It’s National Poetry Month again! Sometimes it’s difficult for me as a poet to remember just to love poems, to separate out my own complicated relationship with Being a Poet (and the mixed feelings connected to publishing, rejection, envy, self-doubt, self-promotion, etc.) from what brought me to poetry in the first place: poems say what my soul needs.
Of course, it’s not all poems. But a poem that hits me right—or even, sometimes, a few lines that hit me just right—hooks some non-physical part of me and takes it elsewhere. It’s been this way for me since I first pulled down an old Robert Frost book from my family’s bookshelves. It’s not my favorite Frost poem now, but I was struck by “Fire and Ice.” It was—and is—a sort of magic, where the meaning and the sound and the metaphor combine to push my mind towards an understanding that’s almost too big to fully know.
I think, for me, that challenge to my mind is part of the pleasure of poetry. I want it to be complex enough to satisfy my restless brain, but not unknowable (some readers take pleasure from poetry designed to not ever make “sense,” like Gertrude Stein’s work, but that doesn’t do it for me). And I want the poem to do something with the words and the form and the imagery that surprises me, make all those thoughts whizzing around in my head settle, for a moment, to contemplate this. And I want all that craft and poetic skill to mean something bigger, to reveal the human condition or the world in a way that makes me care about it. Heart, I want to call it. I want the poem to have a heart. But I don’t mean that word in the greeting card way; I mean something that circulates feeling, that keeps it vital. The poem needs to be alive.
Today I came across a poem posted on social media by a far-away friend: “Practice” by Ellen Bryant Voigt. Possibly my favorite thing about social media is when a friend posts a beautiful, necessary poem, and I happen to come across it at the right time and in the right frame of mind to let it strike me. In “Practice,” Voigt speaks to me of grief, and then of afterlife—is it heaven? rest? rebirth? An undefined “you” who is clearly someone beloved, and possibly the one the speaker is grieving for, claims “we’ll float between two worlds…until everyone we love is safe…” But really, the poem does so much more than make that beautiful claim.
you said. Afterward
we’ll float between two worlds—
five bronze beetles
stacked like spoons in one
peony blossom, drugged by lust:
if I came back as a bird
I’d remember that—
until everyone we love
is safe is what you said.
So that amazing idea of what after-death is like—well, that’s part of the pleasure of this poem. But so is the interruption of that idea by the vivid image of the peony and the beetles “stacked like spoons” (a simile that brings in yet another image, and has us pairing an outside image with an inside one). The poet then shifts our response to the image quickly from beauty to lust to yearning (“if I came back as a bird”) to survival and the cycle of life, “I’d remember that” implying the bird would swoop down to eat at least one of the beetles. The speaker thinking about the form she might take in rebirth also shows her doubt, how she may want to but she doesn’t fully believe what the “you” said.
The final two lines, set off as a couplet after three five-line stanzas, bring us back to the idea of “floating.” In a fascinating twist, this vision of the afterlife isn’t just about what the soul experiences—“what it’s like”—but about the floating as another in-between space, where one exists “until everyone we love/is safe.” The poet has to remind us that this is a poem about grief, about this other person, and that she’s repeating this beautiful idea out of a yearning to believe it, not because she actually believes it. So the lines actually read:
until everyone we love
is safe is what you said.
I have lost people I loved, and I don’t know what happens to us after death. I want to believe in an afterlife where “everyone we love is safe.” I want to believe in a life where that is true, too. Today, I got my second dose of the vaccine against COVID-19. My friends and family members are getting vaccinated. Of course that won’t make us safe from everything that could go wrong, but it certainly feels like a step towards safety, away from the weird dread/fear/boredom/worry/sorrow of this past year.
Sometimes the poem has to enter my life when I can hear it best, when my preoccupations are already playing in a similar key. I think we need to give ourselves permission as readers—or whenever we are exposed to art—to recognize that not every piece of art will speak to us as it speaks to others, when it speaks to others. My recommendation is to keep yourself as open as possible to whatever poetry can give to you. Read, write, and share it. You never know who might find just what they need in a poem you shared.