Sunday, April 01, 2012

Happy Poetry Month + Poem: Elizabeth Alexander

Happy Poetry Month! (Yes, I know I left off the "national," since my poetry interests, like poetry itself, crosses all borders, especially national ones.) I have been reading David Orr's beautiful and pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry (New York: Harper Perennial, 2011), and it's gotten me thinking that one angle I might consider for poems this month are ones that comment directly on poetry itself. Of course all poems in various ways undertake this, but I'm thinking of poems that self-consciously articulate poetry as their subject, that pose direct questions about what poetry is or isn't, does or cannot do, that focus on the metapoetic, while embodying and enacting their understandings of poetry's powers or lack thereof. I may not stick strictly to this subset of poems, but I do want to see how they speak to each other if assembled together. What I won't be doing is offering my potted exegeses of the poets or poems this year. The trend on the net is towards minimalism of commentary (think Twitter, Facebook's like culture, all those YouTube links without even an introduction that friends send, or at least mine do, etc.), so I'll mostly be posting just the names of the poets and their poems--oh, why am I even saying this, I very well may start blabbing my mouth (or running off at the keyboard), but if there's little commentary, you're forewarned.

(A caveat: in past years with my poetry month postings I have tried not to post poems by peers I am close to, current colleagues, students or others whom I'm close to because I do not want to feature certain folks and miss others, so I'm going to aim to do this again, but let me just say, if I do not post one of your poems, it does not mean I dislike or dishonor you or your poetry. As regular J's Theater readers know, I post poems throughout the year, and have highlighted many poets at various times.)

© Yale Daily News
I'm going to begin with one of my favorite poets, Elizabeth Alexander (1962-), who is also an essayist, scholar, and fiction writer (I remember when she published a story in the Village Voice umpteen years ago). She is also our most recent inaugural poet (2008) and the Thomas Donnelley Professor of American Studies and the Chair of the African American Studies Department at Yale University. (She is also one of the smartest people I know and an incredibly lovely person, and I've been fortunate to have her as a teacher a few times at Cave Canem, and can say that her students are very lucky to have her there.) Here is one of her poems about poetry--she has written a number of them--from her book American Sublime (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2005), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. (You see, I have to do what people I grew up with called my "propers," you know, giving a little bit of the goodness as introduction. Brevity, blah!) Anyways, here is Elizabeth's poem:


Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry

is where we are ourselves,
(though Sterling Brown said

“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I’”)
digging in the clam flats

for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.

Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,

overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way

to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)

is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

Copyright © Elizabeth Alexander, from American Sublime, Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2005. All rights reserved.

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