Kate Abbott: Practical uses for a poem spoken aloud


On a late summer evening, I sat on the deck at my friends' house. They had a candle burning on the table. I sat with bare feet stretched out. Two small boys ran across the lawn and climbed on the swingset.

And Rachel, sitting beside me, said aloud,

"This is the time of year

when almost every night

the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.

Climbing the mountain height,

rising toward a saint

still honored in these parts,

the paper chambers flush and fill with light

that comes and goes, like hearts. ..."

She spoke the whole of Elizabeth Bishop's "The Armadillo."

The words settled into the candlelight and the sound of cicadas. She made the night and the people listening around her something fragile and beautiful and strong. It was one of the brightest moments of the last year, for me.

A lot went into that evening -- long friendship, and the summer mountains, and all that leads us to live here.

Rachel, remembering that poem, made me feel all that.

And she did it naturally, as simply as cutting up an orange to float in a pitcher, because for her, poetry is familiar. It's part of daily life.

Poetry has a use.

It's like tasting different kinds of food. We learn what's out there -- Tamarind paste at the Asian market on North Street, papusas at Richmond Bakery, sausage at Maria's European Delights, dumplings at Flavours. And we may remember a taste, and try making something new at home, like the recipe from a friend that has led me to make a kale salad with tangerine vinegar, red onion, kalamata olives, garlic olive oil and fresh orange juice.

In the same way, feeling the world, and talking about it, may help me to see what's there, and what can be there.

Poetry makes me more aware of where I am, or what I feel, or what I want.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it "the best words in the best order" -- it is the clearest way to express an experience, a time and place, a part of living.

So I understand Michelle Gillett's disappointment with poems that seemed to distance themselves from what the writer felt and even from what the poem talked about.

She's not alone. Alan Feldman wrote for the Massachusetts Poetry Festival about an evening of poetry inspired by paintings: "Few of the poems (including mine) made the connection between the painting and the personal experience it evoked."

Thinking back, he felt that he could have written that poem better.

And so I also understand why Gillett wants people to talk about poems, what moves them and what baffles them. Reading a poem or a story with care, and thinking it through, and putting your thoughts in order is a compliment to the writer. When someone takes the time to think about my work, when someone is willing to work to make something of mine better, I am moved and thankful.

I am most moved when they will also listen to me and understand what matters to me most. And I am lucky to have known them as often as I have, and as closely.

The critics who change me most are the ones who hold me while they talk.

Poets about town

The Bookstore

Cristie Newhart will read and recite poetry by Emily Dickinson, 7 p.m. Friday, and talk about some of Dickinson's familiar and lesser-known work. 11 Houatonic St., Lenox. (413) 637-3390

Powder Keg session

Suzy Banks Baum offers a drop-in writing workshops for women, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday: A safe and comfortable place for self-expression, Ramsdell Public Library, 1087 Main St., Housatonic.

Carolyn Forché

Poet and activist, reads at University of Albany, Thursday, Jan. 30: Seminar 4:15 p.m. at science library and reading 8 p.m. in recital hall, uptown campus. Forché has written three collections and co-edited with Duncan Wu ‘Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001' -- an anthology of ‘poems composed ... while their authors awaited execution, endured imprisonment, fought on the battlefield or labored on the brink of breakdown or death.' www.albany.edu


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