Thursday Poem: The Heart of Harlem by Langston Hughes

In light of last week’s horrific events at Charleston, I wanted this week to showcase poetry by brilliant African-American poets, and I didn’t know which one to choose. I don’t need terrorist attacks, or the continuing murder of innocent Black people in America, to make such an effort – if I did, I’d be posting these every single day. Which I honestly wouldn’t mind, given the sheer depth and range of outstanding poetry available, but I don’t have that kind of time or energy or capacity for heartbreak. As Claudia Rankine discusses here in her excellent NYT editorial, nobody has that capacity; we were not built to withstand grief applied on such a colossal scale.

With that said, as a writer of colour, a non-white poet, an Arab Australian – forgive the repetition, I’m having difficulty with identifiers these days, I keep writing them out to see if one will stick – I have been drawn from the outset to African-American writers, to their struggle. In Australia, Arab youths often play the same part ascribed to our African-American counterparts, both in popular culture and politically; in the first instance, seen as being suspicious, violent, attracted to and proponents of hip hop culture, and in the latter, as dangerous outsiders not compatible with mainstream society (read: white) and its values, as terrorists, as rapists, etc.

Similarly, as well, many of us grew up in poor government-subsidised suburbs rife with the systemic issues that were our daily lives but which only occasionally flared up into the kind of sensationalized stuff the media likes to run with – the drug dealing, welfare claims and gangland violence typically. So it’s no wonder we appropriated, consciously or unconsciously, many aspects of hip hop culture – a term I use as separate to Black culture as a whole, not as a synonym, just to be clear. Nor was it entirely a negative thing, for us growing up, it was more empowering than anything else (though I have a different opinion of it now broadly, being a bisexual man and feminist). But I digress, I just wanted to briefly outline my connection to this subject, these people, in such a way that highlights the similarities in the spaces we occupy in our respective nations today; beyond the symbolic cultural ties and narratives, it becomes a vastly different lived experience, to which I cannot attest.

I typically do not seek out particular voices for this little weekly segment of mine; I merely respond to whichever poem hit me hardest that day, that week, yet somehow, when I look back on the list of poets I’ve spoken about, it is fittingly diverse. I decided to be deliberate in my choice this week in part because of Claudia Rankine’s searing writing in the piece linked to above; I recognized how often the Black voices I was hearing in my day to day life were voices strained with pain, with grief, with rage and loss. Recognised that many of the stories I was reading were acts of memorial, that the deluge of poetry blurred into the names of victims; this is a song they have always been singing, a poem and a grief constantly being updated. But it is not the only one I’ve heard, nor need it be the only one discussed, and so I found myself thinking of one of my favourite poets, Langston Hughes, and one of my favourite poems, The Heart of Harlem.

It is not an inconsequential jaunt, and it is not without the context of oppression or suffering; it speaks to the realities I’ve discussed, but it’s also a deeply joyous poem brimming with his love for this place, his home, Harlem, with its hardships and all. I love its rhythm — Hughes is in a category of his own there — I love the lyricism, the evocation of this landscape; I love its uncompromising love, and the fierceness that runs throughout. The message here is a powerful one, and it is outlined from the beginning, which is that Harlem and indeed any place, is so much more than the structures, the buildings and institutions which govern it, it is the people themselves. I can’t quite the spacing entirely right (copying it out of the book) but here it is in full:

The Heart of Harlem

The buildings in Harlem are brick and stone
And the streets are long and wide,
But Harlem’s much more than these alone,
Harlem is what’s inside—
It’s a song with a minor refrain,
It’s a dream you keep dreaming again.
It’s a tear you turn into a smile.
It’s the sunrise you know is coming after a while.
It’s the shoe that you get half-soled twice.
It’s the kid you hope will grow up nice.
It’s the hand that’s working all day long.
It’s prayer that keeps you going along—
That’s the Heart of Harlem!

It’s Joe Louis and Dr. W. E. B.,
A stevedore, a porter, Marian Anderson, and me.
It’s Father Divine and the music of Earl Hines,
Adam Powell in Congress, our drives on bus lines.
It’s Dorothy Maynor and it’s Billie Holiday,
The lectures at the Schomburg and Apollo down
the way.
It’s Father Shelton Bishop and shouting Mother Horne.
It’s the Rennie and the Savoy where new dances are
It’s Canada Lee’s penthouse at Five-Fifty-Five.
It’s Small’s Paradise and Jimmy’s little dive.
It’s 409 Edgecombe or a cold-water walk-up flat—
But it’s where I live and it’s where my love is at
Deep in the Heart of Harlem!

It’s the pride all Americans know.
It’s the faith God gave us long ago.
It’s the strength to make our dreams come true.
It’s a feeling warm and friendly given to you.
It’s that girl with the rhythmical walk.
It’s my boy with the jive in his talk.
It’s the man with muscles of steel.
It’s the right to be free a people never will yield.
A dream…a song…half-soled shoes…dancing shoes
A tear…a smile…the blues…sometimes the
Mixed with the memory…and forgiveness…of our wrong.
But more than that, it’s freedom—
Guarded for the kids who came along—
Folks, that’s the Heart of Harlem!

Thursday Poetics: Ben Lerner on “Disliking Poetry”

So, I’m going to do something a little different today. Recently, I read a fascinating essay by Ben Lerner on ‘Disliking Poetry‘, which is equal parts lovely writing and interesting thoughts about the nature of poems, so I actually wanted to take some time to respond to that. There’s a lot that he says and I don’t want to be too reductive here but I’m going to break it down into two main points (but you should definitely read the whole thing) and then talk about what’s being said. The first is:

What if we dislike or despise or hate poems because they are – every single one of them – failures? The poet and critic Allen Grossman tells a story (there are many versions of the story) that goes like this: you’re moved to write a poem because of some transcendent impulse to get beyond the human, the historical, the finite. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. So the poem is always a record of failure.

And the second is:

Even writers and critics allergic to anything resembling avant-garde rhetoric often express anger at poetry’s failure to achieve any real political effects. The avant-garde imagines itself as hailing from the future it wants to bring about, but many people express disappointment in poetry for failing to live up to the political power it supposedly possessed in the past.

Either subject is worth its own essay, but I don’t have much time or energy, so forgive my brusqueness. Here, in short, is my response: I think it’s true that poetry is by definition self-defeating, that no poem will ever completely capture the transcendent sensation or inspiration which first prompts the poet to put pen to paper, which sets the soul to spinning. There is no means of transferring the intangible into a fixed form without necessarily losing something in the process, so yes, when looked at this way, you can say every poem is a failure. This is also true, it must be said, of every artistic process; even the painter cannot replicate the sky as fully or as brightly as he or she might like, and even though a passerby might not be able to tell the difference between the two, the painter will always be dissatisfied, knowing the range of colours available are simply not comparable to the limitless array of pigments effortlessly used by the atmosphere. So it is with the poet – words will never be enough. We are simply no match for the poetry of the everyday; the river, the mountain, the refuse heap.

In terms, however, of poems failing as artistic products thereafter, of never achieving some expected unifying grandeur as extolled by the likes of Whitman, I disagree. This is blaming poetry for something outside of its power — largely, what we think of it and what it should be doing — as well complain about a vacuum cleaner which can’t fix your broken marriage. You might have thought it would when you bought it, but that it doesn’t is entirely your fault. The problem here is the notion that the poem is the end point, is finished when it is written, and so when there isn’t an immediate result thereafter – should the poem have a socially progressive or political message for example – it can seem as if it has failed. However, I — and I think many poets would agree — don’t see a single poem as the end point but rather the beginning, I don’t see it as finished, I see it as always being written.

A poem (with these lofty aims, and as Lerner says, not all do) needn’t be the change or even the catalyst to dramatic action; I see it as the Kafkaesque icepick we use to hammer open frozen points in local, state, national and global conversations ongoing at any moment. I see it as dialogue, just one spark among many, the brighter and hotter it is, the better, but it needn’t be the sun. Don’t hate it for not being the sun, that way lies madness. Enjoy it instead for its temporary light, which like our lives, is made precious by its smallness, by the knowledge it will flicker out unless it touches something – someone – however briefly and sets off a mirroring flare.

Here is where it matters that poems are always being written; when you read a powerful poem, it carries on inside you, filtered through the lens of your experience and culture, mutating and changing until it comes out in another way, maybe not as a poem but an impromptu speech to a friend which moves them to vote in the next election, or maybe as an unasked for gift to your partner which is not a vacuum cleaner but a night spent appreciating each other or the night, or maybe as a painting, as an especially thankful day lost in the rewarding exertion of building houses.

In this way, it could be argued as well that the intangible otherness which first lent itself to the creation of the poem continues forever in others — the originating poet cannot experience it, it is beyond him now — and that its impact when looked at objectively is impossible to weigh. Just as we cannot measure a smile, or what it might offer to a stranger, so too, the same can be said for poetry, this endless evolution of language, this ephemeral light made solid and then not again, every day.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I would hate to leave y’all without a link to some excellent poetry I’ve read through the week, so just quickly, here are a couple of gems I came across:

1. The Robots Are Coming by Kyle Dargan (really, anything by Dargan, he’s great)

2. Three Poems by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib (powerful & beautiful writing here).


Thursday Poem: Let Me Tell You What A Poem Brings by Juan Fellipe Herrera

In light of the recent appointment of Juan Fellipe Herrera as U.S Poet Laureate, I thought it would be remiss of me not to talk about one of his poems. Among all the various articles written about him recently, one quoted phrase in particular snagged my attention. It was from his poem Let Me Tell You What A Poem Brings, and it is as simple as this:

Before you go further,
let me tell you what a poem brings,
first, you must know the secret, there is no poem
to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries
Rather than go through the minutia of what is already a miniature poem (though so breathtakingly large at the same time), I’m just going to use this as a launching point to talk about poetry because it speaks to me on such a personal level and because I’ve been thinking about it a great deal lately.
A lot of people don’t like poems which refer directly to or are themselves about poetry, what it means and why we write it – in fact, some journals explicitly ask you not to submit them. Types like this poem today, in fact. I don’t understand that attitude honestly, and not just because I’m inclined to enjoy them; it just seems to me that reflection is intrinsic to the art itself, and so surely there can be nothing more natural for the poet than to look closely at what compels him or her to write it. It’s also, in this deeply commodity-obsessed capitalist culture, an oddity, an aberration; it pays little-to-nothing, and yet here we are devoting our lives to it.

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Thursday Poem: The Place Where Clouds Are Formed by Ofelia Zepeda

I have always loved the sky.

Any writer who has been writing for longer than a few months will come to recognise that there are some constants in his or her work, some elements which sneak into every narrative. One of mine is the sky, and my obsession with it goes beyond rationality. A few years ago I had to get up around 5am to get to work at a reasonable hour, and I remember shuffling up the winding wave of road that led from my house to the bus stop, bundled up against the cold, and stopping every few feet to look up at the sunrise, at the symphony of colours. I fucking loved it.

It wasn’t just a matter of timing, however; even when I came home in the afternoon, I would still be inclined to stop and look up, and after a while, I became convinced that this particular patch of sky was better than any other I’d laid eyes on. It makes no sense, I know, but it’s as if in my mind each eyeful of sky I see has been assigned to an artist and this particular patch in the suburbs of Western Sydney was just lucky enough to be the product of a maestro. I imagine there have to be some dull vistas out there, but I have yet to see it, and I could quite honestly spend an entire day simply staring upward.

It took me a while to understand why, but I have since traced it back to boyhood noontimes, idling flat on my back with grass prickling my shoulder blades, pointing at the fluffy oddness of clouds and describing what they liked like, to great debate among friends. A debate which was meaningless of course because the clouds were always shifting, drifting, falling apart, being remade by the wind into smaller iterations of their former self, reduced to nothing, and then back in a breath (it seemed), bigger and blacker and badder than ever. See, that’s what I love about the sky – it is constantly changing. Even on a bright sunny day absent of white, spend just a few moments staring at the sky and you will notice the gradient of blue slowly changing.

I am addicted to that change – it is for the same reason I can become captivated by a river, even one as dull and littered with garbage barges as the Hudson; the rippling waters, the shivering surface, the ceaseless forward motion will forever capture my attention. No doubt my addiction to change is influenced by inclement weather, terrifying thunder and storms occurring only when the clouds stopped moving fast enough and instead merged into the one huge block of bulging wetness and murk. No doubt the fact I didn’t have a stable home and moved dozens of times as a child also had a part to play; my point is simply that I am absolutely fascinated by the curvature of the world above us. So when I saw the title of this poem, The Place Where Clouds Are Formed, I knew I was in for a treat. It begins:

Every day it is the same.
He comes home.
He tells her about it.
As he speaks, his breath condenses in front of his face.

I love this opening; it’s simple, to the point, utterly ordinary and totally fucking weird all at once. It’s an evocative image, clouds bubbling out of lips, ballooning in front of his face. It would be comical and cartoonish if not for the sparseness of language, the almost-dread it evokes. I’m just wildly in love with the concept. Simply having clouds in the house would have been enough for me, but that it’s internalised entirely within him, and is emerging only when he comes home, when he is not in fact outside or in view of clouds and even then only when he speaks of this place, all of that makes it so much better, heightens the surreal nature of it.

She sees the soft fog that continues to form a halo.
She knows he is still talking about that place.
He never tires of it like she does.
Only on summer days when the air is hot
and moisture is still a long time in coming,
she asks him to tell her about that place.

Ambiguity is a lovely thing employed with enough skill, and it proves to be the case here. There are two points of it moving in opposition to each other, meeting in the middle; the first is that he has seen The Place Where Clouds Are Formed and he likes telling her of it, and the second is that when he does his breath becomes clouds. The magic realism of it is bewitching, and it is left up to you to decide, really, if there is in fact a place from which clouds come, and if they are emerging from his lips, or if she is simply imagining them. Both experiences seem very real to each of them, for different reasons.

He begins, “The first time I saw the place
where clouds are formed was from
the window of a train . . .”
Another time was in a mirage
in the heat outside Tucson.
Once he thought he saw it
in the dry light of stars.

This poem shines brightest when simple language and simple images like these are used to such great effect, with the short sharp lines having the dual effect of driving you through the poem and emphasising the power of the moments highlighted. There are one or two moments where the poem stretches to accommodate not-so-simple words which aren’t in keeping with the rest, but that’s a minor quibble. We learn that this mythical place of cloud-origin shifts, disappearing and reappearing like, well, you guessed it — but maybe not in places you would expect, like in people, as he comes to find it in the eyes of a woman.

Like a child, he rushed to look
into her eyes at every opportunity.
If he could, he would hang on her eye socket,
peering inside,
marveling at her displays.

And in turn, the woman narrating the poem sees that the place is actually in him, issuing forth when he speaks of it, and so when she is in need of shade and moisture, she prods him like he was her very own weather machine and so changes the world around her by delving into the depths of him. This is, quite simply, a gorgeous poem, and I could talk about it at much greater length but I’m already running late for a thing outside, where the sky waits, so I’ll leave you to discover its wonders for yourself.

Thursday Poem: Fishing On The Susquehanna in July, by Billy Collins

It seems I have a thing for long titles all of a sudden. Finding a poem this week was harder than most, I had a dozen maybes, but nothing that quite clinched it for me. It’s not enough for a poem to be good, or even great, it has to also spark something in me that warrants elaboration. I was straining for something while searching today and didn’t realize what it was until I found this poem, Fishing On The Susquehanna in July. It begins:

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.
Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure — if it is a pleasure —
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

I love this opening salvo, and the way it immediately disabuses the reader of any notion they might have had about the poem based on the title. I think titles are often neglected in poetry, they’re not given their due as an extra line, another facet to the poem, and there are few people as good as Billy Collins in using that extra dimension to either get things going, or to re-contextualise a poem once it’s ended. Here, it’s the former of course and we discover for all that this poem is about fishing, Collins knows fuck all about it and you know what? It doesn’t matter in the slightest.

This is a direct attack on the notion that you should only ‘write what you know’, as well as a sly investigation into the imagination, into the role of art itself. But for now, it’s enough for him to not only establish what he has not done, but also to punch through the suspension of disbelief we require in consuming art – this is a meta poem, in that sense, as with the next few lines he brings us into the room he’s writing in.

But before I move past this beginning, let me say how much I love the word Susquehanna. I love writing it, I love sounding it out, and you best believe Collins does as well – not for nothing does he repeat it twice so close together. Let me tell you something, though, if you write a poem about the Susquehanna river and don’t use the unique sounds available in Susquehanna as often as you can without it being overbearing, you’re an idiot.

There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,
rowing upstream in a wooden boat,
sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.

Six lovely little lines, and they do so much. Yes, he counters the unspoken question, other people have no doubt actually experienced fishing on the river, and no, that doesn’t make them anymore qualified to write this poem, as the last three lines testify to so simply, so elegantly. He won’t be doing it anytime soon either, so from where does this knowledge come? It came, he tells us, from a painting he saw in a museum, of a scene like this one – one kind of art birthing another.

Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,
even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame.

Then comes the clincher. Show me a man who can’t picture that damn hare poised on the brink of motion and I will show you a liar. There is nothing to say, in fact, that the hare doesn’t leap out as imagined – which is the point, that art is not just separate to life but an inimical part of it, that it not only mimics reality, but recreates it in a way that is every bit as real.

This is such a wonderful, skillful poem and I imagine on any day of any week I could have read it and loved it but the reason I chose it today is quite simply because of its tone. Nothing gets me going more than a conversational tone; likewise, there are few things I dislike more than an overly ornate one. I mentioned earlier the strain I felt reading all those maybe-poems, but as soon as I came across this one, I felt myself relaxing into its casualness, almost as though dipping into the liquid bliss of a certain river I no longer need to name. Go on, give the water a go.

Thursday Poem: Elegy with Apples, Pomegranates, Bees, Butterflies, Thorn Bushes, Oak, Pine, Warblers, Crows, Ants, and Worms by Hayan Charara

Let us all be thankful for the wonderful institution of poetry that is the Academy of American Poets, because I had forgotten it was Thursday around midday, and was scrolling through Facebook when I saw a link to this poem, which is part of their Poem-A-Day series. I read it, loved it, went back to work and promptly forgot it was Thursday again, my knowledge of time subsumed by exhaustion, lethargy, stress, and the seemingly unending assault of wants that occupy my mind. Luckily for all, just as I was about to give up on this night and climb into bed with a book, I remembered again, so here we are.

I’m not going to lie, I mainly read the poem because of its hilariously long title – Elegy with Apples, Pomegranates, Bees, Butterflies, Thorn Bushes, Oak, Pine, Warblers, Crows, Ants, and Worms. I thought it might be ironic or at least deliberately comical but it isn’t. I see now on a second read through that it’s actually a microcosm of the poem itself, in that the seemingly mundane details obfuscate the thrust of it, even as it begins so clearly and obviously with the word ‘elegy.’ By the end of the title you’ve forgotten that one word, and that is the intent. But more on that in a bit. It opens:

The trees alongside the fence
bear fruit, the limbs and leaves speeches
to you and me. They promise to give the world
back to itself.

I love the simplicity of this beginning, the way it has seemingly nothing to do with anything else – love too, ‘the limbs and leaves speeches’. It is almost inevitable that a poet will at some stage write about the wind and trees and the dialogue they create, I myself have done so before, be it a song of leaves or some other such phrase, but this line in particular is quite deft in its approach to that idea. The word is so specific in conjuring a type of oratory as well, one you wouldn’t typically apply to that scene, that it shouldn’t really work but it does; you can almost picture each tree as a lecturer, each breath of air a new impromptu speech.

The following line definitely aids in solidifying the oddity of ‘speeches’, in grounding the poem as we enter a somewhat more surreal space, where the landscape is literally speaking, and the poet listening. ‘They promise to give the world back to itself‘ as they fall, such a lovely line, because of course they do, they must, there isn’t a choice in it.

The apple apologizes
for those whose hearts bear too much zest
for heaven, the pomegranate
for the change that did not come
soon enough.

Now the poem begins to gather pace, nature and all it has to offer commenting  on us. My favourite part of this quote is the line break toward the end, so dark, ‘for the change that did not come / soon enough.’ It makes its bleakness palatable by showing what could have been, the change did arrive – not when we needed it to, not when we yearned most for it, but ah, it happened eventually at least did it not?

The poem continues in this vein, a collection of wonderful images, of life coming to life, so much so that the ending comes as a distinct surprise – as all endings tend to do, but even more dramatically than that, in revealing itself to have been about death all along, and not just on a conceptual level, but a deeply personal one at that.

My neighbor looks like my mother
who left a long time ago
and did not hear any of this.
Just for a minute, give her back to me

On the second read through, I realised that actually, death permeates the poem not just from the first word in the lengthy title but from the opening lines of the poems too – limbs and leaves giving the world back to itself, falling. Apples feeling sorry for those who went to heaven, the pomegranate with its bitter regret. Even the neighbour leaves before she can hear any of this. Loss is in every line of the poem, but the imagery is dense and tight and lush enough that you might not notice it on first read (unless you are more perceptive than I, which is entirely possible, given my constant tiredness). On the second read, however, you see just how skilfully the whole is woven together, and it is all the more affecting for that.

As ever, I urge you to read it. There’s plenty I left out for you yet to savour.

Thursday Poem: How To Be A Poet by Wendell Berry

Thursday, it occurs to me, was probably a poor choice for this weekly lark on poems. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – each of these days amount to the same kind of nothing, a kind of beige blur where nothing happens worth mentioning except, perhaps, the release of new episodes in the shows you may or may not be watching. In short, I would have oodles of time to write on those days, and yet, Thursday, the day preceding three on which I am always stupidly busy, is the one I arbitrarily chose a year ago and I’m stuck with it now. It always manages to sneak up on me, so I’m either forgetting or rushed, and neither is an enjoyable sensation; the former only stokes the constant fear I have that every moment of forgetfulness is a sign I’ll have Alzheimer’s one day, and the latter leaves me viscerally unsatisfied, unhappy that floating on the web are words of mine that do not measure up. Not to a moment’s thought.

In saying that, there is value in learning to accept your imperfection, that the words will never measure up – value in the spilling of whatever is inside without being so damn persnickety about form and style, value in trusting that quality is in the content, that your intent will come across regardless. Writing on Thursday also means that there’s no way for me to put it off, as I so often want to do when I’m sitting here, having just got home from work and 8 hours of staring at a screen, furiously typing, tired and empty and dreading continuing in the same vein on a seemingly endless loop. Which brings me to this week’s offering,  by Wendell Berry.

Generally speaking, I dislike any attempt to tell me how to write poetry. Frankly, it’s ninety nine percent nonsense – at least to me. Free verse is a wild thing and you should lose yourself in it, not take the hacked paths of others. For the formal poets out there, I reserve the one percent for learning the structures of those constraints they choose to employ. So while the title initially had me wary, I was ultimately charmed by this poem, as its advice is universal, not instructional. It begins:

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill — more of each
than you have — inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity.

Sit down. Be quiet.

Just reading that is like taking a deep breath, like my whole body is exhaling to the tune of this simple truth. That is what I need more than any other thing, a place to sit, and silence. I love, too, the aside here that comes after listing what you need, “more of each than you have”. It sounds paradoxical, but I understand exactly what he means here. Or at least, I have derived two meanings from it. The first is that you never seem to have enough of any one element to do what you need, to achieve what needs to be achieved, and the second is that you succeed anyway. When I sit down and I am silent and it seems the world is silent too and words pour out, I am as close to thoughtless as a sleeping man – no, more, because even in sleep you think in the form of dreams – just following one word to the other, not knowing what is being written under the word is there, startling in its permanence, and then when it’s over, I sit and read the poem…

And think, where the fuck did that come from? Sometimes, with reflection, it becomes clear but I am often surprised by the affection or the knowledge or the skill – shocking, I know, but I sometimes think well of what I write – that is on display. The hope, and the love too. I think, ‘I didn’t know I had that much of it in me.’ And so, the line that to be a poet you must rely on more than what you have, to me, is quite telling, in that you don’t have it until the moment you reach for it, and find it is there as it perhaps always has been, merely waiting for you to bother to stretch. What else do we need, Mr. Berry? Work, he says, and time, and patience. Yes, yes, and yes.

Work and time need no explanation; age and discipline in concert produce wonders. Patience, however, is most important of all I would say. Poetry is ninety percent waiting, ten percent writing, I have found. I can’t say I’m entirely patient enough yet, I’m still irritated when I have a thought or feeling lurking around in my chest, and want so much to get rid of it, but can’t, knowing it will only be spoiled if I jump the gun, that if I just wait long enough it will gestate and emerge the way it is supposed to…And so have to spend days, sometimes weeks almost physically uncomfortable, until I can sit and be quiet in such a way as to work with it. Suffice to say, even knowing that, I fuck up plenty of times. I did it just the other day in fact. Now I have three useless lines lying around, which burns me all the more because they were good lines and they have been wasted.

I’ve only spoken about the first ten lines and somehow this is already a thousand words, so I’m going to shut up now, especially as this is only a short poem, and I’m sure you know by now how I feel about giving it all away. Go, read it here. It is good advice and I only wish I had read it sooner.

Thursday Poem: The Language of the Birds by Richard Siken

Two weeks ago, at the Bali Emerging Writers Festival, I met another poet and she mentioned Richard Siken as someone I should look up. Today, I did just that, and I’m so very glad I did. It led me to this wonderful little poem, The Language of the Birds, which begins:


A man saw a bird and found him beautiful. The bird had a song inside him, and feathers. Sometimes the man felt like the bird and sometimes the man felt like a stone—solid, inevitable—but mostly he felt like a bird, or that there was a bird inside him, or that something inside him was like a bird fluttering. This went on for a long time.

Oh, boy. Prose poetry and ambiguity? This is my jam right here. In this poem, Siken grapples with the purpose of art and the concept of meaning itself, using the metaphor of this bird being seen through the prism of a man.

He sees this beautiful creature and wants to paint it but is overcome with existential despair. Why bother? Every writer on the face of this planet (and probably others) can relate to this angst, this battle between practicality and art — every other facet of our lives is geared toward tangible results, to definite benefits. Build a house and you can live in it, or someone else can; you are sheltered from the cold. Hunt an animal and even in creating death you are continuing life, you get to eat. Write a poem and… what? Who benefits?

And just because you want to paint a bird, do actually paint a bird, it doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished anything. Who gets to measure the distance between experience and its representation?

For me, the satisfaction comes from the work itself. A good line can give me a satisfaction beyond just about anything else; in the moment, it somehow feels more real than just about anything else, strong enough to support me even if all else was to suddenly fail. I write, too, because for me, this creative outlet is incontrovertibly tied to my mental health: the last time I stopped writing for a protracted period of time, I had a complete mental breakdown and was consumed by thoughts of suicide, every single day, until I almost gave in.

This isn’t a fairytale – I didn’t overcome my depression through writing again, not exactly anyway. I got through that rough patch with therapy and the support of my friends, but I realised in the process just how integral a relief valve writing is and that with it, I need never fall so low again. With all that said, this poem goes a little deeper than just asking the question ‘why write/paint/make art?’, it goes on to query what happens in the process once it’s underway, how it all changes, the relationship between the object and its representation. The bird is no longer a bird, it is somehow more and somehow less, it is text, it is within him and not.

But it isn’t a bird, it’s a man in a bird suit, blue shoulders instead of feathers, because he isn’t looking at a bird, real bird, as he paints, he is looking at his heart, which is impossible.

Hence the ambiguity I mentioned at the beginning, which is more a constantly shifting state of being than it is any coyness on the part of Siken, I believe. He goes into it further here, this investigation into the transformation that occurs as part of the artistic process.

They weren’t animals but they looked like animals, enough like animals to make it confusing, meant something but the meaning was slippery: it wasn’t there but it remained, looked like the thing but wasn’t the thing—was a second thing, following a second set of rules—and it was too late: their power over it was no longer absolute.

Okay, I’m now just doing that thing I do with poems I love, which is quote from it endlessly, so I’ll leave it at that — there are so many wonderful lines in there, so many I haven’t spoken about, not to mention layers of meaning waiting to be untangled. Yes, actual meaning, because however slippery it is for us creators to grasp, it is somehow always startlingly clear to the reader, and this poem shines with it. Some lines I’ve yet to completely unravel and that’s okay, that just leaves more for me to chew on when I read it again.

And again.

Thursday Poem: For My People by Margaret Walker

So, last week’s experiment where I left the commentary up to you, dear readers? Epic fail. Y’all failed to get back to me. Luckily – or not, depending on your disposition – it’s a writer lot to shout into the void and expect nothing back, so I’m not terribly fussed by that. Also, WordPress gave me this nifty and weirdly specific notification the other day which made me feel better about it all.

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Right, let’s get to the goods. I was a little torn about what to choose today, I had two great poems I read yesterday but ultimately I’ve decided to go with For My People by Margaret Walker. Although it is the better of the two poems, often that’s not the deciding factor in my choices – better is a meaningless word when the default level of quality for any section is fucking good. Which is to say, it becomes subjective very, very quickly and what I’m looking for is something that resonates with a thought I’ve had recently, or emotion, or experience and Margaret Walker’s poem pretty much hit all those points.

I woke up today to yet more news about the Baltimore riots, about further (completely understandable) unrest in the States, and saw once more the familiar dispiriting narrative around young African American men unfold, the same abdication of responsibility from authority figures, the same obfuscation about what really happened, about the abuse regularly meted out by police officers. It is an ugly, ugly time we live in precisely because it’s not as bad as it used to be, not as clear cut — which is to say, that racism has gone underground and even when it erupts nowadays, those who shape media narratives do their best to cloud the picture.

Quite frankly, it fills me with despair. Not the individual tragedies themselves, though they break my heart, but the repetition. The mindless repetition, and what it says about our society, our capacity for change, that we allow it to continue. Well, some 70 odd years ago, Margaret Walker published this poem ‘For My People’ and in many respects it feels like it could have been written yesterday. It resonates just as strongly. 

It begins:

For my people everywhere singing their slave songs
     repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues
     and jubilees, praying their prayers nightly to an
     unknown god, bending their knees humbly to an
     unseen power;

It’s always hard to write about a people. Speaking as an Arab Australian writer myself, a man often forced to define himself and his people, his culture, in opposition to a dominant narrative or preconception, I can tell you there are about as many ways to go wrong as there are people. Perhaps more. The sheer range and scope of individual experience mandates this truth; we cannot all be encapsulated in words. There is a limit to the universal. With that said, Walker does about as good a job of it as you can, she ranges across all professions and emotions, from the hardworking to the lazy, and she spares no one from her love.

For my people lending their strength to the years, to the
    gone years and the now years and the maybe years,
    washing ironing cooking scrubbing sewing mending
    hoeing plowing digging planting pruning patching
    dragging along never gaining never reaping never
    knowing and never understanding;

For my playmates in the clay and dust and sand of Alabama
    backyards playing baptizing and preaching and doctor
    and jail and soldier and school and mama and cooking
    and playhouse and concert and store and hair and
    Miss Choomby and company;

This poem makes great use of the polysyndeton technique, one of my favourite literary devices, which you see in her rolling and relentless use of ‘and’ to push and build a powerful rhythmic momentum. It is not just in this that she succeeds, but as I continually say, also the sounds of the words she uses, which comes to life so wonderfully when read aloud, all of it combining to paint a deep picture of a diverse people who do not fit into any kind of easy categorisation.

In truth, there are many reasons to highlight this beautiful poem today, but for me, the main reason was for its optimistic ending, its call to future generations, for a new earth to rise. Do I actually think it will happen? No. I haven’t her hope, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful.