Wednesday, August 1, 2012

a geography of poetry

I kind of love The Academy of American Poets' National Poetry Map. You can click on a state and it'll give you a list of poets who came from there (and their poetry), the "poetic history" of the state, and current poetry events. 

I've lived in a few places in my (relatively short) lifetime, so I thought I'd do a quick synopsis of what I'll call my poetic geography.

(Pardon the screwed-up formatting. Blogspot's being bratty.)

When I tell people that I grew up in New York (Long Island, to be precise), I get odd looks and often a "You don't act/sound/seem like a New Yorker." Maybe not, but it's where I lived until I was 13. And I've got roots there, as my great-grandparents on both sides came over to Ellis Island back in the early 1900s. 

We can lay claim to a lot of poets:
Billy Collins  (born in the city in 1941)
Langston Hughes (lived in Harlem) 
Louise Gl├╝ck (grew up on LI)
Walt Whitman (grew up in Brooklyn and on LI)
John Ashberry (born in Rochester)
June Jordan (born in the city)

...and many more. Have some Hughes to start your day:

Dream Variations

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun, 
To whirl and to dance 
Till the white day is done. 
Then rest at cool evening 
Beneath a tall tree 
While night comes on gently, 
Dark like me-- That is my dream! 

To fling my arms wide 
In the face of the sun, 
Dance! Whirl! Whirl! 
Till the quick day is done. 
Rest at pale evening . . . 
A tall, slim tree . . . 
Night coming tenderly 
Black like me.

We moved to central Mass when I was 13. When people ask me where I'm "from,"
I usually say Massachusetts, even though I only really lived there from ages 13-18. 

Massachusetts is, well, it's a hub of poetry. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson (The Sage of Concord) 
ee cummings (born in Cambridge) 
Anne Bradstreet (emigrated to MA with the Puritans) 
Emily Dickinson (the Belle of Amherst)
Robert Lowell (born in Boston) 
Robert Frost (grew up in Lawrence)

Need I go on? 
Have a wee bit of Frost:

For Once, Then, Something
Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths—and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

My home sweet home for now. I came down here in '02 for college and ended up staying. I had a period of two years where I left (more on that later), but Philly's kind of a magnet and it drew me back.

Whom do we have?
H.D.  (born in Bethlehem)
Sonia Sanchez (lives in Philly)
Ron Silliman (lives in Chester County)
Wallace Stevens (born in Reading)

Have some H.D.:
You are as gold
as the half-ripe grain
that merges to gold again,
as white as the white rain
that beats through
the half-opened flowers
of the great flower tufts
thick on the black limbs
of an Illyrian apple bough.

Can honey distill such fragrance
as your bright hair-
for your face is as fair as rain,
yet as rain that lies clear
on white honey-comb,
lends radiance to the white wax,
so your hair on your brow
casts light for a shadow. 

 I know, I know. DC's not a state. But it's on the map! I lived here during my first year after college with the Capuchin Franciscan Volunteer Corps. My housemates were wonderful, and I got to hang out with friars. Here's a photo of us, 'cause we're awesome and Halloween-y. (I was a newsie)

DC poets:
Jean Toomer (born and raised in DC)
Sterling A Brown (born in DC)
Elizabeth Alexander (grew up in DC)
Saskia Hamilton (born in DC)

Have some Toomer:
 November Cotton Flower

Boll-weevil’s coming, and the winter’s cold,
Made cotton-stalks look rusty, seasons old,
And cotton, scarce as any southern snow,
Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow,
Failed in its function as the autumn rake;
Drouth fighting soil had caused the soil to take
All water from the streams; dead birds were found
In wells a hundred feet below the ground—
Such was the season when the flower bloomed.
Old folks were startled, and it soon assumed
Significance. Superstition saw
Something it had never seen before:
Brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear,
Beauty so sudden for that time of year.

And last, but not least,
I lived in Camden, "the city invincible" for a year with a great community house in the neighborhood
of Waterfront South.

NJ may be America's armpit, but it's turned out a lot of poets.
William Carlos Williams (born in Rutherford)
Amiri Baraka (born in Newark)
Dorothy Parker (born in NJ)
Ntozake Shange (born in Trenton)
Stephen Crane (born in Newark)
(and Whitman, of course, but I've already put him in the NY category)

Have some WCW:
Approach of Winter

The half-stripped trees 
struck by a wind together, 
bending all, 
the leaves flutter drily 
and refuse to let go 
or driven like hail 
stream bitterly out to one side 
and fall 
where the salvias, hard carmine-- 
like no leaf that ever was-- 
edge the bare garden.  


  1. This is a wonderful idea. And of course I read that site frequently, but I've never noticed that map before.

    C.K. Williams was born in Newark, N.J, and so was I. Have some C.K. Williams in Jersey solidarity.

    Another drought morning after a too brief dawn downpour,
    unaccountable silvery glitterings on the leaves of the withering maples—

    I think of a troop of the blissful blessed approaching Dante,
    “a hundred spheres shining,” he rhapsodizes, “the purest pearls…”

    then of the frightening brilliants myriad gleam in my lamp
    of the eyes of the vast swarm of bats I found once in a cave,

    a chamber whose walls seethed with a spaceless carpet of creatures,
    their cacophonous, keen, insistent, incessant squeakings and squealings

    churning the warm, rank, cloying air; of how one,
    perfectly still among all the fitfully twitching others,

    was looking straight at me, gazing solemnly, thoughtfully up
    from beneath the intricate furl of its leathery wings

    as though it couldn’t believe I was there, or were trying to place me,
    to situate me in the gnarl we’d evolved from, and now,

    the trees still heartrendingly asparkle, Dante again,
    this time the way he’ll refer to a figure he meets as “the life of…”

    not the soul, or person, the life, and once more the bat, and I,
    our lives in that moment together, our lives, our lives,

    his with no vision of celestial splendor, no poem,
    mine with no flight, no unblundering dash through the dark,

    his without realizing it would, so soon, no longer exist,
    mine having to know for us both that everything ends,

    world, after-world, even their memory, steamed away
    like the film of uncertain vapor of the last of the luscious rain.

    “Light” by C.K. Williams

  2. Double-posting because I don't trust blogspot to post anything longer. And no, it never will format tabs and internal breaks and things like that correctly. Therefore, when I say that I've lived in Baltimore for longer than I lived in N.J., and that Adrienne Rich was born in Baltimore, I'll choose one of her more simply formatted poems.

    "What Kind of Times Are These"
    There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
    and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
    near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
    who disappeared into those shadows.

    I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled
    this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
    our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
    its own ways of making people disappear.

    I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
    meeting the unmarked strip of light—
    ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
    I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

    And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
    anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
    to have you listen at all, it's necessary
    to talk about trees.

  3. I couldn't quite choose between Rich and Lucille Clifton, who, like me, was born elsewhere but made a career in Baltimore. Then I decided that I'd include them both, in honor of Poetry Wednesday.

    "blessing the boats"

    (at St. Mary's)

    may the tide
    that is entering even now
    the lip of our understanding
    carry you out
    beyond the face of fear
    may you kiss
    the wind then turn from it
    certain that it will
    love your back may you
    open your eyes to water
    water waving forever
    and may you in your innocence
    sail through this to that

    I'll stop now, except to say that I was looking recently for something about George Herbert, and stumbled across Herbert Sucks, Donne Is A Pimp, on the Poetry site. I disagree with that harsh assessment, but the article made me laugh.

  4. That's an AWESOME article. I feel the need to share it with the world. :)

  5. Since this geographical entry is still up, and since I'm chronically two months late with reading the book reviews, I was wondering if you'd come across London: A History In Verse.

    I haven't read it yet, and I've never been to London in real life. But after a lifetime of reading British poetry and novels, I think this sounds like a highly cool collection.