Iowa City is a place of poets and aspiring writers of novels, memoirs, flash-fiction, and sermons. It’s a place of independent book stores, all-you-can-eat Indian buffets and Hawkeyes—everywhere—Hawkeyes. I hope to post some of the writing that has bubbled up for me at the Iowa Summer Writer’s Festival. But for now a simple note of gratitude.
First, I am grateful for my class, Poetry for Beginners (A Short Course in Attention) and for my teacher, Michael Morse, who taught me that, “More than intending, the poet ATTENDS!” How true this is (or should be) for pastors and preachers as well.
Michael introduced me to the Pantoum, the Ghazal, and the Sestina, specific kinds of poetry that I might have assumed were wild safari animals before taking this class. We discussed voice, image, metaphor, sound, and structure—the “ways in” to poetry. And we read poetry to each other—slowly, deliberately, thoughtfully. The reader of poetry, as James Tate describes, instinctively desires to peer between the cracks of the prayerful, haunted silence between the words, phrases, images, ideas and lines. This is what I’ve been doing all week and loving the luxury of it—because in between those lines of poetry lay observations of life I deeply appreciate.
I am constantly in awe of the ability certain poets have to name the mysteries of the universe, or call forth a beautiful, insightful philosophy, in a few, perfectly chosen words. The power of poetic language astounds me. For example, this poem by Nazim Hikmet blows me away.
It’s This Way
I stand in the advancing light,
my hands hungry, the world beautiful
My hand can’t get enough of the trees—
they’re so hopeful, so green
A sunny road runs through the mulberries,
I’m at the window of the prison infirmary.
I can’t smell the medicines—
carnations must be blooming nearby.
It’s this way:
being captured is beside the point,
the point is not to surrender.
Hikmet, a revered poet from Turkey often imprisoned for his socialist views, speaks deeply to me even though my life in no way compares to his. His point, though, of never surrendering to that which oppresses, or captures, or negates the beautiful, is universally insightful and helpful. What an astonishing poet! I’m so glad his poetry now graces my bookshelf.
Other new poets have found their way to my shelf as well: Bob Hicok, Elizabeth Bishop, and Stanley Kunitz. After learning that Marie Howe (still my favorite poet) studied with Stanley Kunitz, I quickly ran to buy his book. (And yes, my husband will roll his eyes at me when he sees my credit card statement from Prairie Light Books.) Kunitz had me at “hello,” though, or, the words of his brief foreword entitled, “Speaking of Poetry.” Here are a few of my favorite quotes:
Poetry, I have insisted, is ultimately mythology, the telling of the stories of the soul.
If we want to know what it felt like to be alive at any given moment in the long odyssey of the race, it is to poetry we must turn. The moment is dear to us, precisely because it is so fugitive, and it is somewhat of a paradox that poets should spend a lifetime hunting for the magic that will make the moment stay. Art is that chalice into which we pour the wine of transcendence. What is imagination but a reflection of our yearning to belong to eternity as well as to time?
Does one live, therefore for the sake of poetry? No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of life.
Thank you, to the poets, for another nourishing, contemplative, inspiring week in Iowa City—the land of my spiritual, summer pilgrimages.