In an interview published by the Antioch Review, Elizabeth Bishop says, “ People seem to think that doing something like writing a poem makes one happier in life. It doesn’t solve anything. Perhaps it does at least give one the satisfaction of having done a thing well or having put in a good day’s work.” I read this interview a few weeks ago and have been thinking about this passage ever since. There are some other gems in this interview conducted by Wesley Wehr in 1966, such as “The fact is that we always tell the truth about ourselves despite ourselves” and “You should have your head filled with poems all the time, until they almost get in your way.” However it’s Bishop’s statement that poetry “doesn’t solve anything” I can’t get out of my head. Perhaps it’s not a matter of agreeing or disagreeing with Bishop, but a matter of understanding what poetry, and art, for that matter, the created thing, does for those who make it and receive it. Does it solve anything for us? Is it meant to? Or is it meant to be a conduit for our frustrations, our fears, our questions? What is made is not always the final statement about any subject—it is a starting place, the beginning of a discussion. By starting the discussion, what does the made thing—the poem, the song, the painting—help us do?
I presented Bishop’s statement to Michael Boccardo in an interview, and he responded, “I don't think that writing a poem is going to solve a problem, but if nothing else, it definitely helps me try to understand emotions or situations that I couldn't decipher under other circumstances.” I like what Michael says here, about the poem helping us to understand our lives and ourselves. We bring the structure of poetry into our lives to help us make sense of them. Poems create order out of chaos, or, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning says of chaos, “ He is nothing more nor less / Than something simple not yet understood.” A poem might not bring us a final answer to our lives, but it takes us a bit further in our understanding. This goes for writing as well as reading. I read poetry for the same reason I write it: to center myself. Poetry offers me a way of thinking that I might not have come to on my own. It’s like having a conversation with a trusted friend: they offer a different way of reflecting on a situation. I take the advice essential to me at the time and carry it with me, and I don’t forget those words. I even go back for them, again and again. This isn’t just the measure of poetry—it’s the measure of an honest conversation, one that we have with ourselves and others. It doesn’t solve anything, but it brings us closer to understanding ourselves and our world, and maybe a little closer to peace.
Our lead poet this month is Michael Boccardo who brings us three knockout poems. I interviewed Michael and not only did we talk about the uses of poetry, but about how the mind works both under the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and outside of this disease. Here’s an excerpt of what Michael says about memory: “[It’s] truly fascinating in how it works, the ways it can manipulate fact and fiction, and alter particular details that reshape the whole landscape of our perception.” I hope you’ll spend time with this poet and his interview.
In relation to the workings of the mind, we have a poem from Dave Nielsen this month. The central image in “Dark Evening” reflects not only the image of a bulb in a window, but something more: the image of wanting to grasp an idea. I’ve read this poem numerous times and love how Nielsen leads us to infinity and the final line.
Our wonderful Associate Poetry Editor Davon Loeb brings us poems and an interview with Sevé Torres. About Torres’ work, Davon writes: Not a word, not a syllable, not a sound used without patience, precision, and purpose, Sevé Torres is truly a poetic musician. His poems are jam-packed with percussion and rhythm, as if the pen was a drum pedal. And not only are these poems lyrical ballads, but they also are the narrative crescendos of everyday life—the disappointments, the joys, and the monotony. Sevé writes “but it seems like bills came due & all that time/ I spent unraveling tongues spun me into reality/ Now I spend most of my time guilting in grades”. Maybe this proves that the oldest instruments are the heart and the mouth—listen to Sevé sing his stories.
We welcome Maureen Alsop back to our column with three new poems that reckon with the observances and phases of the moon. With striking imagery, these poems create a landscape where a battle is fought, where bells morph into the sound of ammunition. Alsop merges the natural world with the manmade: “My briefcase papers askew, our contracts splayed across the field.” This poet is a master of the surreal.
I’ve been a fan of Nandini Dhar for years, and am excited to include one of her poems in our column. Dhar’s poem recreates our ideas about lineage by making a new landscape. In this poem we see not a tree but bone and cartilage, wings and talons. This is not about where we come from but the assumptions that make us: “The darkness of the night carved / into myths unsilences; you are plucking / histories forbidden to young / girls.”
Davon also brings us work by two other poets this month:
Jessica Goody has this story-telling quality about her, as if her poems were Germanic fairy tales—cascading into dreams while grounded in realities. She uses imagery like an artist uses a paint brush, creating vivid portraits and landscapes. In her poem, “Revelation”, Jessica writes, “When the last grain of sand clears the hourglass, / you will lose me, the child-melon of my stomach/ rising like a red balloon, a dream on a string”. And I think we all have those moments when we wake from a dream wishing we wrote something down, and it seems like Jessica Goody has done just that.
Gabrielle M. Peterson’s poem, “the poet died” opens like a window into a memory, which is both intimate and distant, while also questioning the conventions of publishing. This poem feels cathartic as much as it is revelatory, discussing the perils of cancer and its effects on friendship. Gabrielle’s voice is fragile and yet sturdy; she writes, “…and died/ of the same cancer i was falsely diagnosed with when I was/ ten. these are just coincidences that, like clouds, look like something/ if you look hard enough…”
Thank you for visiting our poetry column. We hope these poets have offered you lively conversations.