The Secret Pulse: National Poetry Month

Antoni Austen, Low Tide After a Storm, 1892, Salon des Champs-Elysées 1892
Antoni Austen, Low Tide After a Storm, 1892, Salon des Champs-Elysées 1892

“We want what the woman wanted in the prison queue in Leningrad, standing there with cold and whispering for fear, enduring the terror of Stalin’s regime and asking the poet Anna Akhmatova if she could describe it all, if her art was equal to it.”
Seamus Heaney, Crediting Poetry: The Nobel Lecture

They give us one month, a singular set of days, to remember we are poets at heart.

Sometimes, when I find myself sound-bound, wrapping words around each other that I know will twist my tongue, I’ll think, “Fine, I’ll sing* them if I have to.” I admit it: I love the impact words make as they strike together.

Even in months not spanning the letters A through L.

The challenge laid before every writer: Can you describe it all? In five thousand words? In a hundred thousand?

The truth is, poetry can’t either. But poetry’s sounds weave a net that catches a particular all for a little time. You can feel that all beat against you as a word or phrase resonates. You can feel it wrap your ankles, a tidal pull that tries to drag you down, or lift you up.

Poet Tracy K. Smith does that for me. So too, Seamus Heaney. Eavan Boland. Wyslawa Szymborska. Sofia Samatar. Theodora Goss. Shweta Naryan. W.B Yeats. George Oppen. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Langston Hughes. Elizabeth Bishop. (I have to stop or I’ll list them all…) Anna Akhmatova.

They’re timeless, these poets. But we have so many things to say, to do. And poetry can catch us up. It’s safer if we bind them. Safer if we present poetry as a period in time, a moment when poets can sing, a point at which that pulse can beat safely.

Though it slips out, often as not, when we’re not looking.

Sometimes we remember we are poets.

Sometimes we make a thing for you, something part song, part net, part tide. All push and pull.

Sometimes we leave it for you in a secret corner, and hope you hear its pulse.

Which is to say that, for National Poetry Month, the first poem I’ve written in many, many years — The Ghost Tide Chantey —  appears at today.**  It is odd-shaped and different. It has a song in it. Or the song has a poem in it. Possibly both. Possibly all.

(*And that, friends, is how I end up singing at readings, and cursing my former self a little. My former self always cackles a bit in response.)

(**And this is what journalists call ‘burying the lede.’)

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