July 27, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

How to Own a Poem

On any given night, the instructors for the Young Writers at Kenyon Program sat in a circle of Adirondack chairs, weaving the stories of their workdays together in order to make sense of our time with our students.

And at any given moment, one of them would recite a poem from memory. One of my colleagues can navigate his way from the beginning of James Wright’s “Two Hangovers” to its breathtaking end. Another carries Auden’s words in the back of his throat. And those poems were theirs.

I only know one poem: Paul Beatty’s “Why That Abbot and Costello Vaudeville Mess Never Worked With Black People.” I know there’s not much to it; but the words are nestled in my memory (even when I misplace the poet’s name), and the playful spirit of the piece has seen me through many rough days. In that way it’s my poem.

Now that the instructors and young writers are making their way home, I’ve begun to think of the other ways we lay claim to a poem. A friend of mine has what she calls “a literary tattoo”:

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

She jokes that she encountered the man of her dreams–Gerard Manley Hopkins–during her first semester in college. The cry of “myself” at the end of the first stanza–What I do is me: for that I came–got under her skin, so to speak.

And now those words are under her skin literally, the raised black letters interrupting the goosebumps on her forearm. It didn’t hurt to inscribe that poetry on her body; she said, “It feels like someone pinching you.” That is, there is this continuous and lasting reminder of how we can have even a physical connection with the texts we love.

In the winter, she will have to cover those lines with a sweater, but they will always be with her, thriving beneath her skin, while the rest of the poem swirls in her memory. It’s hers.