As April, that cruelest month, is National Poetry Month and this Thursday is “Poem in Your Pocket” day (read all about it here), the LJ and SLJ staffers share their favorite poems and poets with you. Which poem will you carry with you on Thursday?
Mahnaz Dar, Associate Editor, Reviews, SLJ
My favorite poem of all time is an oldie but a goodie. “Resumé” by Dorothy Parker! It’s dark and mordantly funny—what more can you ask from your poetry?
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
Well, you can also ask for a side of social justice. I’m also a huge music buff, and song lyrics being poetry, technically, I’m also sharing a snippet from Bob Dylan’s “The Hurricane,” a song in which Dylan describes the plight of Rubin Carter (1937–2014), an African American boxer who was wrongfully imprisoned for murder (and who, incidentally, passed away this weekend):
Rubin Carter was falsely tried
The crime was murder “one” guess who testified
Bello and Bradley and they both baldly lied
And the newspapers they all went along for the ride
How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?
To see him obviously framed
Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game.
Kate DiGirolomo, Editorial Assistant, LJ
Poetry is admittedly not my cup of tea (funnily enough tea is not my cup of tea either, but I digress). However, there is one poem that I can recite on demand; one poem that brings back nostalgia in waves and makes me want to shout a hearty, “Let’s do it for Johnny!”: Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” which was the thematic force driving The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (Penguin). Perhaps I was enamored of the image of a Greaser effortlessly reciting poetry toward the setting sun, or perhaps Ponyboy was my middle-grade spirit animal (he was), but in either case that poem has made a permanent home in my consciousness and I do believe that The Outsiders is calling me for another read. And, well, I’ll just let Johnny explain the rest to you:
“I’ve been thinking about it, and that poem, that guy that wrote it, he meant you’re gold when you’re a kid, like green. When you’re a kid everything’s new, dawn. It’s just when you get used to everything that it’s day. Like the way you dig sunsets, Pony. That’s gold. Keep that way, it’s a good way to be.”
Liz French, Senior Editor, Reviews, LJ
Like my colleagues Kate and Ashleigh, I, too, thought I wasn’t much of a poetry person. Then I stopped to think about that statement and realized it’s the bunk. Here’s me and June Brady trying to scare our classmates by killing the lights in the girls’ restroom and intoning the opening stanzas of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” at P.S. 84. Here’s the fourth-grade English class learning the poems (and stories) of “Hoosier Poet” James Whitcomb Riley. And here is me in my Beat period, digging the works of Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, all the cool cats. I always enjoyed reading about wild bohemian bards and their shenanigans: Edna St. Vincent Millay; Arthur Rimbaud; Paul Verlaine. And speaking of (Tom) Verlaine, how about all those punk poets! Jim Carroll! The Fugs! Maggie Estep! Patti Freakin’ Smith! How in the world could I think I’m not a poetry person?
OK, so the poem in my pocket on Thursday will be “This Be the Verse,” by librarian and poet Philip Larkin.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Barbara Genco, Special Projects Manager, LJ
My favorite 20th-century poet remains William Carlos Williams. I took a semester-long major figure class in his life/work while I was at college. There are just so many great poems by Williams but two short (and widely known) favorites of mine are:
“The Red Wheelbarrow”
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
“This Is Just To Say”:
I have eaten
that were in the icebox
you were probably
saving for breakfast
they were delicious
and so cold
But then there is Allen Ginsberg and this resonate homage to Brooklyn’s beloved Walt Whitman:
“A Supermarket in California”
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache
self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went
into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families
shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the
avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, Garcia Lorca, what
were you doing down by the watermelons?
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber,
poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the
pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans
following you, and followed in my imagination by the store
We strode down the open corridors together in our
solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen
delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in
an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the
supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The
trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Director, Content Strategy & Audience Development, LJS
I know it’s National Poetry Month, but I have a dirty little open secret: I don’t actually read a lot of poetry. I have my go-to favorites (eg: Charles Bukowski, Willie Perdomo, Patricia Smith), and a handful of anthologies that I turn to regularly (Aloud, Unsettling America), but I generally prefer my poetry in oral form or in small bites via magazines like the Oxford American. That said, one could make an argument that (some) music is poetry, so I consider myself covered with my current read, The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ’n’ Roll by Preston Lauterbach (Norton, 2011). Elvis Presley and his iconic contemporaries stand on the shoulders of hundreds of black artists and promoters from the 1940s and 1950s, and Lauterbach tells their story with a poetic flair of his own: “Everybody living on top of and in front of each other lent the weekly Indianapolis Recorder a penetrating vitality. It kept a second-story office halfway between the pawnshops and the hospital, where it saw and reported on everything. You might open it Saturday afternoon and learn who your sweetheart was seeing on the side, go find the cheaters in a café, cut their asses in front of everybody, and end up in the next edition.”
Rebecca Miller, Editor-in-Chief/Editorial Director, LJS
This year I’ll be carrying an Earth poem in my pocket. I have had this poem in my life since I was a kid—as it was written and originally drawn by my father. There is a calligraphy version at my house. Here is a scan of a photocopy of a typeset version I keep in my office:
Meredith Schwartz, Senior Editor, News & Features, LJ
I don’t have a single favorite, but the poem in my pocket will be “Spring” by Edna St. Vincent Millay:
To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
Etta Verma, Editor, Reviews, LJ
The poem in my pocket on Thursday will be “Borges at the Northside Rotary,” by David Kirby. It concerns his feelings upon reading his work to the members of a rotary club and having one of them (“the Nice Rotarian”) ask that perennial question—what is poetry? I heard Kirby read this poem when the book it appeared in, The House on Boulevard St., was a National Book Award finalist. Like the best poetry, he was funny and touching.
Not strictly poetry (but if Mahnaz can do it, I can, too) is a John Lennon lyric that I try to live by. It comes from his wonderful “Instant Karma”: “Why in the world are we here? Surely not to live in pain and fear.”
Ashleigh Williams, Editorial Assistant, SLJ
As an English major, I’m embarrassed to admit that poetry has always been a foreign beast to me. Rhythm, rhyme, line breaks; these were all things I could analyze, but couldn’t emulate. And who wants to follow all those rules, anyway? But there’s so much freedom in contemporary poetry. Fearless female poets like Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Gwendolyn Brooks showed me that poetry isn’t just a style—it’s an incredibly effective vehicle for social commentary, for despair, and for rage. The feverishly enchanting lyricism of Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights,” and Brooks’s staccato masterpiece “We Real Cool” give me chills with every reading. Lorde captures the complications of navigating social justice as a queer woman of color in her striking poem, “Who Said It Was Simple”:
There are so many roots to the tree of anger
that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.
Poetry had always struck me as dry and dusty until these talented women proved it can be raw, ferocious, and very much alive.