Happy National Poetry Month!

April is National Poetry Month and I’m involved in several events though my community college that celebrate the crafting and speaking of the written word. I participated in a panel discussion yesterday about Why Art Matters and the student creative writing group that I advise will be hosting an open mic event in a few weeks.

In the spirit of National Poetry Month and all that we do to celebrate it, I give you my top five favorite poems. These are poems I remember, these are poems I share in my classes and these are poems that are important to me not only because of their language and subject but because they stir up memories.

1. The Fish~ Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled and barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
–the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly–
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
–It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
–if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels–until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go. 

This is the first Elizabeth Bishop poem I ever read and it started my love affair with her and her work. If you read my blog at all, you know how much I love her. This poem introduced me to the idea of poetry making the ordinary extraordinary and it also made me realize how important observation and image are to making successful poetry.

2. Those Winter Sundays~Robert Hayden 

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

I love this poem because it reminds me of my father and my grandfather and all the men I’ve met in my life that work hard for their families. It is a sad poem but also a celebratory poem. I think it speaks a truth that many of us can relate to.

3.  A Blessing~James Wright

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

I chose this poem to be read at my wedding, so if that’s isn’t a testament to how much I love it, I don’t know what is. I had horses growing up and I think what attracted me to this poem at first was how perfectly Wright captured their mannerisms. Later, I admired the final lines of the poem and the subtle way in which Wright wrote a poem about love without all the bells and whistles.

4. What the Living Do~Marie Howe


Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It's winter again: the sky's a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat's on too high in here and I can't turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I've been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:
I am living. I remember you.
I am naturally attracted to poets who write about grief. I think it is because I wrote many of my first poems while I was grieving, so Marie Howe’s poetry resonates with me very strongly. If I were to be honest, I would just list her book What the Living Do, because it is one of my favorites.

5. The Floating~ Katrina Vandenberg  

When he was dying, she stayed with him all night,
but one night, restless. she walked around a corner
and found a dim hall full of children's breathing
rising from small white beds. She had drifted into
the flating, the children's hospital boat
being rocked to sleep in the harbor again
the way it was a hundred summers ago.
The horizon of her life had vanished--traffic
lights, students with Chinese food takeout boxes
stories down. Now bustled dresses drooped
over the backs of chairs: now immigrant mothers
in flimsy shifts bent over beds and whispered,
tendrils of their hair escaping their tidy knots,
their feet unsteady on the pitch of breath.
This poem is from Vandenberg’s book Atlas. I love this book and this is my favorite poem from the the collection. It is haunting and beautiful and a little bit like a dream.

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