I thought I’d write tonight about poetry and the kind of poems that move me. Ironically, the poems I call my “favorites” are nothing like the poems I actually write. I never realized this until this past summer when I was in a manuscript workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and asked a question about First Book Contests. I had asked whether or not it is a good thing to send your manuscript to a contest if your work is similar to that of the judge’s. I was advised that this actually wasn’t a good idea and that often the winning manuscript is one that couldn’t be more different than that of the judge’s. It was then that I started thinking of my favorite poems. My own poetry seems to mirror more of the experimental fiction that I admire, than that of some of my favorite poets.
A Poetic Collage of my Own
Now, on to some of my favorites.I’m a big Anne Carson fan (Who isn’t?) Carson’s “The Glass Essay” from Glass, Irony and God is one of my favorite poems, and one I often teach in writing workshops. I love the sections of the poem, the intimacy and of course, the Brontë reference. That line, “She knows how to hang puppies, that Emily” is just genius. She totally gets Brontës which was one of the reasons I became such a admirer. However, let me say that my book of choice by Carson is actually not Glass Irony and God, but The Beauty of the Husband. This is a book where the back cover really speaks volumes: “The Beauty of the Husband is an essay on Keats’s idea that beauty is truth, and is also the story of a marriage. It is told in 29 tangos. A tango (like a marriage) is something you have to dance to the end.” I first read this book long before I was married and thought it was so original and creative. I loved the allusions to Keats that were dispersed throughout the book. With this said, the book took on a new sense of meaning when I reread it around three years ago, after my divorce. It resonated on a completely different level and I was really stunned with how affected I felt. Your personal experiences in life alter your perception of a poem. Reading Carson’s “29 tangos” is really like a reading a screenplay for a movie. Each tango, short or long, is like a small cinematic scene. You really are watching each footfall in a dance that seems graceful. A dance that seems lovely. A dance that seems near-perfect, until suddenly, the floor lets loose below you.
Here’s an excerpt from tango XXIX:
XXIX IMPURE AS I AM (FOODSTAINS AND SHAME AND ALL) SO TOO MY CONCLUSIONS WHICH AT THE DOOR SCENT YOU AND HESITATE
To get them out of her the wife tries making a list of words she never got to say.
How have you been.
Fancy seeing you here.
I had given up hope I grew desperate why did you take so long.
Bloodless monster! Had I never
seen or known your
are a strange docile wheat are they not, they bend
to the ground.
no one was asking. Well Ray would have asked.
so for Ray let’s just finish it.
Not because, like Persephone, I needed to cool my cheek on death,
Not, with Keats, to buy time.
Not, as the tango, out of sheer wantonness.
But oh it seemed so sweet.
To say Beauty is Truth and stop.
Rather than to eat it.
Rather than to want to eat it. This was my pure early thought.
I overlooked one thing.
That the beautiful when I encountered it would turn out to be
prior–inside my own heart,
Another poet I admire is Michael Ondaatje. Most are familiar with his famous novel turned movie, The English Patient. The book reads like poetry, and so the movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott-Thomas also feels poetic.
Running in the Family is also a favorite of mine as it shifts seamlessly through genres; however, sometimes I prefer his poetry, especially his book: Secular Love. His Poem, “The Cinnamon Peeler’s Wife” is a favorite of mine.
Here are the first few lines in case you aren’t familiar with it:
“If I were a cinnamon peeler
I would ride your bed
and leave the yellow bark dust
on your pillow.”
It’s erotic, it’s visceral and it’s full of such gorgeous language. It also tells such a powerful narrative. Read the rest of it, here. My favorite poem of Ondaatje’s is the poem, “Insomnia” from Secular Love.
Here is an excerpt:
How many windows have I broken?
And doors and lamps, and last month
a tumbler I smashed into a desk
then stood over the sink
digging out splinters
with an awkward left hand
I have beaten my head with stones
pieces of fence
tried to tear out my eyes
these are not exaggerations
they were acts when words failed
the way surgeons
hammer hearts gone still
small parallel pain
in my finger
the invisible thing inside
on its voyage out
to the heart
Everyone has poetry books they cherish. These books are the ones you return to and are the ones that feel like home. What I love about poetry is that every poem in a book is its own thing and its own contained story. Every line has its own weight and feel. I know a book of poems resonates with me when I’ve read it in its entirety, from front to back, and over again. There a few books that I can honestly say this about, but the two I’ve mentioned tonight are precious to me.
What I love about poetry is that every person internalizes a poem differently. We all digest the poems we read at different rates and therefore at different times in our lives. Like with any story, we bring our personal lives to the page and that’s why poetry matters.Leah Umansky's first book, “Domestic Uncertainties,” is forthcoming from Blazevox. She received her BA in English/Creative Writing from SUNY Binghamton and her MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and is a recipient of a 1-week fellowship at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony. She is a contributing writer for BOMB Magazine’s BOMBLOG and a Poetry Reviewer for The Rumpus. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in: Barrow Street, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Contemporary Verse 2, Cream City Review, The Paterson Literary Review, and Magma Poetry. Read more at her blog i am my own heroine. Leah is the founder and host of COUPLET: a poetry and music series on the Lower East Side of NYC. Follow her on twitter (@lady_bronte )