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, Sarah Kay is on the line.
After a long separation, I spontaneously invited an ex-fling to join me on a trip across Europe. Given our delightfully sordid past, I assumed the trip would be full of flirting and playful sex. Not the case. He showed up entirely disinterested in me, was boorish about my plans and ideas, and spent every spare moment texting other women back home. It was supposed to be a steamy jaunt with my favorite bad boy—but it was more like babysitting a sullen teenager for two weeks.
Prior to this trip, I had some long-lingering feelings and hopes about us as a pair. Suffice it to say, I’m over it. So while I’m not exactly heartbroken—this is no breakup—I still feel like I’m mourning the end of a long fantasy and confronting the reality of his indifference. Do you have a poem for this type of finality: when you at last see the truth of a situation, swallow it uncomfortably, and move on at last?
Dear Wrong Girl,
I feel like you have chosen an incorrect name, and that you are more like the Right Girl, but with the Wrong Guy. More specifically, you are the Right Girl who has fallen for the age-old trick of falling for the Fantasy Guy, but winding up with the Actual Guy Who, As It Turns Out, You Might Not Actually Like That Much. I want to recommend Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “Waiting for Icarus.” The poem begins:
He said he would be back and we’d drink wine together
He said that everything would be better than before
He said we were on the edge of a new relation
He said he would never again cringe before his father
He said that he was going to invent full-time
He said he loved me that going into me
He said was going into the world and the sky
He said all the buckles were very firm
He said the wax was the best wax
I love this poem, because it suggests that women have been falling for the myth of men, in lieu of the real man in front of us, since … well, mythical times. It is easy to get swept up in the stories we tell ourselves about people, especially when they are far away. A long separation paired with a few hot memories is a dangerous cocktail. The end of Muriel’s poem goes:
I remember the girls laughing
I remember they said he only wanted to get away from me
I remember mother saying : Inventors are like poets,
a trashy lot
I remember she told me those who try out inventions are worse
I remember she added : Women who love such are the
Worst of all
I have been waiting all day, or perhaps longer.
I would have liked to try those wings myself.
It would have been better than this.
The voice of the “girls laughing” and the narrator’s mother insisting that “Women who love such are the worst of all” stings terribly, and reminds me of the voices we carry around in our heads after something like this happens: I should have known better, I was so stupid, how embarrassing, etc. But I hope you can move through those voices to the last two lines of the poem. You deserve your own wings; you can have epic adventures without any myth or man to carry you. You do not need to reach the sun or fulfill a fantasy—just flying around in this stratosphere is enough. As long as you are doing it with someone whom you actually enjoy, who shows up for you and treats you the way you deserve.
I just called out my harasser from college on Twitter. I’m anxious, scared, and tired. This is such a great and horrible time to be a woman. Can you please recommend a poem for a tired soul?
Dear Tired Soul,
I want to recommend a whole collection to you, called Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism. It is full of poems that explore the many ways it is both a great and horrible time to be a woman. The ways we are tired, the ways we are fighting, the great distances we have come, and the immense distances we have to go. Today, I would specifically point you to Denice Frohman’s poem, “A Woman’s Place,” which begins:
i heard a woman becomes herself
the first time she speaks
then, every word out of her mouth
& point to the map of your body
& wear your skin like a gown or a suit
& cast yourself in the lead role
when a girl pronounces her own name
there is glory
when a woman tells her own story
she lives forever
all the women i know are perennials—
soft things that refuse to die
I hope you continue to tell your own story and point to the map of your body and say, “brave.” Speaking without permission, being a soft thing that refuses to die—you are already doing this. As a coincidence, you mentioned Twitter as the platform on which you chose to speak out. Twitter actually tapped Denice to use an excerpt of this poem for a video they made, featuring a multigenerational group of women from twenty to eighty-two, that premiered during the 2018 Oscars telecast. I love so many of Denice’s poems, and I especially love watching her perform them, so peek at that video (and others of hers!) when you get a chance. Now if only Twitter were better at supporting and protecting the people who face and report harassment on their platform…
I am currently taking a poetry class in college, and even though my friends do not consider it a serious discipline, it is the class I enjoy the most. I want to study literary arts, but everyone is telling me that there are no prospects, that poetry is a hobby, that it’s just something “nice to have.” What poems can I give them to show that poetry can be more? How can I justify that poetry is an endeavor and pursuit in its own right? What words of fortitude, wisdom, or self-reassurance do you feel confident in giving?
Dear Nervous Wreck,
I hate that “hobby” is being used as an insult. A hobby is something you do outside the mechanics of capitalism or industry because you love it, and because it brings you something the other things in your life do not. Is that a good enough reason to write and read poetry? Absolutely. Does studying literary arts mean you will end up a professional poet (whatever that means)? Not necessarily. Is that the only outcome that justifies this direction of study? Also no. Nobody can predict the job market or what jobs will exist in five years, so I think focusing on becoming an excellent communicator, a critical and creative thinker, a careful reader, and a generous collaborator, all while deeply enjoying what you’re studying, is quite reasonable. (I also do not think you need to study poetry in a formal college class in order to be a poet, of course, but since the opportunity is in front of you and you already love it, for goodness sake, don’t let others talk you out of it.)
Trying to justify poetry is frustrating to me, because it suggests that poems need to fit into a very narrow and reductive definition of useful. What I really want to tell you is to get new friends who trust you and offer you support and enthusiasm regardless of your interests! But I also empathize. If what you want is to prove to your friends that there is a career in poetry, it makes me grit my teeth to even give them a response, but perhaps you can share with them that according to the global information company The NPD Group, the “poetry book” category in the United States has grown at a compound annual growth rate of twenty-one percent since 2015, making it one of the fastest growing categories in publishing. A poetry book reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list in 2017, and sold over a million copies. According to new NEA findings, in the past five years, the number of poetry readers in the United States has almost doubled to a total of twenty-eight million adults. This is the highest number the NEA has seen since 2002. The largest increase in poetry readership in the past five years has come from young people ages eighteen to twenty-four, and from African American, Asian American, and other nonwhite readers. And that’s just books. Online, folks who have been nicknamed “instapoets” have gained global audiences. Twelve of the top twenty best-selling poetry authors in 2017 were so-called instapoets. Button Poetry is a popular Youtube channel with a hundred thousand subscribers that features videos of poetry performances that collectively boast two hundred million views. And these are just the most obvious ways that people are making lives out of poetry. Others are also touring artists, professors, sociologists, comic book writers, young-adult fiction writers, TV writers, youth mentors, podcast hosts, librarians, activists, musicians, actors and producers, cultural critics, and the list goes on and on. There are so many people finding innovative ways to be poets. And that’s also just in this country! The range gets even wider and more impressive outside the U.S. I very rarely engage in trying to justify poetry, because it reminds me of a tweet I read from a professor of poetry and creative writing at Newcastle University that said, “Poetry [is] the Schrödinger’s Cat of Journalism: First place in a box so you don’t have to bother about it, then wonder if it is alive or dead.” It frustrates me that people who spend none of their time engaging with poetry relegate it to a box and then declare it dead. But I also consider myself impossibly lucky to have a front-row seat to the many ways that poetry is alive—thriving, growing, changing lives and cultures, reaching new audiences every day. Making money off of poetry is possible, though it’s certainly hard work. It’s also not the main reason to write and read poems.
Ok. Phew. Now for your poem. I want to share with you Good Bones by Maggie Smith. The poem begins:
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake.
When I first read this poem, it was a few days after the 2016 massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The poem brought me to tears, and I wasn’t the only one. So many people were searching for language in a moment of overwhelming grief, and they found this poem. It was shared online by Caitlin Moran, Alyssa Milano, Megan Mullally, Jenny Slate, and it kept going. Articles have been written about the poem in the Guardian, Slate, The Seattle Review of Books, and the Washington Post, which noted that the poem has now been interpreted into a dance by a troupe in India, turned into a musical score for the voice and harp, and been translated into Spanish, Italian, French, Korean, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam. Whenever the news turns especially bad, this poem surfaces again, shared from person to person. “I can tell something bad is happening in the world when my poem is surging,” Maggie has said. I don’t tell you all this so that you can impress your friends, because a poem does not have to go viral to be vital. I tell you this so that you remember that poems have the immense power to move people, to connect people, to offer language in moments when language seems impossible. There is a reason people reach for poems for weddings, funerals, protests, inaugurations, when they fall in and out of love—poems take the knot inside you, untangle it, and give it a way out. Or they take the knot outside you, untangle it, and give it a way in. Maggie’s poem ends:
I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
That’s a big part of what poetry offers me: a way to try and make this place beautiful.
Sarah Kay is a poet and educator from New York City. She is the codirector and founder of Project VOICE and the author of four books of poetry, including B, No Matter the Wreckage, The Type, and All Our Wild Wonder.