Poetry
12:34 am
Sat April 6, 2013

Does Poetry Still Matter? Yes Indeed, Says NPR NewsPoet

Originally published on Sun April 7, 2013 6:08 am

April is the cruelest month, according to one of the most famous poems in the English language. Perhaps to take the edge off of April, the Academy of American Poets chose it as the month to draw attention to the art and legacy of poetry — and the achievement of American poets.

We're celebrating this month by hearing from young poets about how they chose — or were chosen by — poetry, and why poetry — one of the oldest human art forms — still matters.

Poet Tracy K. Smith won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2012 collection Life on Mars; she also served as NPR's first NewsPoet, spending a day in the newsroom and writing about her experience there. She tells NPR's Scott Simon that poetry still has the power to change lives. "I work with a lot of young people who have poems that are changing their lives, that they're eager to talk about, but every now and then when I meet someone, maybe someone of my parents' generation, and I tell them that I write poetry, they'll begin to recite something that they memorized when they were in school that has never left them."

Smith teaches creative writing at Princeton, and she says her students often start out exploring everyday, surface issues in their poetry, "which has to do with dorm life and college experience," she says, "but as we push forward into the semester and as they read more, they start to think about things that maybe take them out of their own points of view." Smith says she encourages her students to write "persona poems," in the voices of other people they may or may not know, "to see if the poem can be a way of teaching them about another kind of experience. But they also have, you know, a lot of poems that have to do with the things that never go away for us, like love or grief."

"We all need poetry," Smith says — even hedge fund managers. "The moments in our lives that are characterized by language that has to do with necessity or the market, or just, you know, things that take us away from the big questions that we have, those are the things that I think urge us to think about what a poem can offer." Even the students who probably won't keep writing poetry can learn from poems, Smith says. "The things that a poem can teach them to see and to hear and to listen for are necessary."

One thing that isn't necessary, Smith says, is rhyme — no "moons in June" in her class. "I want them to think in a way that feels more natural and more in keeping with the lexicon in which they live," she says.

Once the students develop their skills a bit, she adds, "then I say, OK, now what would happen if you were to take some of these thoughts and questions that you live with, and ask them to bend to the requirements of a traditional form? And sometimes really wonderful things happen. I believe that form can urge you to see things differently, quite frankly because a rhyme is going to push you to associate words together differently than you would in ordinary thought."


From Life on Mars, by Tracy K. Smith

WHEN YOUR SMALL FORM TUMBLED INTO ME

I lay sprawled like a big-game rug across the bed:
Belly down, legs wishbone-wide. It was winter.
Workaday. Your father swung his feet to the floor.
The kids upstairs dragged something back and forth
On shrieking wheels. I was empty, blown-through
By whatever swells, swirling, and then breaks
Night after night upon that room. You must have watched
For what felt like forever, wanting to be
What we passed back and forth between us like fire.
Wanting weight, desiring desire, dying
To descend into flesh, fault, the brief ecstasy of being.
From what dream of world did you wriggle free?
What soared — and what grieved — when you aimed your will
At the yes of my body alive like that on the sheets?

Tracy K. Smith, "When Your Small Form Tumbled into Me," from Life on Mars. Copyright 2011 by Tracy K. Smith. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minn.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

April is the cruelest month - so begins one of the most famous poems in the English language. So maybe to take the edge off of April, the Academy of American Poets chose the month as a time to draw attention to the art and legacy of poetry, and the achievements of American poets.

So here on WEEKEND EDITION, we'll celebrate this month by hearing from younger poets about how they chose, or were chosen by, poetry; and for that matter why poetry, one of the oldest human art forms, still matters. We're starting the series with a luminary - a great teacher, too - Tracy K. Smith, who won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for her collection, "Life on Mars." She teaches at Princeton, and joins us from the studios of KWBU in Waco, Texas. Thanks very much for being with us.

TRACY K. SMITH: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Are there people who still cite poems that changed their lives?

SMITH: Oh, I think so. I happen to work with a lot of young people who have poems that are changing their lives, that they're eager to talk about. But every now and then, when I meet someone - maybe someone of my parents' generation - and I tell them that I write poetry, they'll begin to recite something that they memorized when they were in school, that has never left them.

SIMON: What are students writing about, these days?

SMITH: Well, a lot of students start out writing about what's, you know, on the surface in front of them, which has to do with dorm life and college experience. But as we push forward into the semester and as they read more, they start to think about things that maybe take them out of their own points of view.

SIMON: So do you tell them that even if they're a hedge fund manager, poetry can play a role in their lives?

SMITH: Yeah. I do, yeah.

SIMON: Maybe especially if they're a hedge fund manager.

SMITH: (LAUGHTER) Yeah. I feel like we all need poetry. The moments in our lives that are characterized by language that has to do with, you know, a necessity or the market or just, you know, things that take us away from the big questions that we have, those are the things that I think urge us to think about what a poem can offer.

SIMON: Do they have to rhyme?

SMITH: No. I want them to think in a way that feels more natural, and more in keeping with the lexicon in which they live. And once they get a little bit of facility with that, then I said, OK; now, what would happen if you were to take some of these thoughts and questions that you live with - and ask them to bend the requirements of a traditional form. And sometimes, really wonderful things happen.

SIMON: Let me ask a practical question on life as a poet. If you happen to walk into the Volkswagen dealership and decide you want to buy something and you're filling out the forms, does the salesman say, oh, a poet, great!

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: Well, you know, in those kinds of situations, I think it's really convenient to put professor as the profession. You know, on airplanes and in social settings, the poet comes up first as the vocation, the profession. But on those dotted lines, it's usually something that has an institution behind it that makes the most sense.

SIMON: Children seem to connect with poetry quiet naturally. Maybe it's the love of wordplay at a time when they play with everything in life.

SMITH: I think children live in metaphor. I love the kinds of things that my daughter will say, from time to time. And I wish that there was a way - or I hope that there is a way that maybe as a poet, I can encourage her to maintain that kind of perspective, and that kind of love of play and of likening one thing to another without even realizing that's what's she's doing.

SIMON: Can you give us a poem?

SMITH: I'd love to. Speaking of my daughter, this is a poem called "When Your Small Form Tumbled into Me." (Reading) I lay sprawled like a big game rug across the bed, belly down, legs wishbone wide. It was winter, work-a-day. Your father swung his feet to the floor. The kids upstairs dragged something back and forth on shrieking wheels. I was empty, blown through by whatever swells, swirling and then brakes night after night upon that room. You must have watched for what felt like forever, wanting to be what we passed back and forth between us like fire; wanting weight, desiring desire, dying to descend into flesh, fault, the brief ecstasy of being. From what dream of world did you wriggle free? What soared, and what grieved, when you aimed your will at the yes of my body, alive like that on the sheets?

SIMON: That's a beautiful poem. Thank you.

SMITH: Thank you.

SIMON: Tracy K. Smith, who is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection "Life on Mars." Thanks so much for being with us. And Happy Poetry Month.

SMITH: Happy Poetry Month to you. And thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And tomorrow on WEEKEND EDITION, we'll hear from Nicholas Friedman, a poet and English lecturer at Cornell.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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