For Big Tent Poetry prompt – What is your favorite poem? What about it makes it your favorite? Does it contain an image that rocks your poetry world? Does it provide a realization that changes you? Do you admire its poetic devices (metaphor, alliteration, repetition, form, etc.)? Whatever it is you like about your favorite poem, try to use that in a poem of your own.
Confession: I don’t have a favorite poem, I have hundreds of them and each one for a different reason. But the prompt put me in mind of something I did for my senior thesis in college. The thesis was done in three parts, the middle part, titled Counterpoint Harmony, contained poems I wrote in response to the poets I had explored and studied during my courses. I have chosen three of them to post to the prompt today (and no, it isn’t because I’m an overachiever).
Several weeks ago, I posted a poem titled The Call. In it, I alluded to the three elements I believe are essential if one is to define oneself as a writer: The Prophet, The Hermit, and The Poet. At least they are that for me. I did not start writing poetry until I was almost forty. These three people, their gift of words, represent those three essential elements for me. And if I find even one of those elements in a poem, it immediately gets added to that long list of favorites.
The first piece needs a bit of explanation. I was unaware that my mentor and adviser was a published poet. I found his poem in the back of a Literary Analysis textbook as a representation of good Modern American Poetry. I can not cite the poem, only give you a cite that lists the man’s credentials, and as I far as I know, Dr. Kummings is now retired.
A bit of our story is chronicled in the About page on this site. His poem began with a comment about how Wallace Stevens invented 13 Blackbirds, continued to an image of a foreign market place in which he saw a crow. And somehow, through the alchemy of harmony and invention, ends with the statement the he invented Wallace Stevens. I loved it, created this piece in response, and gave it to him as a Christmas present one year.
After The Waters Of Distress*
Donald Kummings invented Wallace Stevens
when he learned of the crow
hidden deep in the wings of a blackbird.
I have seen a glistening crow
flash dull scarlet flecks
as she strolled
through full summer sunlight.
And have known a type of blackbird
who wears the wound of her flight
as a bright crimson slash on her sleeve.
During those first forty years,
my blood moved as slow
as a sluggish stream in a low
almost barren landscape.
Then was quickened to a river
by the clear runoff
from a not too distant mountain.
Now cuts a new course
and waters that land,
while fingering invention.
My blood is one
with the blackbird and crow,
the first a swift slash
the other, sunlit reflection.
Yes, I have read Wallace Stevens,
but have been taught
by Donald Kummings.
* When the Lord has given you the bread of suffering and the waters of distress, he who is your teacher will hide no longer, and you will see your teacher with your own eyes. Whether you turn to right or left, your ears will hear these words behind you, “This is the way, follow it.”
__ Isaiah 30:20-21
The Jerusalem Bible
When The Devil Spoke*
(to Sharon Olds)
Yours was the first voice.
A Baptist crying in my wilderness,
and I was a blind woman,
yet to meet Lady Lazarus,**
believing that Mercy Street***
was no more than a haunting song
on a record album.
Fingertips pressed to the page,
I brailed your story
and felt in the shadows
of its spaces
a sense of my own.
You separated spirit from law
and entrusted it to my empty
where I knew its flutter
on the inside curve
of my palm.
Too soon, you were joined
by a multitude,
each demanding a moment
at my thirsting ear,
but yours was the first voice,
from which I drank.
* Satan Says __ first book of poems by Sharon Olds
** Lady Lazarus __ poem by Sylvia Plath
*** 45 Mercy Street __ book of poems by Anne Sexton
Sharon Olds’ poetry can be found here: http://www.poemhunter.com/sharon-olds/
This last piece, again, needs a bit of explanation. I first heard Lucille Clifton read her poetry on a video tape inside a classroom. I watched as a large black woman, with short curly silver-white hair, stepped to the podium, looked straight into the camera, her eyes alight with joy and delight, as she read Ode To My Hips. And I knew, by the time she finished, what I wanted to be when I grew up (was forty at the time). The first section of this next poem was written before I graduated.
A few years later, I had the opportunity to go to Chicago and hear Lucille read her poetry live. At the end of the reading, she also read a series of five new poems which she had titled The Shapeshifter Poems. Three things happened that evening:
1. I knew that I had been correct that day in that classroom.
2. I waited afterward, for two hours to meet and get Lucille’s autograph. When I told her about my first response to the video, I was surrounded by the musical laughter that matched those bright alive eyes.
3. Before I could go to sleep that night, I got out my original manuscript of this poem and added the last section to it. When I begin to doubt the sense of what I do, I remember that night, this poem, and still know I am in the right place, doing the right thing. Rest in peace, Lucille.
To Lucille Clifton
You make me wanna be black.
Not your skin honey, that’s just
the fragile bag which holds
your story. No, its the texture,
that substance within which absorbs
all other colors and then flashes
them back, one at a time
in a light of your choosing.
My hips too, are big, round
and weighted, no longer spin
a man like a top. Knit one once,
twenty years past, got tangled
in his turning.
I too, own a little girl inside.
Grew with trees, learned to bend
in a breeze, that carries music
of her own making.
You tell your women to laugh
at a white man’s good thing.
My white-haired mother said,
when I was forty, I was still
young enough to make something
of my failing.
You would have young boys
teach men to walk like men.
I would have a son to dance
more like me, less on string
tied to his father’s finger.
You remember your father
on Fridays, when you pay the bills.
I remember mine as a peace-at-any
price man, who with a disappointed
glance across our lived in space, could
cover me with guilt, leave me
yearning for redemption.
You call him Shapeshifter.
His daughter sleeps in my living
room. She calls him ‘The Big Guy,’
sometimes laughs at back
of her throat and names him
‘The Gorilla.’ I have traveled many
nights, the hallway from my bed
to where she moans, trembling
from night terrors, terrible dreams
that won’t allow her any real sleep.
Know your fury when you remember
there is nothing you will not bear
for this woman’s sake,
as I struggle to find words
that will call her from numbing
darkness which has held her captive
for over half of her existence.
Lucille, your name means Light,
and you are the brightness that calls
to me. You will always be a far better
poet, perhaps much wiser human being.
Please forgive me, for I will give
him no name. I will give him
You can find Lucille Clifton’s poetry here:
As I said at the beginning of this post, these three individuals represent those three essential elements I find of utter necessity. They appear here, in the order in which they became a part of my awareness. It’s up to you to figure out which is which. As for me, if you are out there Dr. Kummings, I owe you big time, lol.
Elizabeth Crawford 7/23/10