Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bring Out Your Poems

Judy Grahn Judy Grahn with Chris Brandenberger: The Earring. Oakland, California, 1988; photo by Robert Giard

Bring Out Your Poems

April is National Poetry Month, and since one of my primary identities is as a poet, I would be remiss if I did not avail myself of the opportunity to participate/invite you to participate in the Favorite Poem Project. (Flourishing hat tip to Batocchio at Vagabond Scholar for the links and idea.)

The Favorite Poem Project is "Americans saying the poems they love". Their website states they are "dedicated to celebrating, documenting and encouraging poetry’s role in Americans’ lives. Robert Pinsky, the 39th Poet Laureate of the United States, founded the Favorite Poem Project shortly after the Library of Congress appointed him to the post in 1997."

I own a battered copy of Pinsky's The Sounds of Poetry, and have used it often to help me break through a poetic block. Before I became housebound, every mid April for a decade found me reading my work at the Austin International Poetry Festival, where I heard marvelous work from around the world and always had a poem chosen for the juried anthology.

In lieu of that energizing experience, I'm going to open up the comments to you all, asking you to share your favorite poem. One only, please, and NOT your own work or that of your best friend/brother/sweetheart/child. Choose a poem which has substantially affected you in some way, which you might know by heart, and if you must talk about why, save that for after you give us the poem, so it can do its work first. If the poem is long, or the formatting is difficult, try to find where it might be printed online and give us the link instead. I promise I'll go read it.

I won't ask you to avoid song lyrics, although I find most lyrics actually don't stand on their own if you've never heard the music. However, the genius of Paul Simon, Lennon/McCartney, and James Taylor, for example, produces verse that I believe will stand the test of ages as poetry. I've often thought if I could write a poem as complete as Taylor's "Millworker", I'd die satisfied.

I receive a poem daily in my e-mail via my subscription to The Writer's Almanac, and it's always interesting to me to read what others are writing and appreciating, even when I don't see how on earth that particular poem made the cut. Art seeps into and out of every nook and cranny in human culture, it's how we imagine the world that is due us, and poetry, in particular, is its own language: Metaphor is how our brains process language and experience, more than any other mechanism (the other two primary tools being music and mathematics). That's why every successful revolution has poets at its core.

To kick things off, I abided by my own rules above, although it was terribly difficult to choose between Frost, Dickinson, Millay, and Hughes. Still, I eventually settled on "A Woman Is Talking To Death" by Judy Grahn, which I find the most important poem I've read in my life. (I've been blessed enough to have heard her read it out loud, in its entirety, twice, and I can still hear sections of it in her voice. It's a gem to read aloud.) I refuse to use Group News Blog for blog-whoring, but the fact is, I have a post at my own blog which has all of "A Woman Is Talking To Death", and since I had to type it out myself then because it wasn't on the web anywhere, and since her anthology (The Work of a Common Woman) may be out of print, I'll link to this beautiful examination of sex, race and gender here. (My post also has biographical information about Judy Grahn and links to her other places on the web.)

As a second choice, and to give you a taste of Judy Grahn, here's a one-stanza untitled poem by her that literally shaped my life in more ways than I can describe:

I'm not a girl
I'm a hatchet
I'm not a hole
I'm a whole mountain
I'm not a fool
I'm a survivor
I'm not a pearl
I'm the Atlantic Ocean
I'm not a good lay
I'm a straight razor
Look at me as if you had never seen a woman before
I have red, red hands and much bitterness

© Judy Grahn