Archive for category: Poetry

On Poetry, by Hilary Sherratt

It’s National Poetry Month, and I’ve been setting out to discover why we read and write poetry. Today, I’ve asked Hilary Sherratt to answer the question “why poetry?”

I first met Hilary by way of an email forwarded to me by her fiancé, Preston Yancey. “Read this poem,” it said. That was it. I read. I was hooked.

Hilary has a rare way with words. She has poems that make you say “whoa.” (So after her opening line, make sure you snigger extra loud.) After you read her piece, make sure you drop by her place.

*****

I’m not a poet, I’m the hidden in morning traffic undone hair and lonely smile. I’m not a poet, I’m wild bursts of laughter at the wrong end of the dinner table. I’m not a poet, I’m a gyroscope spinning in your closed hands. I’m not a poet, I’m a tangled yarn of words half phrased and loosed over the page like prisoners bolting for the cracked door.

I don’t write poetry because I’m a poet.

There’d be no point to the words, then, they’d be only the stricken shadows of a claim of identity, something to put after my name, titles lining up along behind me, wife, lover, student of and knower of and, and, and. I’d say, “I’m a poet” and really just mean to tell you to take me more seriously, treat my words like silver or gold rippling through your hands. I’d say, “I’m a poet” because I’d want you to think I’m a good writer and the title will tell you everything.

I’m not a poet.

I write because the words claw at my insides and there is nothing gentle or lamblike about the way they’re born. I write poetry because words are violent against ribcages and there isn’t a muscle in my body that can keep them. I write because the words are the tide’s relentless turning, and on the days when I do not know where I begin or end I do know that when I hear something beautiful it should be written.

I’m not a poet, because if I tell you I’m a poet I’m not telling you why I write poetry. I’m just telling you that I wish you’d think me a poet.

I write it because the words must be. Because out of nothing we might spin the beautiful.

And because I hear the word midwinter and all I think is:

The lake is still, undisturbed
as it must be, the justice
of such faithful movement all summer – to hold only itself.
And now my request.
My hands blush in asking
that it might carry me, too,
I glare skyward.
Is there anything to a body but gravity,
the heaving pull of the heart?
Is there anything to my hands but
a prayer I only half believe?
It is midwinter.
Must the world still carry me?

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Psalm #19 (Spring Stones)

Last night I had a brief exchange with a friend, a good woman who speaks timely words. We were discussing the status of public discourse, especially in concern to matters of faith. I said that I was growing weary of the endless battle royale, the endless war of words that has taken to the hallowed halls of the internetShe replied with a simple statement: this week I’m reminded that God (and the church) are bigger than the internet.

Wiser, more nuanced words haven’t been spoken to me in some time.

Last night I considered us, this grand swath of humanity. We are more than digital arguments, avatars, and coded bits and blips, no matter how much we might wish otherwise.

*****

Psalm #19 (Spring Stones)

I.
In the turning over of spring’s stones
I see the unfurled woodlouse, unafraid,
the lichen that lives best undisturbed,
and the soil that is the medium
of our genesis.

From dust I came
and dust will be my home.

II.
There was once a Great Awakening
that started with clay and God,
and it knew nothing of
one thousand pixel bosoms,
or men whom, in their pyromaniacal fits
burned every expendable,
sexable good down
to its consumable, silicone dust.

We were created clay paupers,
at once began collecting orgasmic baubles.

III.
If there were a man who could be all
to everyone, he would not be a man
but a god. These are the days
of the every-god,
god the terrible, god the kind,
god the electronic omnipresent,
god the straight, god the gay,
the ever opinionated, sometimes quiet
unjust semi-sovereign.

These are the days when men turn over
stones in spring and see only dirt, forgetting
that the soil is our cousin.

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On the Reason for Poetry (And the Analog Resistance)

April is National Poetry month. (Did you know there was such a thing?) To celebrate, I’ve asked some friends to join me in answering the question, “Why Poetry?” (Next week’s piece, for instance, will be by the lovely and talented Hilary Sherratt). I hope you’ll join us in the conversation. And if you say you aren’t the “poetry type?” Give it a go this month. See how it feels.

*****

Aunt Mary died of eating twelve red peppers
after a hard days work. The doctor said
it was her high blood pressure finished her.

~John Ciardi

1.

I sat in the rustic pew on my front porch, a copy of Selected Poems:John Ciardi cracked to the poem “Aunt Mary.” The pew was a reclaimed piece, salvaged by my mother from some going-out-of-church sale in northern Louisiana. I’d salvaged the verses from a local used bookstore in the Ozarks, reclaimed the piece and gave it a home between the works of Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry.

It was a quiet evening, one in which the first warm winds of April were sweeping down the lane. The birds hopped from branch to branch, the joy of Spring in their songs. Squirrels chased each other through the muddy front yard, through the tender grass shooting from winter’s dead zones. I pinched the pages between thumb and forefinger; there is nothing quite like the yellowing leaves of a good book of poetry, the rough-fibered, tactile, analog pages.

It could have been any poem, really. But it wasn’t. It was this work, “Aunt Mary,” about the writer’s aunt who’d passed into the next world on the flames of twelve red peppers. Mary was a woman who “loved us till we screamed,” who was in the family of the broken,

“in which one dies of twelve red peppers,
one has too many children, one a boy friend,
two are out of work, and one is yowling
for one (offstage) to open the bathroom door.”

There is a truth about family in the verse. I sense it, but it hides beneath the surface.

2.

It is April the 1st, and the dust has barely settled on last week’s discussion regarding whether same-sex couples should or should not be employed by World Vision, a entity which, as best as I can tell, has a singular non-profit purposes–care for the impoverished. Just days ago, this was the issue du jour. World Vision’s hiring policies were in question, and the debate took to the hallowed halls of the internet. We all gathered there, there, the family, some of us watching as others debated with humility, and still others–the championed prize-fighters in the room–slung wholesale accusations across the aisle. One side accused the other of being Un-orthodox (a idea without definition), and their equal opposites accused the more Orthodox of being unloving (an ideal without definition).

Nuance be damned.

I watched as one sat yowling for another (offstage) to open the bathroom door. The one behind the door yowled back.

3.

Why poetry? (And for today, let’s relegate this question to “why read poetry?”) This is the grand question.

Many have an affinity for poetry, though they’d likely not recognize it as such. In high school, did you roll the windows down, let the wind blow through your hair as you screamed every word to “Smells Like Teen Spirit?” Did you make mix-tapes for your boyfriend? Did you scrawl self-angsty lines in a fifty cent notebook? Perhaps you didn’t, but I did (though you may substitute “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” for “The Love of God,” because I was a good Baptist boy).

In poetry, I’ve always found the artistic medium that gives the freedom to better understand the world. Good poetry conveys layers of meaning and nuance, unpacks truths in surprising and understated ways. Good poetry is like a diamond, its many facets drawing the reader into the mystery at its heart. It entices me, makes me dig into its language for meaning.

I am a word-miner, and poetry is the mineshaft. It’s why I read. I hope to find the grand golden nugget one day. I know it’s there somewhere.

4.

On April the 1st, I sat with the lines of John Ciardi, he mourning the loss of his utterly human aunt. I rubbed the pages between my fingers as I read the closing lines,

…At once I wept Aunt Mary
with a real tear, forgiving all her love,
and its stupidities, in the palm of God.
Or on a ledge of time. Or in the eye
of the blasting sun. Or tightroped on a theorem.
–Let every man choose his own persuasion,
I pray the tear she taught me of us all.

I wept Aunt Mary too, and all the very real lovers of this world and of God who are only doing the best they know how, who are only espousing their best understandings of mysteries.

There was no comment section at the bottom of the poem, no way to tweet the verse to the rest of God’s green earth, or to spout an opinion about it. There was only me, the poem, the internal weeping, the birds, the squirrels, and the pew. There was only a prayer for all of us, the yowling children. There was only the understanding that we’re all here together, reflections in this mirror dimly. There was the sense that unfolding the nuance of words can only be achieved by this sort of Analog Resistance.

This is why I read poetry. It is a sanctuary from the myriad cacophonous violences that occupy this mainframe world.

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Psalm #18 (On the Dawn)

From time to time I pen my own psalms. Follow the link for the entire corpus (such as it is).

I’ve heard enough about culture wars and the warring factions of religion to fill three lifetimes. Last week’s brouhaha regarding World Vision (which, to illuminate the situation, was mostly relegated to a particular internet sub-culture) was the tipping point. I suppose there are genuine points to be made regarding the importance of the discussion, but I also suppose there are genuine points to be made about remaining less resolute, more quiet.

In any event, even if you didn’t follow the goings-on last week, this poem is still for you. At least, it’s for me.

*****

Psalm #18 (On the Dawn)

Dawn is a half-rest, a symphonic pause
pregnant like Mary with possibility
of a meek Messiah who grows less like
“go and conquer,”
and more like
“suffer the child, the poor,
the broken-hearted self.”

Oh Dawn,
pray for us sinners, now
and at the hour of our dying.
Amen.

Always gentle, it comes like a child
waking God’s affection, greeting us
with purple robes and golden rods,
gifts fit for kings.
Who are the kings of the world?
The meek, the slowed, the quiet observant.
Who are the kings of the world?
They are us.

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Psalm #17 (For the Strivers in Their Striving)

Today’s psalm is for the strivers who love their striving. (Click here for more of the psalm series.)

*****

Psalm #17 (For the Strivers in Their Striving)

In this tabernacle of great green floor unfurling,
the bright blue above, sometimes black and star-flecked,
we kneel, fingernails busy like tiny shovels
searching for the ancient, eternal
word of Life that was breathed first
below the roots, and then into saplings,
into the nests in sycamore boughs,
into all.

Cease scratching and know; be known!

It is in the jutting limestone,
in sandstone, dolomite,
in the bill of Hawksbill Crag,
in the point Whitakers Point.

Cease scratching and know; be known!

It was spoken into seeds,
into ovum and ovum’s lover,
implanted so that it might be
a perpetual echo of the All
of all being.

Cease scratching and know; be known!

In the full faith of virgins,
in the cavernous, hollow caves–
yes, Word is there.
In the triumph, in the joy of death,
it springs from the river
whose streams make glad!

Cease scratching and know; be known!

There is Word under your nails,
in the creases of all knuckles.
In our hair down hill on borrowed bike,
in foundry callouses and sulfur burns.

Cease with tiny shovels, with claws of scratching! 

In the cousins, most–
we, in the midwinter of our todays–
before the coming of the spring flocks,
it finds Home most intimate,
most present,
most actual.

Thanks be to God!

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