Poetry Month This Week | What We’re Reading

In honor of the birthday of the Bard (April 23) and other springtime celebrations, the LJ/School Library Journal staff gets into e.e. cummings, rats, slugs, the well-deployed f-word, Poetry in Motion, and poems with people in ‘em for this week’s “yay, it’s National Poetry Month” WWR column.

Enormous SmallnessMahnaz Dar, Associate Editor, SLJ Reviews
I respect poetry as a format, even though it’s never been my personal favorite. However, I recently read a picture book about e.e. cummings, Matthew Burgess and Kris Di Giacomo’s Enormous Smallness: A Story of E.E. Cummings (Enchanted Lion), which inspired me to revisit this intriguing poet a bit more. Here’s a verse of his I love, an excerpt from the poem “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond”—which I was introduced to through the Woody Allen film Hannah and Her Sisters:

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
(i do not know what it is about you that closes

and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

Shelley Diaz, Senior Editor, SLJ Reviews
I was also charmed by Burgess and Di Giacomo’s picture-book biography Enormous Smallness: A Story of E.E. Cummings (Enchanted Lion). The book warmed my heart and reminded me of why I love the poet’s work so much. Now, I’m on a hunt for a lovely collection of his poetry I can add to my birthday wish list. Any recommendations? Brain Pickings has a lovely preview of the book with lots of sneak peeks at the art. In the meantime, here are a few words from the poet himself:

love is a place
love is a place
& through this place of
love move
(with brightness of peace)
all places

yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skillfully curled)
all worlds.

RatsLiz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
I admit it: I used the Internet to find a ratty poem. I’m still enthralled (and horrified) by Robert Sullivan’s discourse on the urban rat, Rats: A Year with New York’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants (Granta; the U.S. title, published by Bloomsbury USA, is Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants), and while I considered the rousing roar of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” as my Poetry Month ode, once I found Georgia-born poet David Bottoms’s “Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump,” I was hooked.

Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump
Loaded on beer and whiskey, we ride
to the dump in carloads
to turn our headlights across the wasted field, freeze the startled eyes of rats against mounds of rubbish.

Shot in the head, they jump only once, lie still like dead beer cans.
Shot in the gut or rump, they writhe and try to burrow into garbage, hide in old truck tires, rusty oil drums, cardboard boxes scattered across the mounds, or else drag themselves on forelegs across our beams of light toward the darkness at the edge of the dump.

It’s the light they believe kills.
We drink and load again, let them crawl
for all they’re worth into the darkness we’re headed for.

Lisa Peet, Associate Editor, News & Features, LJ
Most recently I’ve been revisiting Philip Levine, who died on Valentine’s Day of this year. I discovered him early on in my adult poetry reading life (as opposed to my childhood poetry reading, which mainly found me rather than the other way around), and always liked his down-to-earth sensibility and turns of phrase that would suddenly, surprisingly turn weird. I ended up at his Paris Review Art of Poetry interview with Mona Simpson from 1988—I especially love the place in which he both affirms and refutes the late bloomer ethos:

I always give the same advice. I say, Do it the hard way, and you’ll always feel good about yourself. You write because you have to, and you get this unbelievable satisfaction from doing it well. Try to live on that as long as you’re able. Don’t kiss anyone’s ass. Wait and be discovered or don’t be discovered. I think I did it the hard way. I didn’t kiss anyone’s ass; I waited a long time; I didn’t go to a school that would give me advantages. I didn’t publish a book that anyone read until I was forty. But to be utterly honest, I think if something hadn’t happened about then I might have become a very bitter man. It was getting to me. If I’d had to wait until I was fifty I don’t know what lousy things I might have done.

I appreciate his no-bullshit take on the world and on art. If I’d ever studied poetry—which I can’t imagine wanting to; I’m a consumer and not a producer—I would have wanted a teacher like him.

One of the aspects of my own poetry I like best is the presence of people who don’t seem to make it into other people’s poems. Much of our recent poetry seems totally without people. Except for the speaker, no one is there. There’s a lot of snow, a moose walks across the field, the trees darken, the sun begins to set, and a window opens. Maybe from a great distance you can see an old woman in a dark shawl carrying an unrecognizable bundle into the gathering gloom. That’s one familiar poem. In others you get people you’d sooner not meet. They live in the suburbs of a large city, have two children, own a Volvo stationwagon; they love their psychiatrists but are having an affair with someone else. Their greatest terror is that they’ll become like their parents and maybe do something dreadful, like furnish the house in knotty pine. You read twenty of those poems and you’re yearning for snow fields and moose tracks.

That’s fine stuff, even if I do own a Volvo stationwagon.

This, of course, led me into the dark hole that is the entire “Art of Poetry” series online: Mark Strand, Robert Pinsky, Elizabeth Bishop (more on her soon). Which leads me to the first poem I remember loving, at age four or five; the first poem I ever memorized (yes, all two lines of it); and the lines I would have tattooed on me if I were in the mood to do such a thing—Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Happy Thought”:

Happy Thought
The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.


Slugs in LoveEtta Verma, Editor, LJ Reviews
Robert Pinsky it ain’t, but we’re giggling at home over the poetry-filled love story of Herbie and Marylou, the stars of Susan Pearson’s Slugs in Love (Two Lions—check out the 2012 SLJ review here), illustrated by Kevin O’Malley. The gastropod romance starts when Marylou decides that she’s been admiring Herbie from afar for too long and admits her ardor by leaving him a poem written in her slime. Herbie’s flattered and would like to meet his mysterious admirer, but there are about 60 slugs in the garden—which one is she? His friend thinks she might be the brownish one…but they’re all brownish. Or the greenish one? That’s no help either. The poems fly back and forth, getting increasingly forlorn. Finally, Marylou draws an enormous arrow pointing to herself using, yes, slime, and the last spread shows the happy couple with their seven tiny slugs trailing behind.

Along with millions of other subway riders, I’ve for years enjoyed the New York MTA’s Poetry in Motion program, which displays poems on posters in subway cars. (The art they commission is wonderful too.) While I often think the entries suffer from having to be G-rated, so that some are a little dull, many gems have brightened my commute. A poem I saw this morning made me cry; it was “Heaven,” by Patrick Phillips. I hope he’s right.

It will be the past
and we’ll live there together.

Not as it was to live
but as it is remembered.

It will be the past.
We’ll all go back together.

Everyone we ever loved,
and lost, and must remember.

It will be the past.
And it will last forever.

Ashleigh Williams, Editorial Assistant, SLJ
I guess I’m a pretty big fan of some things that fall under the “lewd and crude” category. When Nickole Brown’s 2014 poem “Fuck” showed up on a leaflet in the book room here, I was thrilled, because it was all about that four-letter word that Ralphie got soaped in the mouth for using in A Christmas Story; the word that my mother has finally decided I’m grown-up enough to hear her say while we’re stuck in endless suburban traffic. I expected an ode to a dirty word, and all the cranky, crass ways to use it. But, the best writing subverts expectations, and Brown’s poem is actually a humorous and touching ode to her grandmother, a staunch Southern woman who carried “fuck” around with her like one carries a handbag. My favorite passage:

Fuck is what she said, but what she needed was a drum,
a percussion to beat story into song, a chisel tapping
to crack the honey from the meanest rock,
not just fuck if I know or fuck me running or fuck me
sideways or beats the fuck out of me but said tender,
knowing there was only one thing in this whole world
you needed to hear most: you fucker you, don’t you know
there wasn’t a day when you weren’t loved?




Liz French About Liz French

Library Journal Senior Editor Liz French edits nonfiction and women's fiction reviews at LJ and also compiles the "What We're Reading" and "Classic Returns" columns for LJ online. She's inordinately interested in what you're reading as well. Email: efrench@mediasourceinc.com, Twitter: @lizefrench


  1. E. A. Espinoza says:

    I don’t think it’s a vision of heaven Mr. Phillips is at all thrilled with. The poem has quite a dark heart, doesn’t it? Living eternally in the past seems pretty horrific to me. I think “not as it was to live” seals my case. Rather than making me cry, it makes me shudder.