Praise for the Day

And so it appears, we’ve come to the end. I hope it’s been as enjoyable for you as it was for me,  and please don’t hesitate. Do come again.
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Praise for the Day

by Elizabeth Alexander

Every day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross the dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

The Next Poem

When I read Dana Gioio’s poems I appreciate poetry more and more. Only one more day left, but I thank you for sticking around and showing your love for poetry.
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The Next Poem

by Dana Gioia

How much better it seems now
than when it is finally done––
the forgettable first line,
the cunning way the stanzas run.

The rhymes soft-spoken and suggestive
are barely audible at first,
an appetite not yet acknowledged
like the inkling of a thirst.

When gradually the form appears
as each line is coaxed aloud––
the architecture of a room
seen from the middle of a crowd.

The music that of common speech
but slanted so that each detail
sounds unexpected as a sharp
inserted in a simple scale.

No jumble box of imagery
dumped glumly in the reader’s lap
or elegantly packaged junk
the unsuspecting must unwrap.

But words that could direct a friend
precisely to an unknown place,
those few unshakeable details
that no confusion can erase.

And the real subject left unspoken
but unmistakable to those
who don’t expect a jungle parrot
in the black and white prose.

How much better it seems now
than when it is finally written.
How hungrily one waits to feel
the bright lure seized, the old hook bitten.

How to Write a poem after September 11th

I leave this here as a reminder of sorts for the writing teacher who told me that some things could not be expressed. That sometimes only after a long absence we can recall the things that have happened to us. Or to others in our lifetime. I leave this here as a reminder, a recorder of history, because even when we cannot speak, there is always a way to give voice to things…
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How to write a poem after September 11th

by Nikki Moustaki

First: Don’t use the word soul. Don’t use the word fire.
You can use the word tragic if you end it with a k.
The rules have changed. The word building may precede
The word fall, but only in the context of the buildings falling
Before the fall, the season we didn’t have in Manhattan
Because the weather refused, the air refused…
Don’t say the air smelled like smoldering desks and drywall,
Ground gypsum, and something terribly organic,
Don’t make a metaphor about the smell, because it wasn’t
A smell at all, but the air washed with working souls,
Piling bricks, one by one, spreading mortar.
Don’t compare the planes to birds. Please.
Don’t call the windows eyes. We know they saw it coming.
We know know they didn’t blink. Don’t say they were sentinels.
Say: we hated them then we loved them then they were gone.
Say: we miss them. Say: there’s a gape. Then, say something
About love. It’s always good in a poem to mention love.
Say: If a man walks down stairs, somewhere
Another man is walking up. Say: He sits at his desk
And the other stands. He answers the phone and the other
Ends a call with a kiss. So, on a rainy dusk in some other
City of Commerce and Art, a mayor cuts a ribbon
With giant silver scissors. Are you writing this down?
Make the executives parade through the concourse,
Up the elevators, to the top, where the restaurant,
Open now for the first time, sets out a dinner buffet.
Press hard. Remember you’re writing with ashes.
Say: the phone didn’t work. Say: the bakery was out of cake,
The dogs in the pound howled. Say: the world hadn’t
Asked your permission to change. But you were asleep.
If only you had written more poems. If only you had written
More poems about love, about peace, about how abstractions
Become important outside the poem, outside. Then, then,
You could have squinted into the sky on September 11th
And said: thank you, thank you, nothing was broken today.

What Work Is

Another delightful piece that really shines when acted out. Philip Levine is (/was) a master.
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What Work Is

by Philip Levine

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is––if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring you vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no
just because you know what work is.

Take the I Out

Every time I think about writing, I wonder how I can extricate myself out of a piece. How to see it as it truly is, without me in it? It is difficult but it takes time. Distance. Maybe it started here, with this piece. Me thinking about Olds, and all those I’s. The beams and the self. Maybe you’ve even thought about it yourself. Maybe you’ve also tried to see what was being communicated. Read Olds’ piece and see for yourself. Ponder the true artifice of the craft of writing, as a writer, artist or poet.
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Take the I Out

by Sharon Olds

But I love the I, steel I-beam
that my father sold. They poured the pig iron
into the mold, and it fed out slowly,
a bending jelly in the bath, and it hardened,
Bessemer, blister, crucible,alloy, and he
marketed it, and bought bourbon, and Cream
of Wheat, its curl of butter right
in the middle of its forehead, he paid for our dresses
with his metal sweat, sweet in the morning
and sour in the evening. I love the I,
frail between its flitches, its hard ground
and hard sky, it soars between them
like the soul that rushes, back and forth,
between the mother and father. What if they had loved each other,
how would it have felt to be the strut
joining the floor and roof of the truss?
I have seen, on his shirt-cardboard, years
in her desk, the night they made me, the penciled
slope of her temperature rising, and on
the peak of the hill, first soldier to reach
the crest, the Roman numeral I––
I, I, I, I
girders of identity, head on,
embedded in the poem. I love the I
for its premise of existence––our I––when I was
born, part gelid, I lay with you
on the cooling table, we were all there, a
forest of felled iron. The I is a pine,
resinous, flammable root to crown,
which throws its cones as far as it can in a fire.

Advice to the Players

So you enter college, a place where you are supposed to learn how to conduct yourself in a place of work, and you learn how to interact with your peer. But most importantly you come across interesting poets, who can teach you a thing or two about life. I hope you enjoy this one. All my fellow makers and doers out there! This one really, truly hits home.

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Advice to the Players

by Frank Bidart

There is something missing in our definition, vision, of a human
being: the need to make.

We are creatures who need to make.

Because existence is willy-nilly thrust into our hands, our fate is to
make something –– if nothing else, the shape cut by the arc of our
lives.

My parents saw corrosively the arc of their lives.

Making is the mirror in which we see ourselves.

But being is making: not  only large things, a family, a book, a busi-
ness: but the shape we give this afternoon, a conversation between
two friends, a meal.

Or mis–shape.

Without clarity about what we make, and the choices that under-
lie it, the need to make is a curse, a misfortune.

The culture in which we live honors specific kinds of making (shap-
ing or mis-shaping a business, a family) but does not understand
how central making itself is as manifestation and mirror of the self,
fundamental as eating or sleeping.

In the images with which our culture incessantly teaches us, the
cessation of labor is the beginning of pleasure; the goal of work is
to cease working, an endless paradise of unending diversion.

In the United States at the end of the twentieth century, the great-
est luxury is to live a life in which the work that one does to earn a
living, and what one has the appetite to make, coincide––by a kind
of grace are the same, one.

Without clarity, a curse, a misfortune.

My intuition about what is of course unprovable comes, I’m sure,
from observing, absorbing as a child the lives of my parents: the
dilemmas, contradictions, chaos as they lived out their own often
unacknowledged, barely examined desires to make.

They saw corrosively the shape cut by the arc of their lives.

My parents never made something commensurate to their will to
make, which I take to be, in varying degrees, the general human
condition––as it is my own.

Making is the mirror in which we see ourselves.

Without clarity, a curse, a misfortune.

Horrible the fate of the advice-giver in our culture: to repeat one-
self in a thousand contexts until death, or irrelevance.

I abjure the advice-giver.

Go make you ready.

Slow Dance

There is something beautiful and compelling about dance, in the way that moving around a dance floor and reminiscing about life can seem almost unimaginable one moment and explanatory the next. Believe me, sometimes reading this poem carries me back to the 90’s and REM’s The Man On the Moon, and a whole lot of other images. What does it do for you?

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Slow Dance

by Matthew Dickman

More than putting another man on the moon,
more than a New Year’s resolution of yogurt and yoga,
we need the opportunity to dance
with really exquisite strangers. A slow dance
between the couch and dinning room table, at the end
of the party, while the person we love has gone
to bring the car around
because it’s begun to rain and would break their heart
if any part of us got wet. A slow dance
to bring the evening home, to knock it out of the park. Two people
rocking back and forth like a buoy. Nothing extravagant.
A little music. An empty bottle of whiskey.
It’s a little like cheating. Your head resting
on his shoulder, your breath moving up his neck.
Your hands along her spine. Her hips
undoing like a cotton napkin
and you begin to think about how all the stars in the sky
are dead. The my body
is talking to your body slow dance. The Unchained Melody,
Stairway to Heaven, power-cord slow dance. All my life
I’ve made mistakes. Small
and cruel. I made my plans.
I never arrived. I ate my food. I drank my wine.
The slow dance doesn’t care. It’s all kindness like children before they turn four. Like being held in the arms
of my brother. The slow dance of siblings.
Two men in the middle of the room. When I dance with him,
one of my great loves, he is absolutely human,
and when he turns to dip me
or I step on his foot because we are both leading,
I know that one of us will die first and the other will suffer.
The slow dance of what’s to come
and the slow dance of insomnia
pouring across the floor like bath water.
When the woman I’m sleeping with
stands naked in the bathroom,
brushing her teeth, the slow dance of ritual is being spit
into the sink. There is no one to save us
because there is no need to be saved.
I’ve hurt you. I’ve loved you. I’ve mowed
the front yard. When the stranger wearing a shear white dress
covered in a million beads
comes toward me like an over-sexed chandelier suddenly come to life,
I take her hand in mine. I spin her out
and bring her in. This is the almond grove
in the dark slow dance.
It is what we should be doing right now. Scrapping
for joy. The haiku and honey. The orange and orangutang slow dance.

Aunties

We all have aunties, right? Some who dote on us. Others who pester us for thine kingdom come. Either way they are all part of our lives. And if you’re female and your sibling have children, you might actually be one. I like this poem because it reminds me how simple and gratifying the things in our lives can be.
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Aunties

by Kevin Young

There’s a way a woman
will not
relinquish

her pocketbook
even pulled
onstage, or called up

to the pulpit––
there’s a way only
your Auntie can make it

taste right––
rice & gravy
is a meal

if my late Great Aunt
Toota makes it––
Aunts cook like

there’s no tomorrow
& they’re right.
Too hot

is how my Aunt Tuddie
peppers everything,
her name given

by my father, four, seeing
her smiling in her crib.
There’s a barrel

full of rainwater
beside the house
that my infant father will fall

into, trying to see
himself––the bottom––
& there’s his sister

Margie yanking him out
by his hair grown long
as superstition. Never mind

the flyswatter they chase you
round the house
& into the yard with

ready to whup the daylights
out of you––
that’s only a threat––

Aunties will fix you
potato salad
& save

you some. Godmothers,
godsends,
Aunts smoke like

it’s going out of style––
& it is__
make even gold

teeth look right, shining.
saying I’ll be
John, with a sigh. May way

out of no way––
keep they keys
to the scale that weighed

the cotton, the cane
we raised more
than our share of––

If not them, then who
will win heaven?
holding tight

to their pocketbooks
at the pearly gates
just in case.

Monument

Taken from her  book of poems, Native Guard.

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Monument

by Natasha Trethewey

Today the ants are busy
beside my front steps, weaving
in and out of the hill they’re building.
I watch them emerge and ––

like everything I’ve forgotten –– disappear
into the subterranean –– a world
made by displacement. In the cemetery
last June, I circled, lost ––

weeds and grass grown up all around ––
the landscape blurred and waving.
At my mother’s grave, ants streamed in
and out like arteries, a tiny hill rising

above her untended plot. Bit by bit,
red dirt piled up, spread
like a rash on the grass; I watched a long time
the ants’ determined work,

how they brought up soil
of which she will be part,
and piled it before me. Believe me when I say
I’ve tried not to begrudge them

their industry, this reminder of what
I haven’t done. Even now,
the mound is a blister on my heart,
a red and humming swarm.

Diving into the Wreck

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Diving into the Wreck

by Adrienne Rich

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
abroad the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.
There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
Otherwise
it’s a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.
I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerse me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.
First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.
And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.
I came to explode the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.
This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he
whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breast still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass
We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World

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Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World

by Sherman Alexie

The morning air is all awash with angels…
– Richard Wilbur

The eyes open to a blue telephone
In the bathroom of this five-star hotel.

I wonder whom I should call? A plumber,
Proctologist, urologist, or priest?

Who is most among us and most deserves
The first call? I choose my father because

He’s astounded by bathroom telephones.
I dial home. My mother answers. “Hey, Ma,

I say, “Can I talk to Poppa?” She gasps,
And then I remember that my father

Has been dead for nearly a year. “Shit, Mom,”
I say. “I forgot he’s dead. I’m sorry––

How did I forget?” “It’s okay,” she says.
“I made him a cup of instant coffee

This morning and left it on the table––
Like I have for, what, twenty-seven years––

And I didn’t realize my mistake
Until this afternoon.” My mother laughs

At the angels who wait for us to pause
During the most ordinary of days

And sing our praise to forgetfulness
Before they slap our souls with their cold wings.

Those angels burden and unbalance us.
Those fucking angels ride us piggyback.

Those angels, forever falling, snare us
And haul, prey and praying, into dust.

Churchgoing

There are rituals to life, and going to church may be one of them. I like how Nelson presents the outsider and the believers here. Action and belief make all the difference. And without further ado, Churchgoing.
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Churchgoing

by Marilyn Nelson

The Lutherans sit stolidly in rows;
only their children feel the holy ghost
that makes them jerk and bobble and almost
destroys the pious atmosphere for those
whose reverence bows their backs as if in work.
The congregation sits, or stands to sing,
or chants the dusty creeds automaton.
Their voices drone like engines, on and on,
and they remain untouched by everything;
confession, praise, or likewise, giving thanks.
The organ that they saved years to afford
respects the Sunday rhythms song by song,
slow lips recite the credo, smother yawns,
and ask forgiveness for being so bored.

I, too, am wavering on the edge of sleep,
and ask myself again why I have come
to probe the ruins of this dying cult.
I come bearing the cancer of my doubt
as superstitous suffering woman come
to touch the magic hem of a saint’s robe.

Yet this has served two centuries of men
as more than superstitious cant; they died
believing simply. Women, satisfied
that this was truth, were racked and burned with them
for empty words we moderns merely chant.

We sing a spiritual as the last song,
and we are moved by a peculiar grace
that settles a new aura on the place.
This simple melody, though sung all wrong,
captures exactly what I think is faith.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
That slaves should suffer in his agony!
That Christian, slave-owning hypocrisy
nevertheless was by these slaves ignored
as they pitied the poor body of Christ!
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble,
that they believe most, who must bear a cross.
I think belief is given to the simple
as recompense for what they do not know.

I sit alone, tormented in my heart
by fighting angels, one group black, one white.
The victory is uncertain, but tonight
I’ll lie awake again, and try to start
finding the black way back to what we’ve lost.

 

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A Myth of Innocence

There is something interesting here about looking back and re-examining your life. I like this presentation of Persephone, how she may not have been what we had originally thought. Glück has a way of doing that in her poems, of changing our perceptions. Enjoy, (Persephone:) A Myth of Innocence.

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A Myth of Innocence

by Louise Glück

One summer she goes into the field as usual
stopping for a bit at the pool where she often
looks at herself, to see
if she detects any changes. She sees
the same person, the horrible mantle
of daughterliness still clinging to her.

The sun seems, in the water, very close.
That’s my uncle spying again, she thinks––
everything in nature is in some way her relative.
I am never alone, she thinks,
turning the thought into a prayer.
Then death appears, like the answer to a prayer.

No one understands anymore
how beautiful he was. But Persephone remembers.
Also that he embraced her, right there,
with her uncle watching. She remembers
sunlight flashing on his bare arms.

This is the last moment she remembers clearly.
Then the dark god bore her away.

She also remembers, less clearly,
the chilling insight that from this moment
she couldn’t live without him again.

The girl who disappears from the pool
will never return. A woman will return,
looking for the girl she was.

She stands by the pool saying, from time to time,
I was abducted, but it sounds
wrong to her, nothing like what she felt.
Then she says, I was not abducted.
Then she says, I offered myself, I wanted
to escape my body. Even, sometimes,
I willed this. But ignorance

cannot will knowledge. Ignorance
wills something imagined, which it believes exists.

All the different nouns ––
she says them in rotation.
Death, husband, god, stranger.
Everything sounds so simple, so conventional.
I must have been, she thinks, a simple girl.

She can’t remember herself as that person
but she keeps thinking the pool will remember
and explain to her the meaning of her prayer
so she can understand
whether it was answered or not.

Danse russe

A poem can reach you in one of two ways. As a form of text in a book, or as some to be performed. Recited. This was how this poem reached me, on youtube, of all places. An African American boy reading a poem for a competition. And for your reading delight, I present to you William Carlos Williams.
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Danse Russe

by William Carlos Williams

If when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees, –
if I in my north room
danced naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
“I am lonely, lonely.
I am best so!”
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades, ––

Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?

 

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A Dream Deferred

I remember carrying around this poem with me in secondary school, and then in college. It’s like one of those things when you know that what you want to do is to write. Even when there seems to be nothing there or even when the words are overflowing. I will get to it, you tell yourself, eventually. And that’s exactly how it happens. Your life, your writing as something that happens gradually as you learn how to best yourself.
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A Dream Deferred

by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?