The Poem Stuck in My Head
January 16, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
When my brother and I were small, our parents would read to us each evening. When it was my mother’s turn, she generally read poetry. I don’t know from which children’s collection she read, but it was terrifying: in particularly heavy rotation (at my request) were “Don’t Care,” in which the insouciant protagonist is made to care by being “put in a pot / and boiled til he was done,” “Ozymandias” (I found the idea of the head lying in the sand frightening), and my favorite, “Strange Visitor.”
When I decided to find the poem online, I came across several variations; in the original, compiled by the folklorist Sir George Douglas, the dialect is Scottish; in other adaptations (including that anthologized by George Jacobs) more modern English. The plot is always the same: a woman, sitting at her spinning wheel, wishes for company. A series of mismatched, disembodied parts come in—knees, shoulders, neck, hands—and the figure gives a series of gnomic answers to her questions. “What have you come for?” she asks at last. “FOR YOU!” the reader shouts, leaving any listening children in a state of blissful petrification. The following is Douglas’s transcription, and his stage directions.
January 7, 2013 | by Lorin Stein
If you grew up going to church, you already know Psalm 139. Even if you didn’t, parts of it are floating around your brain. It is a favorite of pro-life people, because it talks about God recognizing us in the womb, taking care of us, and knowing how we’ll turn out. (It is also—I’d bet money on this—the source of our hundred-year-old American expression “search me.”)
Psalm 139 gets my vote for being the most beautiful of the psalms in the King James version. The other day I happened to read it in French and it left me cold—it conjured up surveillance—whereas the high-low diction of the King James translators sings and is intimate, because you would only sing this way to a God you loved: “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me.” It’s like an advertisement for the English language. Read More »
November 12, 2012 | by Ali Pechman
Liars and lovers often find themselves to be bedfellows. It seems to follow that government officials will forever have to publicly disentangle the lies they tell about their lovers. But a scandal, after all, means evidence or admission, the end of the lie. Only the person who kept it secret so long knows the real terror of the birth and life of the lie, and perhaps it is poetry, rather than the news cycle, that is sensitive enough to trace a portrait of such a slippery subject.
After hearing about the resignation of David Petraeus on Friday, I immediately turned to the Dylan Thomas poem “I Have Longed to Move Away.” I first read it, by chance, when I was harboring a huge lie myself, one that had seemed to follow me into the pages of an innocuous-looking poetry book on a friend’s shelf, opened at random. From the first line, the poem not only captures the feeling one gets from living the worst lies; it seduces liars themselves. Like the speaker, I longed in that moment to move away to some foreign place, at least on the page, but once I’d begun the journey, I was led back where I’d come from: there was my lie, staring me down again in the next line. The steady meter interrupts on the unexpected and sinister “hissing,” then come the strong two beats of that unavoidable “spent lie” which is equated to a “continual cry.” It is not just a lie; it has been assigned a heavy weight and value by meter, rhyme, and meaning.
July 11, 2012 | by Eli Mandel
Sometimes in life you get yelled at. No matter your moral fiber, it can’t be avoided all the time. It happens in Marine Corps boot camp; it happens in rush-hour subway cars; it happens if your mother catches you reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover at an impressionable young age. But one place you don’t expect to get harangued, one place where the lid’s supposed to stay on the pot, is poetry.
So cracking open D. H. Lawrence’s seemingly innocuous Birds, Beasts, Flowers is a bit of a shock. Lawrence is, of course, better known for his novels and short stories; verse can unleash in him an irritating Whitmanesque mania, an exhibitionist verbal autoeroticism. But that’s not the case here. You flip past the title page and the index to the first poem, “Pomegranate,” and before your eyes can adjust to the typeface, you’re in trouble. Big trouble:
June 20, 2012 | by Andrew Sean Greer
Nothing suits me as well as the combination of sweet and sour. It explains my love of Thai food and women rockers who sing like robots about heartbreak. It also explains my love of Frederick Seidel’s poetry. Apparently it’s not to everyone’s taste; he has been called the “Darth Vader of American poetry” for such seemingly cruel lines as “A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare.” Of course, that line is in a poem, “Climbing Everest,” about his own mortality, his own nakedness (a “train wreck”), and the coldness of those words allows the rest to work on us. And I suppose one must have a mind of winter, and been cold a long time, to write a poem about a dying dog: “Spin.”
Which is the poem stuck in my head.
A dog named Spinach died today.
In her arms he died away.
Injected with what killed him.
Love is a cup that spilled him.
Spilled all the Spin that filled him.
Sunlight sealed and sent.
Received and spent.
Smiled and went.
I make my creative-writing students memorize and recite poetry; I want to embed a few lines of precise language and meter in their brains, like a sleeper cell, to be activated when they are at a loss for imagery or words. To prove it can be done, I memorize a new poem every week. So you would think I’d have a multitude swimming around up there. But the one poem that always snakes its way up—intact—through the debris of memory is also the only poem that, when I recite it before my class, makes them break into tears.
May 17, 2012 | by Sam Munson
Edward Lear was born two hundred years ago this month. His reputation, which has outlived many others, rests largely on a book of limericks published when he was thirty-four and a single poem, appearing twenty-one years later, that begins (as you all know, or should):
The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat
They took some honey, and plenty of money
Wrapped up in a five-pound note