In our column Poetry Rx, readers write in with a specific emotion and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match. This week, Claire Schwartz is on the line.
My best friend lost something he has been working on his whole life. Could you send me a poem that he could use right now?
Dear Caring Friend,
When you work on a project for a long time, that project can become your companion, confidante, sanctuary, challenge. I’m sorry about your friend’s loss. Still, how gorgeous your friend’s lifetime of making: that practice of sustained attention extends far beyond any finished product.
There’s a tree I love that, in its growing, encountered a rock and grew around it. Now the rock is part of the tree. Sometimes I imagine what the tree would look like if the rock were removed. What else might that space be? Respite for a squirrel? Hiding place for a child’s toy? A space for a teenager to cast her mind onto as she imagines the tree’s long and wild histories? The shape of the tree’s growth has been forever shifted by the way it’s held that rock, whether the rock is there or not. What your friend has made is lost, and he deserves to grieve that loss. As the grief settles, I hope he will find sustenance in exploring what his making has made of him. I would love to offer him Nicole Sealey’s poem “In Igboland,” from her extraordinary book Ordinary Beast. In it, the speaker beholds an elaborate mansion Igbo townspeople have built as an offering to a god. The speaker, suspended between her Western want and her African knowing, recommits to her own desire. The poem ends:
The West in me wants the mansion
to last. The African knows it cannot
Every thing aspires to one
degradation or another. I want
to learn how to make something
holy, then walk away.
Holy the making, holy the letting go. I hope your friend will walk toward the possibilities of new creation fortified by the knowledge that the work he has done on the project he has lost will serve whatever comes next.
I’m a teacher in Florida. I’m trying to make my students feel safe as I update my resume in case I have to resign. (I will if teachers start carrying guns on campus.) All I want to do is spread the love of words and literature. I don’t want this to be what my job turns into. I need a poetry prescription, docs.
Dear Concerned Teacher,
“What to do with this knowledge that our living is not guaranteed?” This is the question that opens Aracelis Girmay’s poem “Elegy.” Girmay writes:
Perhaps one day you touch the young branch
of something beautiful. & it grows & grows
despite your birthdays & the death certificate,
& it one day shades the heads of something beautiful
or makes itself useful to the nest.
Every day that you teach, Concerned Teacher, you “touch the young branch / of something beautiful.” You may not know what forms your students’ growth will take, but you nourish their wild possibility. “Listen to me,” Girmay writes. “I am telling you / a true thing.” The urgency of the speaker’s language pulls me close. Her sureness offers me a place to stand when I am unsure. In the same way, when all else is unsure, your students feel the sureness of your love of literature. Here’s a true thing: good teachers have made me possible. Here’s another: a poem is not a bulletproof vest, but a poem has made me want to stay alive. I know I am not the only one. I feel that life force when you write, “All I want to do is spread the love of words and literature.” Every day, you show up and do something you love. You are there with your students and you practice loving and you will until you cannot. Your students will go into the world with your gifts. Then those gifts will be theirs to grow. And there are lessons in leaving, too. Girmay reminds us:
… This is the only kingdom.
The kingdom of touching;
the touches of the disappearing, things.
I need a poem for paralysis. I know I need to get things done, but it feels easier to let deadlines and events come and go. I would rather struggle face-to-face with problems than take preventative measures. I am bad at wedding planning. Is there a good poem for motivation?
Hi Feeling Stuck,
Ouf, feeling stuck can be so frustrating! You have to summon a motivation you are, by definition, not experiencing. Sometimes, all it takes is that first small step toward the door, putting your clothes in a gym bag the night before, to build momentum. Sometimes once you begin, something will alchemize and you’ll become submerged in the task. Other times, though, there’s no magic. The real work is cultivating the habit of doing what you need to do—what you’ve committed to doing—even on days that feel all drudge and errand. That practice is a sacred thing. Someday, that daily ritual of doing the work well will comprise the fabric of your life. When my day feels hazy with vague distraction, I often turn to Marge Piercy’s “To be of use”:
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
I keep Piercy’s poem like a stone in my pocket. I touch it, and it sends me back to the task. You deserve not only to be with the people you love best, you deserve to be the person you love best. It’s not glamorous—“The work of the world is common as mud”—but it is beautiful. If you keep in mind that it serves the work, even the dullest errand assumes clarity of purpose.
Still, there are questions. Important ones. Piercy writes, “The thing worth doing well done / has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.” Why are you holding these tasks at bay? Does the work deserve your best self? Does the work serve your best self? And when I say self, I don’t mean ego or other shiny thing. I mean self-in-relation, self-in-world. Do the work of readying yourself. And then, like the person you love best, get to it.
Need a poem? Write to us. Next week, Kaveh Akbar will be answering questions.
Claire Schwartz is a Ph.D. candidate at Yale. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Apogee, Beloit Poetry Journal, Prairie Schooner, and Waxwing, and her essays, reviews, and interviews appear in Electric Literature, Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. Her chapbook bound is forthcoming in 2018.