Ars Poetica


Jake Adam York reading one of his poems in 2007. York died of a stroke in 2012 at age 40.

I like listening to Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac with my daughter. She is in seventh grade. We catch the day’s broadcast on my phone while waiting in the morning at the bus stop. Keillor first offers a bit of literary history, listing the name of writers whose birthday falls that day, and he ends by reading a poem.

I wait for my daughter to say, on occasion, “I liked the poem.” The moment that Keillor finishes reading is an anxious one for me; I fear that if the poems don’t find an echo in my kid’s mind, I’ll have failed. That it’ll be as bad as my father taking me, when I was little, to a boring religious meeting.

“The Writer’s Almanac” runs for five minutes each morning. It would be challenging to claim more time for poetry, even on public radio. The radio stations will happily recycle a badly worded statement by a politician all day, but will steer clear of broadcasting more than once or twice a poem by Tomas Tranströmer or Rita Dove.

Perhaps Garrison Keillor feels the same sense of anxiety that I do. My suspicion rests on very small evidence, namely, the homey goodbye phrase that Keillor always uses to sign off: “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”

Why would he want to do this unless he was in a hurry to say that we shouldn’t be fazed by the brush with poetry? That particular goodbye is Keillor’s way of assuring his listeners about the innocuousness of his middle-brow enterprise. It’s OK folks, you can go back to your chores. Be ordinary.

A bit over a year ago, on February 18, 2015, The New York Times Magazine began offering a poem in each issue with a few lines of introduction by the former poet laureate Natasha Trethewey. Almost from the beginning what interested me perhaps even more than the poems was the language that Trethewey used to talk about the poem she had chosen.

For the very first poem she presented, “Abide” by Jake Adam York, here’s part of what Trethewey wrote: “I have been in a plaintive mood recently, as I remember the many friends I’ve lost over the years, including Jake. When I read the poem now, I am struck by a kind of prescience in the elegiac lines, as if he were speaking his last words to the beloved, knowing how those of us who lost him must now abide.”

It was not primarily a critical language; instead, she used the language of memory, linking the poem with her own past, including her sense of loss.

In one of her last introductions, this one for the poem “Type 2” by Sjohnna McCray, Trethewey wrote: “I remember the first time I saw my mother staring back at me from my reflection in the mirror. I thought of that moment reading this poem: how what we inherit is literally passed down in the body, but also in the figurative ways the past is manifest in our lives.”

When I read the above lines — the first sentence a poem in itself — I tore out the page from the magazine because I wanted to write about it. I liked that the poet as critic was connecting the experiences in her past with the experience of reading the poem.

Trethewey’s tenure ended this past February. The new poetry editor, who will also be in this role for a year, has opted for a different language. The experience that the editor mostly recalls is that of reading other texts. In these new introductions, talking about poetry is a serious, pedagogical exercise.

Well, at least I’m learning. Recently, I found out about the New York School of poets.

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