memorized his poem while watching the sun glimmer like thousands of lights off the boughs. It was a rare hour, because I spent it thinking there could be beauty, either here in this world or maybe in a next one. Jason's poem made me believe I had not been seeing "wholly," only through a mist of my limited perceptions. The poem and the scene out the window were a hope and a gift I never forgot through many more months of healing. Ironically, he is now struggling with his own illness. I hope he is finding poems this wonderful to lean on.
Andover, New Hampshire
|On Lines by Philip Larkin|| |
we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
—from"The Mower" by Philip Larkin
I remember being captured by the combination of regret and wisdom in these lines, first introduced to me by a friend coping with long-term illness. She has been fighting so hard, for so many years, and so often in her words I hear the echoes of Larkin's poem: life can change, even be gone completely, in a matter of moments. We have no say in this—only in the way we treat one another in the time we do have. I find myself thinking of these lines in the little moments, when there is a choice between a small kindness and a small meanness. I strive to be careful in each of these decisions.
Bronxville, New York
|On Lines by James Wright|| |
They too must have slept all night with their eyes open.
—from "How Spring Arrives" by James Wright
This past March I received an audio recording of poetry from a friend. One day, as I drove my sons home from school, I played the CD in the car because I particularly liked James Wright's poem about spring. I expected the boys to moan and groan at having to listen to "boring stuff," but to my surprise, when the poet reached the second half of the poem, I spied Zachary grinning. A second later, Jeremy chuckled aloud at the antics of the "three girls." For the rest of the month, I played "How Spring Arrives" in the car every day until the three of us could speak the poem from memory.
The last lines of this ode to spring will stay with me for the rest of my life because I feel as though I had been waiting, eyes open day and night, for the moment my children and I could appreciate the beauty of a poem together. This spring, that moment happened for the first time.
|On Lines by Winifred M. Letts|| |
To come at tulip time how wise!
Perhaps you will not now regret
The shining gardens, jewel set,
Of your first home in Paradise
Because you might not quite forget.
—from "To A May Baby" by Winifred M. Letts
My niece was due on the sixteenth of May. I planned to copy this poem and frame it for the wall above her bed. Never mind nursery rhymes and their jangly cheer. Cradle-words should be like birds in flight. Had she arrived and grown, she would have come into language, line breaks, cadence.
Since the last day of February, it is best to believe in the poem's Paradise, to believe it without question, and think only of the baby's quick return from amniotic dark, a birth back to a place that is here but better.
I consider tulips and how their petals are singularly soft and I consider Rose, child turned still life.
Brooklyn, New York
|On Lines by Elizabeth Bishop|| |
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—from “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop
I had often repeated the refrains of this poem to myself when encountering various occasions of loss, but not until the hurricane’s approach in September 2005 did I cling to this particular stanza. It wasn’t Katrina, but the one that came after: Rita. My husband and I made a late decision to evacuate, when Houston’s floodplain map was redrawn to include our neighborhood, when the forecasts were projecting a category 5 hurricane heading our way, and when my father, living on the West Coast, cried into the phone, pleading for us to leave. We taped silvery stars into our windows, raised favorite books up onto the highest shelves, placed beloved furniture and dog toys on the bed and yellow chrome table, lifted dishes, pots, pans as high as they’d go to avoid flood waters. We laid paintings gently onto the bed. I kissed the posts holding up the ceiling good-bye and hoped the old house would stand. All the while, this stanza was my mantra. I thought of the people who came to our city from New Orleans, where they might be headed, and the possible erosion of a whole region in the span of a month. We packed the Honda with as much as it would hold, with space for a three-legged dog and a cat. It took twenty-four hours to drive to San Antonio. Slowly rolling past those with empty gas tanks, the lines replayed in my mind. When we pulled up beside a shirtless man sitting on a trailer hitch, barbecuing on a hibachi, I hoped I could believe his actions, that it wouldn’t be as much of a disaster as I feared.
Laurie Clements Lambeth
|On Lines by Roque Dalton|| |
I believe the world is beautiful
and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.
And that my veins don’t end in me
but in the unanimous blood
of those who struggle for life,
landscape and bread,
that poetry is for everyone.
—from "Like You (Como Tú)" by Roque Dalton, translated by Jack Hirschman
Every word in this poem thrusts me toward the next, burrows like a mantra, sings clear and true. The first lines in the original Spanish version: “Yo, como tú /Amo el amor, ” befriend me, then sweep me along and this poem has been stitched into me for a good long while with its’ spare, aching beauty.
It also brings to mind Eduardo Galeano’s observation about his years of exile—an experience he shares with Dalton: “I have known few people who have survived the tests of pain and violence—a rare feat—with their capacity for tenderness in tact.” Dalton was twice sentenced to death and jailed by the State for his beliefs and both times he evaded fate. At forty, he was murdered in the open for his political beliefs. I suspect he wrote with this eventuality in mind; wrote against the darkness that surrounded him, that would soon come. Wrote what was hard and true, and did so with tenderness as well. With eyes wide open to the world around him, in this poem and in others, he expressed the vividness and universality of that which sustains us: poetry and bread.
Finally, there is something else. I am haunted by the “unanimous blood;” the poet’s sense, which is my own, that we are all, even in our difference, part of this complex interconnectedness. “Como Tú” reminds me how to live, and how to think and feel amidst endless war, division, brutality. Almost every day I return to these words, and often it is that necessary nudge which reassures me that to write poems, to struggle “for life, love, little things”—for justice—that is my work, and I can do it. “Como Tú” is a poem to save your life.
Holly Wren Spaulding
|On Lines by E. E. Cummings|| |
if there are any heavens, my mother will (all by herself) have
one. It will not be a pansy heaven nor
a fragile heaven of lilies-of-the-valley but
it will be a heaven of blackred roses
my father will be (deep like a rose
tall like a rose)
standing near my
swaying over her
—from "if there are any heavens..." by E. E. Cummings
In the mid 1950s, when I was an Irish-Catholic girl on the brink of adolescence, I was riveted by the searing vitality of Cummings' poems, which pulsed with the rhythms of joyful sensuality (coupled with grief) absent from the suburban conformity of my middle class Long Island life. Eager to share my thrill with Cummings' language and his blackred images of love with my parents, I carefully copied this poem onto specially purchased paper, placed the poem into a tissue-lined box, wrapped it with shiny red paper, and gave it to them on Christmas morning. Watching my mother’s face for signs of her delight, what I saw there instead was a great fear, her skin turning white and her strong jaw locked. Silently, she slid the poem back into the box and never spoke of it again. This was how I learned about the tremendous power of poetry.
Though it would be a long time before I felt safe enough to share lines of poetry with anyone again, all through my confusing adolescence I often returned to this poem and these words to reassure myself that beyond the cool, rule-bound, shaming world into which I was born, another world of strong passions, intense feeling, and deep connection between two people could actually be imagined and aspired to. Now, married over thirty years, I read these lines, grieve for my father’s death, my mother’s lonely life without him, and in my own marriage try cultivate a garden blooming not only with pansies or lilies-of-the-valley but which is deep like a rose/tall like a rose.
|On Lines by Heather McHugh|| |
Given an airplane, chance
encounters always ask, So what
are your poems about? They’re about
their business, and their father’s business, and their
monkey’s uncle, they’re about
how nothing is about, they’re not
—from “20-200 on 747” by Heather McHugh
These lines give me such comfort! They comfort me with their humor, with their sassy attitude. I need that when conversation draws to an abrupt halt. “I’m a poet,” I say, in response to “What do you do?” In the stunned silence that follows, my mind runs through the possibilities, none of them good. Maybe they think I’m too dumb to be a poet. Maybe I am too dumb to be a poet. When they recover, the inevitable next question is “What are you poems about?” Surely not an unreasonable question—maybe even a friendly attempt to understand what I do—but one which I can’t seem to answer. “They’re not about about.”
And how that line helps me when I’m writing, trying to untether myself from narrative. To let the words go where they will, without having to justify themselves.
|On Lines by Robinson Jeffers|| |
Venders and political men
Pour from the barrel, new lies on the old, and are praised for kindly
Wisdom. Poor bitch, be wise.
No: you'll still mumble in a corner a crust of truth, to men
And odds disgusting-You and I Cassandra
—from “Cassandra” by Robinson Jeffers
My entire writing life has been a war to tell my stories, either in poetry or fiction. When promising situations go badly because I have been stereotyped before my arrival (expected to be grateful, quiet and polite like a clone of other Black women), setting up what is usually in inevitable clash. This often happens because all people want is a Black Poet without distinctions being made. There is no consideration given to the poet. They are sorely uninterested in Wanda Coleman, who she is or how where she comes from affects her work. The poetry is almost irrelevant, because "we all know" what African Americans have been about for 400-odd years. That we are individuals, often intellectuals, have competing styles and clashes, never seems to have entered into the discussion.
Los Angeles, California
What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine
The fleet limbs of the antelope?
What but fear winged the birds, and hunger
Jewelled with such eyes the great goshawk’s head?
Violence has been the sire of all the world’s values.
—from"The Bloody Sire" by Robinson Jeffers
I often quote these lines from Robinson Jeffers' poem "The Bloody Sire," in the course of political discussions to persuade friends and colleagues from being too dependent on utopian expectations or simplistic conclusions. These lines—and the poem itself—are usually well received; the listener invited by them to consider the hard, compelling, and yet beautiful facts of nature—both of the natural and human kind. In the end, these lines confirm the exquisite tension between our highfalutin ideals and the ineluctable fact of gravity. I always feel a little wiser and a bit more in awe of the world when I read or recite these lines.
New York, New York
|On Lines by David Ignatow|| |
This poem is on my desk next to my daughter’s picture. The poem is “For My Daughter” by David Ignatow. Although I love the entire poem, the first lines are the most important:
When I die choose a star
and name it after me
that you may know
I have not abandoned
or forgotten you.
I am a stage 3 cancer survivor. My daughter was 2 years old when I was diagnosed. I was terrified that she would not remember me.
Now that I am in remission, I value every day I have been granted because I know in my situation it is probably borrowed time. My girl is nine years old now. I still try to make every moment with her count so that she will always know that I will never abandon or forget her.
Laureen Lemire Anthony
|On Lines by Linda Gregg|| |
If I go out there they are.
—from "At Home" by Linda Gregg
This line comes to me often as I go out any door, or comes to me as a reason to not go out at all.
New York NY
|On Lines by John Logan|| |
The name of God is changing in our time.
—from “Spring of the Thief” by John Logan
Each morning, as news streams in, I recoil from the fanaticism and irrationality and lies on any side, if sides remain possible. Children are dying. Then I recite this lovely and haunting line, what passes for morning prayer, to prevent myself from going numb, and to keep a spark of faith, no matter how dim, alive in this new millennium.
|On Lines by Adam Zagajewski|| |
God, give us a long winter
and quiet music, and patient mouths,
and a little pride--before
our age ends.
—from "A Flame" by Adam Zagajewski
The lines of this prayer by Adam Zagajewski come to me at least once week when I see--and fight not to absorb--the pain of conflict that exists at every level in the world--whether it is listening to the rising death toll from the most recent war, enduring yet another rumor about the conflict between the administration and faculty at the university where I work, or trying to understand the most recent fight for control within the sports boosters association at my children's school.
We feed too much our hunger to win and be right. We value too little the spark of creativity and beauty that gets extinguished when we fail to nurture the best in ourselves and in others. I do, me. When I am exhausted in the fight, I remember these words. I pray these words.
|On Lines by Miyazawa Kenji|| |
neither yielding to rain
nor yielding to wind
yielding neither to
snow nor to summer heat
with a stout body
never getting angry
always smiling quiet-
eating one and half pints of brown rice
and bean paste and a bit of
vegetable a day
not taking oneself
—from "November 3rd" by Miyazawa Kenji, translated by Hiroaki Sato
These lines open “November 3rd,” a song and a prayer, in simple words, about doing good for others while remaining humble about it. Its title, my sister’s birthday, attracted me at first. Then I found the lines bestowed on me a way to deal with November, a happy and tragic month in my family of scattered siblings, a month with four more of our birthdays including my own, but also the anniversary of deaths--our parents and a younger brother--when we were all very young. We eleven siblings grew up separated by great distances, but I am always amazed when we get together how well we know and love and enjoy each other. So in November I remember the families that took me and my brothers and sisters in. I try to teach my children money isn’t everything. I remind myself, smiling quietly, about the futility of anger. And for people in need, I try to do something, chanting: “neither praised/ nor thought a pain/ someone/ like that/ is what I want/ to be”
|On Lines by William Shakespeare|| |
Bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang
—from “Sonnet LXXIII” by William Shakespeare
In 1951, in a huge lecture hall filled with restless and very young students, I heard I.A. Richards read Shakespeare's 73rd sonnet in his sonorous, unforgettable voice. I became an instant English major. The line that resonated with me most, despite my conviction that I would never grow old myself, was "bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang." Through the years, that line has come back to me over and over again as I watched first my grandparents, then my parents, my uncles and aunts, conspicuously age. Now, of course, it runs through my head, it even gives me pleasure, every time I look in the mirror with my glasses on.
|On Lines by Homer|| |
Sing only this for me, sing me this well,
and I shall say at once before the world
the grace of heaven has given us a song.
—from The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Robert Fitzgerald
These lines run through my mind any number of times each day. The lines remind me that every moment of life has a bit of music about it, a bit of poetry hidden in it. Whether I am looking at the blooming of a beautiful flower garden, or watching the traffic on the city streets, these lines help me find the pleasing rhythm that exists in all of us.
|On Lines by Naomi Shihab Nye|| |
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
—from "Famous" by Naomi Shihab Nye
We all want to be great, don't we? I do. I want to write fantastic poetry and be known to all the world. I want to be famous. But when I read "Famous" by Naomi Nye, and particularly these lines, I began to wonder if being famous could mean being common and useful as well as extraordinary and worshiped. Everyone knows what a pulley is, or a buttonhole. We use them every day, and although we may not sing their praises in poetic verse, we would dearly miss them if they were gone. I want to be comfortable to people. I don't want to be in the limelight; I want to be in the dim light, in the place everyone comes home to, to a place where I would be missed if I were gone. I want to be famous.
|On Lines by Sadi|| |
Long about February, when winter's darkness still hovers, I begin thinking of spring and my first grandson's birthday on Feb. 1, 2000. I always purchase hyacinths. Their fragrance reminds me of my fourth grade teacher, Mary Sue Hendrix, who introduced me to the sweetness of hyacinths, good literature, and her own enthusiastic love of poetry and writing. Mary Sue is long gone but each year she lives again in that heavenly scent. I was the last person to visit her the evening she died, bearing gifts of hyacinths and a rag doll in the form of an angel. When my mother was hospitalized Mary Sue took me home with her to spend many a night. Having no children of her own, she collected dolls and her home was full of them. She charmed me and the dolls which surrounded my bed with stories and poems - it became our bedtime ritual. This year, when my grandson turned six, his gift was a homemade "grannie illustrated" book of classic poems for children featuring this poem and a large arrangement of hyacinths delivered to his front door. The bonus was a promise that if he could memorize the poem and say it back "on demand" within the next year he would earn $1.00 for each of his years. And if he planted the hyacinth in his yard later, in warm weather, they would continue blooming for years to come, just as this poem does for me.
If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft,
and from thy slender store
Two loaves alone to thee are left,
Sell one, and with the dole
Buy Hyacinths to feed thy Soul
Asheville, North Carolina
|On Lines by Lord Alfred Tennyson|| |
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield
—from "Ulysses" by Lord Alfred Tennyson
I often think of the last line of Tennyson's "Ulysses": "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." Within the poem, the speaker has shared both the heroic experiences of his youth and the boredom of his current, safer life. Even though, admittedly, he is "not now that strength which in old days/Moved earth and heaven," he chooses to move beyond what is comfortable in order to accomplish more. Rather than bemoaning his fate and giving in to old age, Ulysses refuses to stop. I hope others see me like that.
Jo Anne Agrimson
|On Lines by Carlos Bulosan|| |
Silence, imperial silence, I have felt your beauty
In the hour of formlessness; it cupped me up
Like an autumn wind moving into space.
Monumental silence, I too have something to tell,
I too have a passion to arise, and the honor
To possess this passion—
—from “Monuments” by Carlos Bulosan
Carlos Bulosan's poems were published in the US in the 30's, 40's, and 50's and he died alone and forgotten in Seattle because of poverty. The two times I had spoken up and pointed out a racist comment uttered by some white guys, I was beaten up and kicked around with cowboy boots. I remembered these life saving words by Carlos Bulosan because he, too, also survived many beatings. Especially after having written in a poem, "I learned that it was a crime to be a Filipino in America."
|On Lines by Charles Simic|| |
When she heard the news, my mother caused the
Greek fleet to be deprived of favorable winds on its
way to Troy. Witch, they called her, dirty witch—and
she, so pretty, chopping the mushrooms, laughing and
crying over the stew pot.
—from "Heroic Moment" by Charles Simic
I discovered this little poem during a time in my life when I was really struggling with my relationship with my mother. We were pretty much estranged and I was trying to find a constructive way of dealing with the negative emotions that flowed directly from my childhood and years of abuse suffered at the hands of a deeply troubled mother. All of the memories of my childhood were tainted by the raw feeling I had toward my mother. And then I happened upon Charles Simic's volume of poems, A Wedding in Hell and the poem, Heroic Moment. Like the swift lancing of an old, festering wound, this poem began to drain the bitterness out of my childhood memories and I began to be able to see, for the first time, the absurdity and humor in much that I experienced. This little poem was a catalyst in my thinking differently about my childhood and about my mother. Things have only improved since. I guess that even the most absurd poem can alter lives; the power of words crosses the boundaries of literary styles and forms. There are times when the value of poetry appears ephemeral, but from the beginning of time, I believe there is an unbroken thread of lives forever altered, forever elevated and improved by poetry.
Iowa City, Iowa
|On Lines by William Carlos Williams|| |
But the sea
which no one tends
is also a garden ...
—from “Of Asphodel that Greeny Flower” by William Carlos Williams
Walking towards the sea, dark, crashing on the shore of Bolgatty Island at the mouth of Kochi harbour and the rain coming down and all the broken junk of my life and spent canisters of motor oil, and plastic bags, and tiny children trying to sell garlands of jasmine and fishermen in frail canoes – so many of them put out of work by the large mechanized trawlers – I had seen lines of fisherfolk at the road’s edge selling bags made of torn netting stitched together. The sea scraped up by those trawlers, emptied out. But the sea / which no one tends / is also a garden ... Those lines By William Carlos Williams which I first read as a teenager, rose up and held me in a fierce music.
New York, New York
|On Lines by Anne Sexton|| |
but I grew, I grew
and God was there like an island I had not rowed to,
still ignorant of Him, my arms and my legs worked,
and I grew, I grew,
I wore rubies and bought tomatoes
and now, in my middle age,
about nineteen in the head I'd say,
I am rowing, I am rowing
—from "Rowing" by Anne Sexton
On a late July 4th night, my husband and I and a next door neighbor sat talking--simply enjoying the evening with a glass of wine after the remnants of a cookout were all put away. The door bell rang and I was surprised to find a friend of mine standing there. It was 10:00 pm, but no matter, I invited her in, poured her a glass of wine, and we all went back out to the deck to talk and laugh. My friend is manic-depressive. I knew that, but I had never experienced the effects of the manic side at it peak. Her eyes were impossibly bright, and she talked as though her life depended on it. Then she said, "I have been dancing for two days. Look, there are blisters on my feet!" She raised her bare foot where I saw no blisters, but I knew that she did and felt them too. The lines from Anne Sexton's poem "Rowing" came all too quickly to my saddened mind. I can never think of Karla without thinking of that evening and those lines of poetry.
|On Lines by Galway Kinnell|| |
everything sings and dies.
But it could be, too, everything dies and sings,
and a life is the interlude
when, still humming, we can look up, gawk about, imagine whatever,
topple back into singing.
Oh first our voice be done, and then, before and afterwards and all
around it, that singing.
—from “Flower of Five Blossoms” by Galway Kinnell
This is a poem about a man who has brought a blooming orchid from one residence to another because he doesn’t want to miss what could be its final time to bloom. He places the orchid on a mantel and puts on a Brahms sonata. He compares the flowers to the calm faces of singers and to a woman's body in a way that is at once sensual and reverent. When my father, who loved Brahms, loved singing (he sang every day of his life), and absolutely adored women, died suddenly of a heart attack, he left behind a small collection of orchids. I brought one of the orchids home with me and kept it in my sunroom, where it bloomed for almost three months. I read “Flower of Five Blossoms” so many times during those first months after Dad died that it became like a prayer. Five years later, the above lines still repeat themselves and call him and his voice close, whenever I see an orchid blooming.
|On Lines by Raymond Carver|| |
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
from "Late Fragment" by Raymond Carver
I love the way the poem is a call and response between the writer and himself, a seemingly simple snippet of Carver's (and the rest of human-kind's) deepest yearnings. This poem takes as a given that life is difficult "even so"... At the same time, it makes peace with the sharp-edged and fragmented through the transcendent power of love. It is all the more poignant knowing that Carver's life was cut short. When I am feeling befuddled by life's complexities and confusions, I return to this poem's simple grace.
Jamaica Plain, MA
|On Lines by Leonard Cohen|| |
I heard of a man
who says words so beautifully
that if he only speaks their name
women give themselves to him.
If I am dumb beside your body
while silence blooms like tumors on our lips
it is because I hear a man climb stairs
and clear his throat outside our door.
from "Poem" by Leonard Cohen
There are two reasons this poem has stuck with me ever since my wife whispered it in my ear the evening we first met. The second reason is that I, as a poet, have tried to put out of my mind the fact that I didn't write the only poem that continues to put shivers up and down her spine.
New Orleans, LA
|On lines by Clare Rossini|| |
Whereupon I make my sentence
For nothing and no one
But the rosebush my landlady tied
Sebastian-like to a stick
And cajoled into bloom; I say to that now defunct,
That's a star I haven't seen before.
And the bush listens.
from "Brief History of a Sentence" by Clare Rossini
I am an RN in a large inner city hospital. I work in research which employs methods of data gathering in a dry and streamlined fashion, hence, there is not room for wildly creative speculations or metaphorical speaking. The reason I come back to these lines is because the woman is expressing herself, her words unheard by nothing but a rosebush, then in a magical way she transcends a barrier. Magic follows. It is enough to find that rosebush, that self-knowlege and the wonder that blooms inside a soul. This poem brings me to a deep place of quiet joy and comfort that all is well with the world.