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Archive for the ‘Essays on Poetry’ Category

As I listened to Elizabeth Alexander’s poem today, I heard echoes of Maya Angelou’s poem from Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration. Alexander’s line, “On the brink, on the brim on the cusp” reminds me of Angelou’s line, “On the pulse of this new day.”

Both poets were aware this needed to be a poem about beginnings. They were aware of other things too. So little poetry is ever heard in our country, the poem needed to be something that would speak to the masses. It needed to be simple and forthright, words people could grasp quickly, that had the flow and rhythm of our American speech.

My favorite lines in the poem are, “Praise song for every hand-lettered sign, the figuring it out at kitchen tables.” She addresses what words are here, what language is, how words change the way we think and eventually change the way a country thinks.

We encounter each other in words,
words spiny or smooth,
whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

What are words of the masses? They are the words painted on the signs carried to the inauguration. The figuring it out at kitchen tables speaks to families, friends and neighbors working together to come up with language, poetry of their own to hold up for the world to see.

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150px-pasternak1I first became familiar with Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) when I was an undergrad in college. Walking through the library late one night, I was startled by a book falling off a shelf. When I went to see what it was, it was a book of his poetry.

I later found out he is the author of the novel Dr. Zhivago, which was made into a 1965 drama romance with Julie Christie and Omar Sharif. Years later I was visiting a friend on Vancouver island. She and her mother had recently bought a Victorian house. When my friend’s mother found out I was a poet, she said, “Oh, I have something you might like. It was the only thing left in this house when we moved in.” It was a book of poetry by Pasternak.

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Love Poems

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Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907-1908

I once tried to define love with a friend of mine, and she gave me this poem by Maya Angelou (born 1928).

Love is that condition
in the human spirit
so profound
that it allows
one to survive
and, better than that,
to thrive
with passion,
compassion
and style.

What struck me in the poem is the word thrive. We use it most often to refer to plants or newborn babies. The poem reminds me of another by Angelou with the words, “Lying, thinking last night how to find my soul a home, where water is not thirsty and bread loaf is not stone, I came up with one thing and I don’t believe I’m wrong that nobody, but nobody can make it out here alone.”

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Wislawa Szymborska said this in her 1996 Nobel speech. Only 17 poets have won the Nobel Prize in literature since the prize was first awarded in 1901.Of those 17 poets, only two are women: Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957), a Chilean poet, won it in 1945 and Szymborska (born in 1923) won it in 1996. One of my favorite poems by Szymborska is about being a poet.

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Victor Hugo (1802-1885)

All kinds of people chase after poets,
Like screech owls after linnets.

When a child is taken from you, when a child you’ve born and loved is stolen and you know you will never see that child again, it is the only thing you think about for the rest of your life. It is on the power of this loss that Victor Hugo based his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

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Portrait of Rilke by Paula Modersohn-Becker

Before Sigmund Freud ever founded the psychoanalytic school of psychology, before he ever published his first book on the unconscious, writers and storytellers were trying to understand the psychology of the human mind. How else could they create character development in their stories and poems?

Psychology was an interest of the Czech poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). In 1897 he met and fell in love with writer Lou Andreas-Salome, who trained with Freud. After Rilke’s separation from her in 1900, they remained friends for the rest of his life.

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Maria Callas

Lorna Dee Cervantes was asked once in a workshop what the opposite of poetry was. She said without hesitating, “War.” And I agree with that, but I’d be more specific and say, “Torture.”

Forcing someone to do something they don’t want to do, causing someone pain on purpose is the opposite of poetry. At least with war, there’s the chance of death and release from a difficult life, but torture doesn’t promise that hope. It’s more destructive.

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