Student Poet Picks
I was one of the entranced jurors this year for the National Student Poets Program, jointly sponsored by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.
Other jurors included Richard Blanco, President Obama's second Inaugural poet; Robert Casper, Head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress; poet Terrance Hayes; David Lynn, editor of The Kenyon Review; and Rose Styron, poet and longtime patron of the Academy of American Poets. All of us were asked to evaluate student submissions based on exceptional creativity, dedication to craft, and promise. We read the entries, poems by national medalists in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, in a spirit of great pleasure and excitement and then reviewed videos of the young poets speaking about their passion for poetry. At the celebration of the five who were chosen for this honor this year and who have been travelling as ambassadors for the art all around the country, I asked each of them to name a favorite poet or two and voilà, this feature!
First Lady Michelle Obama with the 2013 National Student Poets (from left: Michaela Coplen; Sojourner Ahebee, Nathan Cummings, Louis Lafair, and Aline Dolinh) in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Sept. 20, 2013.
(Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
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My all-time favorite poet is Kahlil Gibran. I discovered Gibran at a time in my life when I was feeling particularly cynical and nihilistic (also known as middle school). Flipping through the pages of The Prophet, I found both inspiration and hope. Gibran's simple prose poetry has the unique ability to facilitate self-reflection while stimulating the creative impulse. Gibran gave me my favorite motivational maxim: "Work is love made visible." Most importantly, Gibran taught me that there is a place for philosophy in poetry--with the right metaphor and some natural rhythm, fundamental truths of life can be made easily accessible. Gibran's works have a magical quality whereby I can reread them time and time again and still find new revelations. It's not just that I understand the words more with every read, it's that I understand them in new and interesting ways.
The work of one of my favorite contemporary poets, Mary Jo Bang, has the same profundity. Her poems have such a wide range of beautiful and nuanced imagery that they can be revisited and re-imagined infinitely. I'm fascinated by the way she uses language. Her poems beg to be spoken aloud (I've accidentally memorized a couple that way), simply for the joy of puzzling the words out in the air. Bang has taught me to explore new techniques and methods of combining an emotional tone with divergent imagery and rigid form.
The first poet I ever fell in love with was Pablo Neruda. Even though I've never been able to read his poetry in the original Spanish, the beauty of his words transcends translation – his love poems always stood out to me because of how fantastic they were, in all senses of the word. I've always been a romantic, but I never knew how hopeless I was until I read Neruda's descriptions of loves like lost souls or celestial bodies; he shows us the divinity in an emotion that seems utterly human. Despite the fact that he died 40 years ago, the way he so strikingly conveyed the spirit of longing has never seemed out of date.
One of my newer favorite poets is Li-Young Lee, who can be similarly sensual, but is also beautifully, heartbreakingly bare in laying out his struggles of memory and identity. Whereas a Neruda poem will leave you hungry, Lee's work is slow to drink in. He weaves up images that are dreamlike but recognizable, plaintive but also full of wonder – his poetry can seem mournful sometimes, but even then it always illuminates a new truth. His focus on the immigrant experience and the connection between past and present has always hit close to home for me. All the poets I admire have made me more passionate – ever since reading Neruda and Lee, I've been insatiable in trying to capture the whole world and write it down. I've started to feel everything more fiercely.
My writing teachers constantly tell me that I can't truly consider myself a poet if I'm not reading poetry. Not only has the work of other poets allowed me to get and think outside of myself, but their work has allowed me to better my technique, and approach form and content in new ways. Two poets that continue to inspire both me are Nikky Finney and Ai.
Nikky Finney, a powerhouse in the American poetry scene, is a poet I can never seem to stop reading. Her poems carry the weight of history, memory, and strong ties to the political. She is a master of anaphora as a means of creating urgency on the page, and her poems leave you heartbroken and enlightened all at once. She is fearless in her approach to document truth, and her craftsmanship of images and line breaks miraculously places the reader in a space full of tension and understanding. Her poem entitled "Left", a poem that aims at capturing the emotional environment after Hurricane Katrina, is a piece that has yet to stop haunting me. Through reading her work, I have come to understand the importance of my own history as an African-American girl, and how this history makes the present coherent.
Ai, born to a Japanese father and an African-American mother, is a poet whose words carry the weight of a woman who comes from two cultures. Her persona poems, which I am more intimately familiar with, taught me the importance of perspective and the magic of seeing yourself in someone else's narrative/experience.
"I ask them to take a poem / and hold it up to the light / like a color slide," writes Billy Collins, musingly, in "Introduction to Poetry," the quintessential introduction to poetry. He portrays an experience—exploring poems gently and openly—that should be familiar to all students, but isn't. Instead, far too often, under the influence of standardized teaching, we try to "tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it."
Collins changed the way I read and write poetry. His unique approach to everyday topics, along with his humor, has taught me that poetry does not need to tackle big or historic or distant subject matter, that it can talk about something as seemingly mundane as Cheerios and still be profound—or not even always profound, just affirming of a shared human experience. His accessibility affirms my belief that poetry can reach anyone and everyone, that it can touch people who don't call themselves poets, that it can connect individuals simply by doing what poetry does best: illustrating what it feels like to be human, here, at this particular place, in this particular moment.
Sarah Kay, another of my favorite poets, talks about the beauty of capturing individual human experiences and moments. Everyone is living a life that no one else is living, so everyone possesses a series of stories that no one else can tell in quite the same way. Through Project V.O.I.C.E., she's spreading poetry to students, one school at a time.
I love that her spoken word poems resemble lyrical stories. They remind me that poems come in many forms, that they can have plots and characters, that over the course of a poem, its characters can change, and so can its readers and listeners.
Yeats and Richard Hugo are two of my old friends. Theirs is the kind of poetry that retains its beauty with every reading, and never grows tiresome. I remember reading Yeats' "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" in eighth grade English and singing it under my breath, feeling his words' gentle lyricism wash over me; I fell instantly in love and have been ever since. Hugo, meanwhile, is a kind of patron saint for the poets of my native Pacific Northwest, although there's much more to him than that regional identity. His poems are full of forests, ghostly mining towns, and fish-filled streams—images that grab hold of any Northwesterner. I want to walk into his poems and lose myself, just as I do with Yeats' work; their imagery and their music help make their poetry timeless.
At the same time, though, there's an ominous shade to their poetry beyond all of the pristine beauty. In his poem, "What The Brand New Freeway Won't Go By," Hugo describes the older and grimier elements of a Northwest city and how they get "paved over" by the forces of gentrification. That's something that I used to see every day, walking through the streets of Seattle and watching all of the old neighborhoods getting paved over. Yeats, the mystic, can be downright frightening with his messages of apocalyptic prophecy. Over time, I've found some of this influence woven into my own poetry: that shade of darkness and decay and pessimism about the future.