It’s National Poetry Month here in America and these are strange days all over. The great Major Jackson recently reminded us in his epic thread of tweets, “Dear Poets, these are times that call our art and talent into spiritual service and love.”
As poets, we bear witness, we walk into the fear, we shine a light to reveal what’s there in the darkness, and we name it. This week’s Palette featured poet Danielle Rose writes in her powerful piece “In It”, that “every poem is about naming things.” And poet Leslie McGrath posits in her own “Ars Poetica” — “To make / what Makers make / you must set aside / certainty.” Perhaps this is where many of us find ourselves at this particular moment in time— sitting with uncertainty, trying to name it, needing to make something out of it.
For April’s Poetry We Admire, we’ve picked some beauties that honor the art of poetry and what it may offer us in these uncertain times. Enjoy some incredible (mostly) new Ars Poetica from around the net, including Joy Priest in Virginia Quarterly Review Online, Pamela Hart in The Night Heron Barks, José Olivarez in Poetry Magazine, Paul Guest in The Adroit Journal, and Dean Young in Poem-a-Day.
when I can sing again
the unexpected. Gifts
dropped from my dead.
Messages I stop
to pick up. A hoof
half-buried in the ground.
from “Ars Poetica”
by Joy Priest in Virginia Quarterly Review
Joy Priest’s stunning poem likens the art of poetry to losing pieces of oneself and then picking them up and carrying them around to examine more closely. It’s what the poem refers to as a “collection of estranged selves.” I adore the serendipity in this Ars Poetica—the idea of poetry being received as messages or gifts from beyond. I love how the various objects in the poem are themselves powerful metaphors, such as the hoof half-buried in the ground. And I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more apt description of the poetic mind: “Outside / its case, the mind is a beehive / fallen in the wild grasses /of an abandoned playground.” So beautiful.
The first metaphors were small hands imprinted on a cave wall. The hands transforming
the body into a russet-petaled mirage that lives on despite or because of lack of light.
by Pamela Hart in The Night Heron Barks
The Night Heron Barks is a stellar new journal that made its impressive debut in Spring 2020 as a “Sanctuary for Poet & Poem.” Pamela Hart’s “Some Thoughts on Metaphor” was one of many bright lights in this inaugural issue. The poem starts with the premise, “To make a metaphor of her brother’s brain is to hold two or more different ideas in her hands. Like dissonance. One thing changing the other.” Then Hart goes on to ask, or really to assert, “Is everything metaphor.” From there, the poet takes us through a series of metaphors and dream imagery that reveal some intimate truths about the speaker/subject’s family. The poem’s tone effortlessly leaps from the levity of playful twists on familiar riddles and rhymes to the hauntingly real images of death and loss that we sensed in the shadows all along.
I was born mid-migration. I’ve made my home in that motion. Let me try again: I tried to become American, but America is toxic. I tried to become Mexican, but México is toxic. My work: to do more than reproduce the toxic stories I inherited and learned. In other words: just because it is art doesn’t mean it is inherently nonviolent.
from “Ars Poetica”
by José Olivarez in Poetry Magazine
This prose poem is something of a personal manifesto on migration as well as an Ars Poetica, a response to the question, “Why Poetry?” The rhythms here are striking and really drive the subject—all the starting and stopping, the way the poem seems to answer itself in a sort of call and response with the phrases that come after each colon. Here, the work of the poem is both personal and political, a process of self-discovery, representation, and truth-telling no matter the danger or risk involved. Poetry as the art of survival.
my poems are elaborate apologies.
I’m sorry for my lungs,
they say to the air,
and I’m sorry for Geraldo Rivera.
Which makes no sense.
I’m haunted by loss.
By the abrasive hymns that cicadas sing.
Breathless, and starving,
and full of pain.
by Paul Guest in The Adroit Journal
Here, the poet speaks directly to the reader. The poem is a form of conversation, and the poet listens to the songs all around him—the pop songs on the radio, the song of the cars whizzing by, the hymn of the cicadas, and the poet’s own song “beneath my breath/ my name my heart my old sad wound.” The non sequiturs and cultural references are engaging, and we as readers are invited inside the poet/narrator’s intimate “fantasias.” We share the seemingly small but crucial details that each of us will choose never to forget. I love how this gorgeous poem illustrates the fact that Ars Poetica can often be found in places where you weren’t expecting it, if you are looking for it, if you keep your channels open. Isn’t that what poetry is all about after all?
All poetry is a form of hope.
Not certain, just actual
like love and other traffic circles.
I cried on that airplane too,
midwest patchwork below
like a board game on which
mighty forces kick apart the avatars.
by Dean Young in Poem-a-Day
We cheated a little and reached back several months for this Dean Young poem because it is both brilliant and perfectly resonant with the current moment. Young gives us a master class on craft here with subtle slant rhyme, surprising turns, divine alchemy, and sentient imagery. We implicitly trust the narrator who tells us “When you’re probing the monster’s / brain, you’re probably probing your / own.” We comprehend in our bones the final lesson that “The blood may be fake / but the bleeding’s not.” The poem lives up to its bold opening line, “All poetry is about hope” so that when the idea is repeated a little later in the poem, I find myself no longer questioning its validity. The statement sinks in, becomes part of us, seeps into our cells: Poetry is a form of hope. And isn’t that something we all need right now?