The Open Door

When Poetry magazine reached its hundredth year in 2012, it had published more than 40,000 poems, including many of the century's most famous: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Eliot's first published poem; Pound's "In a Station of the Metro"; Wallace Stevens' "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon." Choosing 100 poems for a 100th year collection must have been agonising, but one of the best things about The Open Door is the rich, conversational introduction by editor Christian Wiman, in which he explains not only the choices he's made but his view of poetry. It's an inclusive, strident view, insisting both that poetry is a public good and that it requires no public defence. He concedes that poetry for many will remain remote and inaccessible, but wonders, reverently, "by what unconscious routes poetry is reaching into lives that seem to have nothing to do with it? Who knows what atomic energies are unleashed by a solitary man or woman quietly encountering some arrangement of language that gives their being - shunted aside by chores and fears and who knows what - back to them? This is why I regret adding to the clamor over poetry's 'relevance.' The reaction is defensive and misguided, not because there is no hope for elevating poetry's importance but because its power is already greater than any public attention can confer upon it." I respond instinctively to the vision of poetry as majestic, almost miraculous, certainly unquenchable whatever disrepute, in an unworthy age, it might fall into. The best poems require no more defence than a Monet or a sunset. They pull you up short, break open the world you think you're in and show it to you afresh, lit by myth and aglow with gods. They give you back what you didn't know you'd lost.

One of the poems that did that for me was Mary Karr's "Disgraceland," published in the magazine in 2004. The poem opens with her first communion, describes a parched and luckless wandering, and ends like this:

When my thirst got great enough to ask,
     a clear stream welled up inside,
          some jade wave bouyed me forward,

and I found myself upright
     in the instant, with a garden
          inside my own ribs aflourish.

There, the arbor leafs.
     The vines push out plump grapes.
          You are loved, someone said. Take that

          and eat it.



He's made the things that bring him near

Some while back I mentioned poet Christian Wiman. I like his work, and his story even more. In the space of a few years in his early thirties, he found God, fell in love and married, and was diagnosed with incurable blood cancer. He writes, as you’d imagine, with attention and poignancy, and, as you might not expect from a contemporary poet, with a good deal of investment in things like rhythm and structure. As a way into this poem, here’s a line or two from a biographical essay he wrote called “Love bade me welcome” (a quote from George Herbert): “I was brought up with the poisonous notion that you had to renounce love of the earth in order to receive the love of God. My experience has been just the opposite: a love of the earth and existence so overflowing that it implied, or included, or even absolutely demanded, God. Love did not deliver me from the earth, but into it. And by some miracle I do not find that this experience is crushed or even lessened by the knowledge that, in all likelihood, I will be leaving the earth sooner than I had thought.” This poem, with its echo of Hopkins and its Herbertesque conceit, is called “Every riven thing”, a title which on its own tells multitudes about a view of the world.  

God goes, belonging to every riven thing he's made 
sing his being simply by being 
the thing it is: 
stone and tree and sky, 
man who sees and sings and wonders why

God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he's made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into a stillness where

God goes belonging. To every riven thing he's made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself:
under the tree a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see

God goes belonging to every riven thing. He's made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,

God goes belonging to every riven thing he's made.