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Old School

On “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats

Poetry speaks to those of us who hear it across vast distances of time, culture, and personal identity. If I didn't believe this, there would be little for me that explains how a poem by an 19th century Englishman would so profoundly impact a 20th century Jamaican-American woman. I'm speaking, of course, of the well-known poem, "Ode to a Nightingale," by John Keats and, the unknown story of my 18-year old self's discovery of the same as a first-year college student in Miami in 1990—almost two centuries after Keats' had written the poem, in the spring of 1819, when he may already have sensed that he was dying.

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On "Wild Nights"

I don't know how old I was when I first saw a poem of Emily Dickinson's; I was in a classroom.  I learned that her punctuation had been altered and then restored.  I also learned that she wore white and was in love with god.

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Catherine Barnett on Emily Dickinson

Sundays this New York City cafe fills up and empties according to the bells that ring from the neighboring church; weekdays according to the cops' schedule. I come here almost every day to work alone in the company of others. These hours get me through the week; they're essential to the sense of discovery and possibility for which I long. But why choose to sit at the table with only books? I often have Beckett with me; sometimes Stevens; always Dickinson, whose familiar face I was surprised to see gazing back at me last July from the shelves of a lovely tiny bookstore in the 20th arrondissement in Paris.

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On Gerard Manley Hopkins' “Spelt From Sibyl’s Leaves”

In our particular, peculiar time, is the end of the world ever not in the surround?  We hear increasingly of the fierce consequences our environmental damage has done to the planet, the storms, wars, starvations and financial challenges that seem unlikely to abate.

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On Anne Bradstreet

I have always been attracted to double-mindedness, to art that appears to think, rather than to assert.  As a reader, I am suspended in ambivalence, in feeling strongly in multiple, conflicting directions.  For the poets I admire, death is hideous and transcendent.  God is enormous, terrifying, beautiful, and non-existent at once. This is to say that my favorite poems—and, I'd argue, most great poems—suggest minds at work on unsolvable problems.  The joy of reading these poems isn't the discovery of a solution to our great anxieties and dilemmas, though they may provide comfort.  Instead, they offer us the experience of listening in on an intricate mind greater than our own.

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On the Vulgate Bible

I sang in Latin almost every Sunday for two years before I knew what any of the words meant.

Ecclesiastical Latin (then Classical, then Medieval) taught me compression in a way that was at first mysterious. I believe I loved the words more before I knew what they meant, when I was a chorister with vague sentiments and excellent pronunciation. Then, after Latin became my primary course of study in college, I came to love the liturgy as one comes again to love in a long marriage, after you know what all the words mean.

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On John Donne

When a friend asked me the other day, Who was the poet you first fell in love with? I had to pause a moment.  Poetry meant very little to me when I was young. I loved getting lost in novels; I learned how to think by reading and acting in plays.  And thinking, especially when tethered to feeling, was fun. But poems weren't yet alive for me; I didn't know what to do with them. Until, that is, I encountered the poems of John Donne.

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On Basho

Sometimes the world feels weighty to us, like Atlas' burden, sometimes almost lark-light, unbearably sweet; Basho, the peripatetic 17th century Japanese poet, had a knack for distilling, in terse language, our seemingly contradictory sense of the world as onus and the world as gift.

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On Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

There is a fly buzzing around my head right now. The sound it's making is all I can focus on while I write this. I look at the page; I hear the fly. I hear the fly; I look at the page. It's not how I intended to write, with a tiny winged beast dive-bombing my brain, but it makes me think about sound. The obsession of poets; the sounds we grind into our papers. The crazy fly of sound in the ear, the addicting earworm of a poem, has always been a weird and intense obsession for me

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On Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

I could drop my finger anywhere in Leaves of Grass—preferably the 1860 edition, less formless than the giddy first, far less bloated or smoothed over than the mighty last—and find a concrete reminder, when I need one, which I often do, of why I've bent my life around poetry, a practice which, in an off minute, when life is grinding down upon me with too many of its ugly knuckles, can seem needlessly indulgent, if not ridiculous.

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On Lalla

Lalla, or Lal Ded, was a Kashmiri mystic who lived in the 14th century at the height of Kashmiri Shaivism. Though she was a Hindu and a yogi, even Shah Hamdan, the great Sufi teacher who was her contemporary, recognized her as a saint. The best translations are those of Indian poet Ranjit Hoskote, who worked directly from the old Kashmiri, and who incorporates into his translations the inconsistencies of style and diction and textual variations that stem from the nature of these ecstatic utterances passed down by word-of-mouth over the course of centuries before being assembled into a written canon.

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On Virgil's Georgics

I was in Soma, the local coffee shop here in town, when I ran into my friend Margaret, who was huddled over her computer with some books mounded up. Among her pile was Virgil's Georgics, which my friend Dave had been imploring me to read since I had started gardening. Slow as I am to advice sometimes, and locked into my own obsessions, I was still not yet sold.  Though I mentioned it to Margaret, pointing—"My pal tells me I should read that."

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On Emma Lazarus's "The New Colossus"

What drew me to Emma Lazarus was not her finely wrought poems. It was not her early emergence as a poetic prodigy. Nor her friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson. All of these facets of Lazarus intrigue me, but my interest emanated from a simple question: Can the voice of a woman, poems by a woman, speak to and for all people? Or, more simply: Can the voice of a woman be universal?

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On The Song of Roland

One of the striking fates of poetry over the last century has been the conflation of poem with lyric. But some of the most important poems for me have always been non-lyric genres: epigram; epistle; lais; 17th-Century French drama; et cetera

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On Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Biographica Literaria

To this nineteen-year-old in the 1960's, the discovery of Biographica Literaria was like landing on the moon: I stood shakily on new ground in a place I discovered had been giving me light for the five or six years I had been writing poems. Though I could not have formulated it quite yet since I only experienced my discovery as a sort of frisson Coleridge was giving me a way to think about the creative process.

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On Sir Thomas Wyatt's "Epigram XLI"

I first became familiar with Sir Thomas Wyatt's "Epigram XLI" from Jacqueline Osherow's essay on ottava rima in An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art (ed. Annie Finch & Kathrine Varnes, U of Michigan P). I have been using this book for the last several years as a text for my Craft of Poetry course for the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA Program

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On Christopher Smart's "Jubilate Agno, Fragment B"

I always think of the "tesseract" in A Wrinkle in Time when I consider the power of a truly original piece of writing. The tesseract, in case you don't remember, is a kind of fifth-dimension occurrence that folds time and space, leading different times and spaces to touch the way the fabric of a skirt touches when it folds on itself. Certain poems, I often think, are tesseracts—so singular that they seem to exist in multiple times at once, transporting us outside our own interiority, our era, our personal history. 

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On Anonymous

Poetry came into my life before I could hold it in my mind, or turn it over with a thought or a prayer. Poetry came into my life as sound, and that sound was orchestrated by a children's poet, also an anthologist, who served as Poet-in-the-Schools for my district: Myra Cohn Livingston.

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George Herbert

Isaak Walton's The Life of Mr George Herbert opens by telling us, "George Herbert was born the third day of April, in the year of our redemption 1593." But the priest-poet had few readers until three centuries after that date. During his lifetime he never published a book, and it is only because Herbert placed the manuscript of The Temple in the hands of a friend that we know of his poems at all.

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On Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Evening, Ponte Al Mare, Pisa"

I love Shelley. I have a tattoo of the sketch he made for his boat, in which he soon after drowned. But like many of us who love Shelley, I do not love all of his poems. There are many Shelleys. And I like a lot of them, but life is too short (he would know) to read another verse drama.

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On Yu Xuanji's "To Wen Feiqing On a Winter’s Night"

Yu Xuanji, a courtesan and female poet, wrote during the Tang Dynasty which was also considered the golden age for art and literature in China. She is still, in many ways, a mysterious figure as she lived her life as a concubine, wife, a Daoist "nun," and as a resident of Chang'an's pleasure district. 

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On John Keats's "This living hand"

I was just starting out when I stumbled upon John Keats's last serious gesture in poetry, the final fragment, a terminal point. I felt the blood in his hand, the trauma of what could never be finished, the lure of the partially whole, and it has reminded me ever since that poetry is a bloody art. It's a form of play, true, but the stakes are mortal. Everything is on the line.

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