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One of my dearest college professors, a trim man with a gentle face, elegant attire and the enviable posture of a gentleman — or a soldier — once said, “The only people who understand poetry are poets.”
I filed away his words and, for some time, returned to them like doctrine. Convinced of poetry’s enigma, I rarely gave verse a chance.
Then I came across Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish poet (but if you want to split hairs, he was born in Lithuania) and his piece inspired by the death of Christopher Robin Milne. Name sound familiar? Christopher Robin was the child of A. A. Milne, author of the Winnie the Pooh stories; those tales were based on his son’s toys. Milosz’s poem is written from the perspective of that famous bear. The first lines:
“I must think suddenly of matters too difficult for a bear of little brain. I have never asked myself what lies beyond the place where we live, I and Rabbit, Piglet and Eeyore, with our friend Christopher Robin. That is, we continued to live here, and nothing changed, and I just ate my little something. Only Christopher Robin left for a moment.”
It’s a sweet, short meditation on life, death and time through the eyes of an old bear. I read all the Milosz I could find, and then my mind wandered back to childhood. I remembered my mother’s poetry collections — by Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks — neatly tucked into bookshelves in the basement. I’d slide them out on summer afternoons, glide my eyes across the pages, understanding some words, though not all. Still, I was entranced.
After the Milosz and the memories, I realized: I had poetry all wrong, as did my professor. It isn’t unintelligible. But it isn’t always easy, either. Poetry requires something of us. Often, it insists on patience; it pushes us toward a second or third reading. Poems are distilled stories — they’re full of potent imagery with little context, ideas without an excess of explanation.
There is a rigor to poetry. Put in the work, and you’ll reap the reward.
April is National Poetry Month. We asked four poets to write pieces inspired by spring. As you enjoy the beauty of the season’s blooms, we hope you’ll take a moment to savor a few poems, too.
S. Yarberry is a trans poet and writer. Their poetry has appeared in, or is forthcoming in, Tin House, Indiana Review, the Offing, Berkeley Poetry Review, jubilat, Nat Brut and miscellaneous zines. Their other writings can be found in Bomb Magazine and Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly. S. is an MFA candidate in poetry at Washington University in St. Louis and the poetry editor of the Spectacle.
Artist’s statement: “I wrote this poem just as the seasons turned — that first day where the thrill of spring is palpable, where the world is waking up. It’s kind of funny, to feel melancholy and dreary when the world around you is so unabashedly beautiful — flowers in bloom, birds singing. I wanted to consider the imagery, the movement, the hum of excitement on a spring morning and how this external landscape interacts with the internal landscape: the simultaneity of the world ripening with desire, while the speaker is living with exceptional loneliness.”
K Ming Chang lives in New York. Her poetry has been anthologized in Ink Knows No Borders, Best New Poets 2018, Bettering American Poetry Vol. 3 and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. She is a Lambda Literary Award finalist in lesbian poetry. Her debut novel, “Bestiary,” is forthcoming from One World/Random House.
Artist’s statement: “I thought a lot about spring as a season of renewal and regrowth and how regrowth is made possible by death and circularity. The poem is inspired by spring in Yilan, Taiwan (an island of rain and decay and renewal).”
Christine G. Adams is the recipient of two Academy of American Poets Prizes, the winner of the 2018 Prairie Schooner Summer Nonfiction Prize and the runner-up for the 2018 Gulf Coast Prize in nonfiction. She is currently a PhD student in creative nonfiction at Ohio University. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she served as the Fred Chappell fellow and poetry editor of the Greensboro Review. Her poetry and essays can be found in Prairie Schooner, Grist, Best New Poets and Passages North, among others.
Artist’s statement: “I really do have a potted lemon tree that was given to me by someone I loved, which is currently doing all the things that it does in this poem. My mother really is trying to grow grass on her mother’s grave. The natural world often bears the marks of our human desires, cruelties and kindnesses. I think watching the struggles and cycles of growth gave me a way to contextualize the larger questions the poem is asking: How do we cope with losing someone we love; what do we owe to one another in life, in love and in death; how do we come to terms with the fact that loving invites pain into our lives in variable ways? I hope the poem, for all the sadness it contains, also offers a reader some small solace, just as the lemon tree does in the ending.”
Kush Thompson is the author of “A Church Beneath the Bulldozer,” a womanist, painter, avid “As Told By Ginger” watcher, Native Foods regular and former chapter co-chair of Black Youth Project 100 Chicago. She is a 2018 first-year Cave Canem fellow, 2017 Luminarts Creative Writing Fellow, one of the Root’s 2015 Young Futurists and was voted runner-up best local poet of 2014 by the Chicago Reader.
Artist’s statement: “In 2012, Rekia Boyd was 22 when she was killed by off-duty Chicago police officer Dante Servin, as she stood in an alley with a group of friends. Her name is among the endless spoken into immortality by the #SayHerName movement. The campaign, born in the wake and growth of Black Lives Matter, centers the range of violence against black women and femmes. When we say her name, we remind ourselves to celebrate the fight in us, and we keep the country from forgetting what victims of police violence look like. Rekia’s favorite color was yellow.”
Editor’s note: In this piece, the writer uses “blk” when speaking specifically to the spirit of blackness and “black” to communicate external blackness.