Home » Poetry Moment
Category Archives: Poetry Moment
We’ve all been swirling around in the frenetic cloud of crazy that has been the last twelve months. For HoCoPoLitSo, one thing has settled out of the hubbub. Poetry is something that helps. Hearing poetry, reading verse, listening to another soul speak truth is a balm.
National Poet Laureate Joy Harjo explains it well.
“When I began to listen to poetry, it’s when I began to listen to the stones, and I began to listen to what the clouds had to say, and I began to listen to other. And I think, most importantly for all of us, then you begin to learn to listen to the soul, the soul of yourself in here, which is also the soul of everyone else.”
If there’s any time we need to listen to our souls, and to the souls of other folk, it’s now.
The Poetry Moment series was created as a response both to the pandemic and to the Black Lives Matter movement. Since 1974, HoCoPoLitSo has been deliberate in its inclusion of authors to represent the fullest range of human experience. We have long believed that opening a book, reading a poem, or attending a literary event can be a powerful humanistic journey of exploration, education, and enlightenment.
The project evolved from a broad-based poetry video series to focus for the first eleven weeks on amplifying the voices of Black poets who have visited our audiences. Later, we added the voices of poets of different backgrounds.
And in November, we started videotaping young actors from Howard Community College’s Arts Collective reading introductions to the archival video of poets and their work. Directed by Arts Collective’s Sue Kramer, these actors–Chania Hudson, Sarah Luckadoo, and Shawn Sebastian Naar–spent many Monday evenings learning about poetry, tripping over tricky names, and recording video introductions that help explain the poems to viewers. They handled their own styling, and even set up their own lighting and sets.
I asked the actors a few questions about the project and its evolution, and loved their responses. Naar, who portrayed Langston Hughes for HoCoPoLitSo’s 2019 Harlem Renaissance Speakeasy, has taken on roles for Spotlighter’s, Wooly Mammoth, Howard University, and the Kennedy Center. Hudson, who was the Harlem Renaissance Gwendolyn Bennett, is receiving her bachelor in fine arts from UMBC this spring in theater, and has played in many Arts Collective shows, as well as performances at UMBC and Rep Stage. Sarah Luckadoo is an actor, choreographer, movement coach, and teaching artist who has worked with the equity company Ozark Actors Theatre in Missouri, Red Branch Theatre Co., Laurel Mill Playhouse, HCC’s theater department, and of course Arts Collective.
The enthusiasm these actors brought to their work gave me such hope, and reminded me of when the 22-year-old inaugural poet Amanda Gorman read her uplifting lines on January 20:
We will not march back/
to what was/
but move to what shall be/
A country that is bruised but whole …
Perhaps watching a Poetry Moment featuring these young actors and the master poets will let a poem will take up residence in your bruised heart, and help you through the chaotic, difficult times ahead.
HoCoPoLitSo: Had you ever read poetry before?
Shawn Sebastian Naar: I have read poetry for performances (Langston Hughes, Shakespeare, Amiri Baraka, etc.) and I have read poetry recreationally for enjoyment (Maya Angelou, Shakespeare, Rupi Kaur, etc.)
Sarah Luckadoo: Yes! I was introduced to poetry at an early age and have always found myself drawn to it. My theater teacher in high school, who was also a published poet, was the driving force behind that love. Most, if not all, of the theater projects we did had some sort of poetry involved, including participating in the poetry recitation competition, Poetry Out Loud.
Chania Hudson: Yes! I’ve read poetry for HoCoPoLitSo and Arts Collective’s Harlem Renaissance event as Gwendolyn Bennett, and recently I read a few poems as Audre Lorde for Howard Community College’s Women’s Studies Salon: The Power Within virtual event.
HCPLS: If you did read poetry before, did you enjoy it?
SL: 100%! I love that poetry has this unique ability to tell full, intricate stories through its varying structures or even just a few words. It really shows how truly powerful words can be.
CH: Yes, I love reading poetry! I’ve found some of my favorite poems through working with HoCoPoLitSo.
SSN: Yes, I enjoy reading poetry. Reading great poetry is like listening to great music. When a poem or a song hits me in the right way and expresses a universal truth, it resonates deeply, and I am moved to tears or fits of laughter in the moment.
HCPLS: Did your perceptions of poetry change as we went through the project?
CH: I’ve always had a respect and love for poetry but this project turned my attention to the poet, and understanding the WHY of their poetry. It has felt like a behind the scenes look at how and why poems come to be.
SSN: Before this project, my personal selection of poetry was limited to more well-known poets or poets from school. Through this process, I’ve found some new favorite hidden gem poems, I’ve been introduced to Poet Laureates, and I even have some international poets that I’ve fallen in love with (Seamus Heaney, I’m looking at you).
SL: I’ve always enjoyed poetry, but this process has reignited the love I had for it. I hate to admit it, but I forgot what it felt like to just sit and read or listen to poetry. With the busyness from day to day and this “go go go” mentality, I’ve had a separation from it and this project made me realize how much I miss it.
HCPLS: Was there a favorite poem that you worked on (and why)?
SL: Such a hard question! I’ve honestly loved all of the poems I’ve worked on, but if I had to pick favorites it would probably be “blake” by Lucille Clifton and “Beijing Spring” by Marilyn Chin. “blake” was one of those poems that just reached out and grabbed me from the get-go … the words, the story, all of it. And I appreciated it even more when I discovered why Lucille Clifton wrote it and what she was trying to say. For “Beijing Spring” I particularly connected with it because of Marilyn Chin’s message of youth empowerment. She focuses on the innocence and determination of youth throughout history and demonstrates how they can quite literally move mountains to create change and defend their democratic rights.
CH: “Mrs. Wei Wants to Believe the First Amendment” by Hilary Tham, because it introduced me to a new perspective that I wasn’t fully aware of before reading it.
SSN: It’s tough to single out a favorite, but a couple poems of note would have to be Amiri Baraka’s “In the Tradition” and Josephine Jacobsen’s “Gentle Reader.” Baraka is one of my favorite playwrights and poets. The intensity of the passion and fire of “In the Tradition” is special. Conversely, I had never heard of Josephine Jacobsen before this project, but I love how she plays with opposites in “Gentle Reader.” The language is sensual, and the poem is sexy. Not what I expected at all from the refined Jacobsen and that is exactly what makes the poem brilliant.
HCPLS: Was there something you came across in the project that will stay with you?
CH: The majority of the poems featured will stay with me because of the way these poets have impacted their communities and the world around them. Each poem was like seeing the world through someone else’s eyes and I know that will stick with me for a while.
SSN: It feels to me that poetry gets overlooked sometimes in the arts. I’ve come across an incredible array of poets in this project and what will stay with me is the appetite for great poetry of the past, present, and future.
SL: In such an unprecedented time, it can be difficult to feel inspired or remember what good is left in the world. This project did both of those things. These poets shared stories about places, people, their lives–the good and the bad all wrapped together. What will stay with me is not only their stories, but their willingness to be vulnerable and share them. At the end of the day, we all have something to share, something to contribute and that’s pretty special.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Poetry Moment series producer
Up next for the Arts Collective is their What Improv Group! and “A Valentine Affair (from afar).”
To the usual five stages of grief, poet Taylor Mali adds a sixth–humor.
These days, many of us are progressing through the five stages of grief that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross named: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Sure, Shakespeare wrote, “To weep is to make less the depth of grief.” But what about laughter? With his poem “My Deepest Condiments,” Mali poses that humor can help one endure grief.
A four-time National Poetry Slam champion who studied at Oxford with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Mali hit it big with his poem “What Teachers Make.”
The New York Times called him “a ranting comic showman and literary provocateur.”
In his Writing Life interview, Mali cited Latin poet Horace, and his declaration that the task of the poet was to either instruct or to delight. The greatest praise, Horace said, should be reserved for those who can do both.
“I try to delight and I try to instruct. If I can’t do both of those, let me be merely delightful,” Mali explained. “The truth is that people are going to listen to the beauty of your words, and your words will find a deeper place and stay there if people can enjoy them on the way down.”
“My Deepest Condiments,” recited during his interview on The Writing Life, lingers on the small reprieves in grief that can sometimes arise.
The poem’s language–like “condiments” rhyming with “sentiments”–is playful, but the subject is serious, Mali’s father’s death. A friend’s letter of condolence arrives at Mali’s home, sending her “deepest condiments.” No one knows what to write in a sympathy card, but “deepest condiments” is probably not the best choice.
To Mali, riffing on the found poem of the card’s mistake, the gesture was “sweet relief.”
Laughter is the best medicine, so the saying goes, and this poem brings the funny, but in a bittersweet way. Because by the end, after the laughter, Mali returns to cry just a bit more.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
Poets write a particular kind of history. While they might cite dates and names, as normal history books do, what poets record is an essence, their personal and political stories distilled into lines that evoke eras.
Poet Carolyn Forché, known for her own poems about civil war atrocities in El Salvador, spent more than thirteen years collecting work from poets around the world who had endured imprisonment, exile, repression, censorship, war.
In the 816 pages of Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, Forché anthologized more than 140 poets from five continents, spanning history from the Armenian genocide to the massacre in Tiananmen Square. And when it was published in 1993, she coined the term poetry of witness, to denote the method of describing history that poets under extreme conditions developed.
“I was interested in what these experiences had done to the poets’ imaginations and to their language,” Forché explained. “And whether or not, regardless of the subject matter, whether one could feel this suffering and the extremity in the poems.”
The work in this week’s Poetry Moment is a tiny excerpt of a longer poem, “Requiem,” read by Forché, but penned by Anna Akhmatova. Forché remembers being captured by this poem as a student, she says, it is perhaps the reason that her anthology exists.
Akhmatova was a Russian poet and translator who survived the Great Purge and Stalinist terror, more than fifteen years of her books being banned and suppressed, grinding poverty, harassment, and threats from the state police.
While the government restricted her, Akhmatova composed her poem “Requiem.” Subject to constant danger of search and arrest, Akhmatova told the long narrative poem, line by line, to her closest friends to memorize, then burned in an ashtray the scraps of paper on which she had written her poetry.
She conceived of the poem while standing in line with hundreds of other women outside Leningrad’s prison. All carrying baskets of food they hoped to smuggle or bribe their way into their beloved prisoners, the women were waiting, like Akhmatova, to hear news of their families. One day, another woman heard that she was a poet, and asked her to get out the news about their vigil.
Akhmatova began writing. Her son was dragged from home in the middle of the night by state police because Akhmatova and his father, another subversive poet, spoke against the government. His father died in prison. Akhmatova waited outside the Leningrad prison for the seventeen months he was imprisoned there, and then at home when he was sent to a forced-labor camp. For decades she wrote in secret and hoped to see again her son, who after twenty years was eventually released and became a historian and translator.
Akhmatova chose not to emigrate, instead staying in the Soviet Union to act as a witness to the horrors around her. Because of its criticism of the purges, “Requiem” was not published in the USSR until 1987.
The Antioch Review wrote that the poems of Akhmatova, as well as the other poets that Forché collected, provide “irrefutable and copious evidence of the human ability to record, to write, to speak in the face of those atrocities.”
Forché said her anthology takes its impulse from the words of Bertolt Brecht: “In the dark times, will there be singing? /Yes, there will be singing./About the dark times.”
Especially in dark times, poets must sing.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer, The Writing Life
Portrait of Anna Akhmatova by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (The painting is located in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16605586)
This repression order by the Soviet government condemned those speaking against the government. People placed into Category I were executed by shooting, people placed in Category II were sent to gulag forced-labor camps.
The weather is turning. We can wear layers and hats, but it’s stretching the limits of our cold tolerance to socialize outside. Considering the Covid-19 infection rates, though, that’s the only safe way.
Consequently, we’re all desperately missing hanging out with our friends. This week’s Poetry Moment offers a tiny shot of remembered happiness, a slice of summer. Sekou Sundiata wrote “Longstoryshort,” a portion of which he reads in this week’s Poetry Moment, about a scene that used to be normal: gathering with buddies in a park, sharing a drink, listening to poetry and music.
Sundiata, a poet, playwright, and musician who died too young, was born in the projects in Harlem and taught at New York’s New School University. This poem evokes the pleasures of hanging out with friends in one of those parks ubiquitous in New York City. In these lines we can smell the weed, taste the sweet wine, feel people we love slapping our shoulders or hands, hear the laughter and music.
Though Sundiata toured with his band and other musicians, performing his poetry around and between and over their beats, he did not consider himself a musician. He was simply a poet, he said, who could never ignore music.
“It’s damn near impossible to understand what contemporary Black poets are doing without understanding what’s going on with Black music and its relationship to Black speech and Black literature,” he told Poets.org.
Interviewed by E. Ethelbert Miller, a poet steeped in Black music and poetry, Sundiata explained that he began writing poetry in the late 1960s with a group of people who would hang out, listen to music, and write.
“The poem is really addressing the idea that here we were, outside of school, discovering this poetry on our own and exploring the idea of writing poetry ourselves,” Sundiata explains in the full Writing Life interview. “Looking for voice and sound and rhythms, and having an actual space in a park that we just named Mecca, where we would have these al fresco poetry workshops. It was a hip scene.”
In “Longstoryshort,” poetry and music and friendship surged through these young people’s bodies, invading “the membranes of our hearts,” as the line in Sundiata’s poem reads.
Sundiata didn’t have an easy life. He overcame heroin addiction, cancer, a broken neck, pneumonia, kidney failure and a subsequent transplant. One of his friends donated that kidney. I like to think that friendship saved his life in multiple ways.
Listen to a few of his poems over music and perhaps it will transport you to a place where, without fear, you can shake a friend’s hand, hug them, share a drink and a laugh
We’ll gather again, it will just take some patience. In the meanwhile, put on some mittens and head to the park.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
Linda Pastan is a quiet poet. Her poems don’t shriek, they don’t yell. But they still hit hard.
This week’s poem, “Elegy,” comes from her book Imperfect Paradise, 1988, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
An elegy, a poem of lament for the dead, seems called for right now. Everyone, it seems, now knows someone who has died of Covid-19. In fact, last week, we again hit the mark of the death of one American every minute, echoing the same height of pandemic death from July. Every sixty seconds, someone’s mother, father, grandparent, brother, sister, or child dies of this disease that we can’t yet cure or prevent.
Pastan’s poem recalls a moment when her mother was in a hospital, dying, and Pastan watched her struggle for life. This poem repeats the idea of movement, up and down. Snow falls, flowers struggle up their stalks, the moon rises and sets, and the speaker hoists herself from bed and slides into sleep again. A mother’s hospital gown, propelled by raggedy breath, lifts and falls with jagged respiration.
The poem’s sound is a rising and falling, too, with the breath of the reader. And the last line, with “newly shoveled earth, settling” is a finality, even the sound of the word “settling” sinking down into the belly when you say it, like a coffin lowered into a grave.
Poetry magazine’s Ben Howard wrote, in a review of Imperfect Paradise, “At their most searching, [these poems] also examine the intersections of dailiness and mystery, the quotidian and the unconscious, as they seek to illumine those ‘depths/ whose measure we only guess.’ ”
We all are just guessing the measure of death, along with Pastan, long an examiner of grief. In fact, in the full interview with her friend and fellow poet Lucille Clifton, she says that people often ask her for a poem to commemorate a funeral or a wedding. She doesn’t have many poems for weddings, she laughs ruefully.
In her senior year at Radcliffe, Pastan won the Mademoiselle magazine poetry prize. Sylvia Plath came in second. After graduating, Pastan moved to Maryland and has lived here ever since. For ten years, Pastan gave up writing poems while she raised a family, then at her husband’s urging, she picked up her pen again. She has won the Ruth Lily Poetry Prize, a Pushcart, awards from Poetry magazine and the Poetry Society of America. Pastan is the author of more than fifteen books of poetry and essays.
Death, in this poem, and in our world today, is both pedestrian and monumental. Every person who dies of Covid-19–now more than 1.3 million worldwide—ends with breath as ragged as Pastan’s mother’s, their chests pushing up and down by laboring lungs.
Poetry magazine wrote of those lines, “here the minimal style … heightens the speech of the faithful witness.”
Pastan was a witness to her mother’s death. Many say that being with a loved one at the time of death is a particular privilege. During these contagious times, loved ones can’t be with those who are dying. Medical staff are the only witnesses, and are suffering that burden.
Take care, be safe. And find solace in poetry.
–Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
Besides the turkey, the pies, and the Norman Rockwell sentimentality of the Thanksgiving meal, Americans love the story of that first friendly meal between Indigenous people and the pilgrims in 1621.
For decades, kids have carefully cut construction paper pilgrim hats and Native headdresses and reenacted the message of harmony that the holiday is meant to convey.
Sadly, the story just isn’t true. It’s mostly sad for the Native Americans whose land was stolen and whose treaties were broken by the American government. The myth of the first Thanksgiving was embroidered and invented during the Civil War by President Lincoln to promote unity. This video from the National Museum of the American Indian is a clever take on informing America about the creation of Thanksgiving, and the devastation to the tribes on whose land we now live.
Today’s and yesterday’s politics aside, harmony at the Thanksgiving table is just not historical. But the Thanksgiving story does prompt Americans to think about the Indigenous people who lived here when European colonists arrived. President George H. W. Bush declared November to be Native American Heritage Month in 1990, after almost seventy-five years of advocacy by Seneca and Arapahoe and Blackfoot people.
This week, we’re featuring a poem by Edgar Gabriel Silex, who was HoCoPoLitSo’s writer-in-residence and visited students in Howard County schools during the 1999-2000 academic year. With Native American, Chicano, and European ancestry, Silex grew up in a small reservation on the Texas-Mexico border. Author of four books of poetry and recipient of fellowships from the National Endowments for the Arts, and National Endowment for the Humanities, Silex now teaches at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
His poem “For Chris” springs from his memory of teaching poetry on a Diné reservation in Arizona, of meeting a young boy who confessed that his father had thrown him through a window. He bared his chest to show Silex the scars. Though the encounter between Silex and Chris took place on the reservation, the issue is not exclusive to Native Americans. Silex’s words address the universal ideas of family, abuse, anger, and love.
The evening after he met Chris, Silex said, he was so enraged that he couldn’t sleep. He tried to write about the boy and his abuse, but couldn’t at first. But as he thought about the boy, and about his own childhood peppered with violence, he began to see beyond “half the story,” as he says in his poem, and toward the idea that love can still exist inside abuse.
Most of his poetry is found, Silex told poet and interviewer Michael Collier: “all of us experience things as we go through life. The poets tend to be the ones who are more like witnesses. They capture and encapsulate the emotive experience of the event. … I found the poem or the poem found me, it was just a matter of getting the most experience per line down.
Poetry’s density sometimes frightens people; the compressing of so much life and feeling into such a small space sometimes feels like a thicket readers are fighting through. But that’s poetry’s magic trick—creating the links in the readers’ minds, sharing experiences that are universal, and letting that meaning bloom on the page for the reader.
Silex’s author’s statement for his book Acts of Love, addresses so many reasons for writing (and for reading) poetry: “a state of grace is our ultimate human condition, forgiveness is our highest form of love, awe is our only muse, suffering is our path to salvation, beauty is our only reward, displacement is our human inheritance, passion is our only freedom, restraint is our act of kindness, solitude is our wisest friend, simplicity is our most complex desire, reverence is our highest achievement, and poetry is our most constant state.”
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
When Mark Strand was a student at The Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1960s, he was worried about nuclear war with Russia, among other things. The Pulitzer winner and former National Poet Laureate wrote his poem “Sleeping with One Eye Open” in 1962. “It speaks to a certain anxiety,” he told an American Public Media interviewer.
Right now, his anxiety speaks to a lot of us who are worried about the country’s future, the health of our families and friends, the economy, among other things. So, with Strand as our guide, let’s just embrace our insomnia for a bit, shall we?
Strand’s poem is written in a ragged form, both tightly knit and discomfiting, conducive to restlessness. The endings of the longer lines are echoed in slant rhyme on the short lines, like a caught breath. There’s echo and recall to each line, not exact and rollicking rhyme. Strand would dream up networks of rhymes when “bored in class,” he says in the full interview HoCoPoLitSo taped just after his reading to our audience in 1991. He laughs when telling some of his favorite rhymes to fellow poet Henry Taylor on The Writing Life: “He brews/high-brows,” “Gauloises/galoshes/goulashes.” Sadly, Strand never wrote a poem rhyming goulashes and galoshes.
Modeled on Louis McNeice’s rhyme scheme and form in “Sunlight on the Garden,” “Sleeping with One Eye Open” is woven together with rhyme, but riddled with dread.
Literature professor James Hoff, in his paper titled “ ‘Sleeping with One Eye Open’: Fear and Ontology in the Poetry of Mark Strand,” wrote, “Strand is keenly aware of the tenuous nature of our lives, and the title of his poem–the title also of his first book–seems to suggest a preferred ontological state, a way of existing where the ever-present, often frightening mysteries of the world are both revealed and created.”
The last few months have found me awake late at night, concerned with the tenuous nature of our lives and startled by the “fishy” light of the moon, as Strand describes it. His sleeping poem isn’t reassuring or sleep-inducing, with its open-ended ending: “Hoping/ that nothing, nothing will happen.” There’s no rhyme for “will happen” and we’re left in mid-rhyme, suspended.
Many of us are lying awake at night, bleary-eyed, hoping that tomorrow morning will be better.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
SLEEPING WITH ONE EYE OPEN
By Mark Strand
Unmoved by what the wind does,
Are not rattled, nor do the various
Of the house make their usual racket–
The joints, trusses, and studs.Instead,
They are still.
And the maples,
At times to raise havoc,
Not a sound from their branches
It’s my night to be rattled,
With spooks. Even the half-moon
Half half dark), on the horizon,
Its side casting a fishy light
On my Floor, lavishly lording
Look over me. Oh I feel dead,
Away in my blankets for good,and
My room is clammy and cold,
And weird. The shivers
Me, shaking my bones, my looses ends
And I lie sleeping with one eye open,
That nothing, nothing will happen.
The first amendment to the United States Constitution is first for a reason. Freedom of speech is vital for a democracy.
Adopted Dec. 15, 1791, the amendment is first on the list of the Bill of Rights, and grants Americans the right to assemble, the right to a free press, and the freedom to speak their truth to power and to petition the government.
This week, America held an election. And whichever way it turns out, we the people can protest or support the decision, in the streets, to our neighbors, in whatever media we can find, social or otherwise.
Not every country in the world is this way. The ten most censored countries in the world include North Korea, Burma, Turkmenistan, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Eritrea, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Syria, and Belarus. China, Russia, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia have long repressed their citizens’ rights to speak.
Poets, even in verse that seems light and funny on the surface, know the consequences of repressing speech.
This week’s Poetry Moment highlights Hilary Tham, a poet born in Malaysia to Chinese parents who studied literature and immigrated to the U.S. Tham’s famous persona poems, usually in the voice of a Chinese mother very like her own, were collected in a book called The Tao of Wei.
“Tham is able to capture the idiosyncratic, topsy-turvy world-view, a combination of superstitious and unthought-out religious beliefs, housewifely thrift, termagant courage and humorous generational differences of a particular Southeast Asian woman. Some of these poems are absolutely hilarious,” writes Shirley Lim about the Mrs. Wei poems in Calyx.
The poems’ speaker, which Tham says is based on her pragmatic, superstitious, spunky mother, dispenses advice to the lovelorn, yells at a lecherous monk on a bus, berates her children for holding their chopsticks the unlucky way. The poems are ironic, and funny, but also illuminating. Writing persona poems, Tham says, “gives me the luxury of having two points of view on something.”
Tham explains in the full interview from which this week’s poem is plucked, “When I get caught up in my mother’s stories, I find it very hard to disbelieve her totally, but I don’t believe her totally either.”
In this week’s poem, “Mrs.Wei Wants to Believe the First Amendment,” the fictitious Mrs. Wei, having been “raised” in a more authoritarian country, is shocked that the First Amendment protects Americans and their freedom of speech.
Tham remembered being worried when her American husband wrote a letter to the president critical of his actions. “I thought the FBI would be on our doorstep,” she said. “In the third world, we do not have freedom of expression.”
Americans still have the right to speak. Make your voice heard.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
This weekend, we give in to the dark. At least for the winter.
On Sunday morning, we turn our clocks back, and our evenings grow darker and darker until the shortest day of the year, the solstice, Dec. 21, 2020. It’s not just the upcoming Halloween (or election) that sends shivers in the dark.
North of Dublin, along the River Boyne in Ireland, lies a one-acre prehistoric phenomenon called Newgrange. Before Stonehenge was pushed into place, before the Egyptians built the pyramids, the Irish brought stones from all over the island to build this circular passage tomb, 90 meters in diameter. Massive carved stones ring the 39-foot-high grass-covered mound over a central stone tomb, where remains of the dead were burned and sometimes buried.
But at the entrance of the passage into Newgrange’s interior, the builders calculated carefully and constructed an open slot in the stone roof, through which at dawn on the solstice, the sun’s first light streams through and lights up the tomb’s caverns. There’s a lottery every year to celebrate the solstice inside the tomb.
My family felt chills in that tomb when the docents doused the artificial lights, then replicated the sunrise spilling into the stone chamber. The Stone Age builders, so connected to the seasons and the land when winters were cold, long, and hungry, were determined to show that the light would return. They celebrated the turn in the season that assured their clan that spring and another planting was possible.
W. S. Merwin understood the significance of the solstice, the way people wait for a sign of hope or light in the dark winter, and the way it reminds us of the fleeting nature of life.
A practicing Buddhist and environmental activist, Merwin wrote much of his poetry after the 1970s from a rambling disused pineapple plantation in Hawaii that he carefully restored to rainforest. He watched the seasons, the plants, and the skies from his hillside house, which is now a conservancy dedicated to supporting arts and ecology.
A double Pulitzer Prize-winner, Merwin was anti-war (he donated his Pulitzer money to the Vietnam War draft resistance movement), but very much in favor of humans connecting with the natural world. Merwin visited HoCoPoLitSo audiences for a triumphant reading in 1994, just after he’d won the first annual Tanning Prize from the Academy of American Poets. He recorded the television program that same week, reading “Solstice” in his jeans and chambray shirt in the company of host poet Roland Flint. Merwin died in March 2019.
This week’s Poetry Moment verse, Merwin’s “Solstice,” addresses the ideas of light disappearing and time passing quickly, but also the comfort humans can provide one another. The final lines are, “but we are together in the whole night/ with the sun still going away/ and the year/ coming back.”
Merwin wasn’t convinced poetry could save the world. But he believed not only that he had to try, but that despair over a natural world rapidly being blighted was useless.
“The world is still here, and there are aspects of human life that are not purely destructive, and there is a need to pay attention to the things around us while they are still around us,” Merwin said. “And you know in a way, if you don’t pay that attention, the anger is just bitterness.Whether poems, human contact, the natural world, or just sheer tenacity, humans need something to pull them forward in time, to think beyond fear and anger, to see a turning point toward the light. There is much that is dark in the world today, including the coming winter. But it has been dark before and will grow light again, as Merwin and the ancients foretell.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
On a warm June day in 1989, the young man in the white shirt stands in front of the line of Chinese Army tanks. When they steer toward the crowds in Tiananmen Square, he again places himself in the path of the treads. He climbs onto the tank and talks into the cavity. He jumps down and blocks the tanks again. The Chinese Army had cracked down the day before and shot and killed an unnamed number of protestors. But the young man stands before the tank casually, still holding his shopping bag. Two men in blue pull him away and Tankman, as the anonymous youth was nicknamed, has never been heard from again.
Marilyn Chin, this year’s recipient of the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize given by the Poetry Foundation, wrote a love poem addressed to that anonymous young man, “Beijing Spring,” which we reproduce here this week’s Poetry Moment. Chin, who was given the big prize last month in a virtual ceremony [http://poetryfoundation.org/video], writes in her poem, “I believe in the passions of youth./ I believe in the eternal spring.”
Tankman’s gentle but insistent gesture reminds me of the Vietnam War protestor inserting a daisy in the barrel of a rifle during the March on the Pentagon in 1967. And of Greta Thunberg’s speech at the Climate Action Summit in 2019. And of Emma Gonzalez’s speech after the Parkland shootings during the March for Our Lives. And of the photos of the young protestors in the Arab Spring.
Young people are putting themselves at the forefront of many of the world’s movements. Just this week, thousands of pro-democracy youth are taking over the streets in Bangkok, raising the three-finger salute popularized in The Hunger Games novels to signify youth solidarity against power. In America, young people are stepping up to work as poll judges on Nov. 3 so the usual workers, the seniors, can sequester from the virus. They’re demonstrating and organizing Black Lives Matter protests, including one in Columbia that drew praise from president Barack Obama. Young people are designing signs, giving money, signing up to vote, working to make communities safe, and crushing social media. That’s the spirit Chin was channeling in “Beijing Spring.”
This kind of activism isn’t a new thing. Youth protested child labor laws in the 1900s and school segregation in the 1960s. The movements for rights for Dreamers, for Civil Rights, for Native rights, all have been invigorated by youth participation.
Chin’s poem evokes the white blossoms of a Chinese spring, but also the spirit of youth–passionate, innocent, and determined. Her poem is a loving tribute to young people who work for a better world. Follow her lead, and theirs. Vote. Young people have died for that right, including, possibly, that lithe Chinese man standing in front of the line of tanks.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer