Is it Tuesday? Every Tuesday a new poem appears in the box and on the blog.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Poem 21 Joyce Sutphen

This week's poem is by Minnesota Poet Laureate, Joyce Sutphen.  Needless to say, I'm thrilled she agreed to a week in the box!

Two Reasons to Keep This Poem

Don't throw this poem away.
Keep this poem in your
pocket and read it when
(as is always your luck) you
find yourself in the slowest line
at the supermarket.  Pull out this
poem, unfold it carefully, and
begin to read, your lips moving
ever so slightly.  Soon everyone
in all ten check-out lines will
turn their lonely eyes on you
(knowing Joe DiMaggio is gone);
a kind of hush will fall all over
that fluorescent world as
they begin to shout:  "The poem,
the poem!  Read us the poem!"

Don't throw this poem away;
slip it into an empty notebook
and read to it every night and
listen to what it says in the morning.
Soon there will be more poems
than the notebook can hold:
some will fall in love and
get married; some will move
far away.  After many years
the poems will have a family
reunion.  They will sit down
and remember the way words
came together, how much they
liked the way things sounded,
and how they were surprised
as anyone by what they said.

I think this may be the perfect poem for a poetry box, don't you? I mean, first of all it begins, "Don't throw this poem away" and my neighbors, walking down the street with the poem in their hands, will have to think twice now.  It's also a poem about what poetry can (or cannot) do for us, and where poems (might) come from.  And it's funny. And it has maybe the best stanza break I've seen in a long time right there in the middle.

As I noted above, the poem begins with a command: "don't throw this poem away."  The speaker is telling someone very clearly what she should not do.  In many poems, the "you" being addressed is not really a reader but some other character, a "you" specific-person as opposed to "you" whoever-you-may-be, reader.  I think in this case, though, the speaker really is addressing the reader.  If that's the case, the line about "your luck" in choosing grocery store line is all the funnier because it's everyone's luck, then, to choose the slowest line. From that moment on, the stanza gets more and more ridiculous.  Simon and Garfunkle come in, with Mrs. Robinson and Joe DiMaggio.  The other shoppers pine for the poem, shouting "The poem/the poem! Read us the poem!" which, as any poet will tell you, never happens.  Not in the Supervalu. Not anywhere.  So now, having revved up the expectations so high, what can possibly happen next?

A stanza break.  The speaker taking a breath.  The speaker indicating, ok, so, not really. If that was one reason to keep the poem, what might a second be? She begins again: "Don't throw this poem away;" this time ending with a semi-colon instead of a period, as if she knows she has some explaining to do after that last stanza.  Now she's taking a different approach. She continues, "slip it into a notebook/and read to it every night and/listen to what it says in the morning." The first surprise is that the reader should not read the poem but "read to it," which is not what we  usually do with poems. But then, too, we are told to "listen to what it says in the morning." The speaker is directing us to treat poems as if they are alive, like children we read to at night before tucking them into bed. This suggestion carries through in the rest of the poem.  The poems, we are told, will multiply, "some will fall in love and/get married; some will move/ far away," just as our children do when they grow. But they come back home, eventually, and then:

They will sit down
and remember the way words
came together, how much they
liked the way things sounded,
and how they were surprised
as anyone by what they said.

What I love so much here is the suggestion that poems have lives of their own and they don't necessarily have a full sense of what those "lives" mean.  I am not sure I am being clear.  But it's an important point, so let me try.

Every week I work through a poem, looking closely at what I think it means and, more importantly, how.  But that suggests more control and intention on the part of the poet than might actually be occurring, I think. Something happens in the creation of art, in the joy of liking "the way things sound," and sometimes the best part of writing (or painting or dancing) is being "surprised as anyone" by what the art, in the end, says.  Our creations come to life, as in this poem, and they can be unruly or funny, useful or not.  You never know. But they are ours, and, if you keep them in your pocket, they can be yours, too.

Thank you, Joyce Sutphen, for such a perfect poem for this Poem in A Box project.

For more about Sutphen:

and here's a wonderful interview:

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