Life in Public

What Sparks Poetry is a new, serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems. In the newest series, Life in Public, we ask our editors to examine how poetry speaks to different aspects of public experience.

What does it mean to say that a poet is, as C. D. Wright has put it, “one with others”? What is poetry’s place in the public sphere today, of all times? How has life in that sphere been expressed in poems? Is all published poetry public speech? What is a private poem? What is occasional poetry? What is political poetry?

With questions such as these in mind, we asked each of our editors to select a poem written by another poet that addresses an aspect of public experience—that celebrates, historicizes, memorializes, critiques, questions, or subtly references its public element—and to write about what interests and inspires them about that poem.

We are excited to present to you the resulting sixteen meditations on the private and the public, and how the intersection of these states sometimes results in poetry.

Sally Keith on the Intimacy of the Unspeakable

“Is it winter again, is it cold again,/ didn’t Frank just slip on the ice,/ didn’t he heal, weren’t the spring seeds planted.” Opening stanza, five questions in three lines, here we are: imagination stoked and the world is tragically caught on a seam. Where am I? What happened? In Louise Glück’s “October,” six lyric sections will not answer for the man, Frank, specifically, nor for the unnamed voice, a few lines later, which makes good sense; for these are the intimate markers of address that will cede (seed) the song of a season—October—time when summer’s full bloom meets winter like an empty whisper. And this is always the case: whatever has been, shall not be, again.

Soon we come to understand that the safety of the body, that of the individual and that of humanity, as I read the poem, has been compromised. The specifics of why and how are necessarily left out. Whether a scar has formed, or whether healing is even/ever possible is as dubious as the question of if, and when, the seeds, literally and metaphorically, have been planted. “Summer after summer has ended/ balm after violence.” But what has happened? And what is to come? How might the individual’s relation to violence be mediated, or not, by proximity, personal connection, an ability to speak, to sing, to walk, to write. “I stood/ at the doorway/ridiculous as it now seems,” writes Glück, in the poem’s third section and so the poem moves, pitting action against inaction, acceptance beside despair.

I was trying to remember when I first read “October.” I think it must have been soon after its
publication. Yes, I know I taught “October” to my students, likely in 2005, just after it had been published, first as a chapbook by Sarabande. Perhaps, though, I already knew the poem from the New Yorker publication in October 2002, a gesture, as I then read it, back to 9/11. When I taught the chapbook did we read the poem specifically with reference to 9/11? I don’t precisely remember. Probably, yes. Nearly two decades later, I’m still struck by “October,” which reappears in the opening of Glück’s tenth collection Averno (2006), both as a poem that may be, and must be, read without a specific story and as a lyric sequence refusing solution.

It’s October, again. I’m upset by the number of new catastrophes, how ongoing they are—according to the individual, our nation, our world, our galaxy. Living as I do, phone pressed against my body most of the day, it’s strange to me how tragedy, especially, can feel farther and farther away. It’s so easy to vacillate between feeling overly affected and totally numb. How, I keep wondering, did Louise Glück write a poem inside and outside of the massiveness of 9/11, a poem that migrates, necessarily, between the body and the mind, a poem moved by unanswerable questions, in which repetition is as likely to halt as it is to heal? “You hear this voice? This is my mind’s voice/ you can’t touch my body now.” The essential intimacy in this poem, I’m thinking, is with the unspeakable; it is a difficult intimacy, then, one that might approach tragedy as easily as it approaches the mundane. And how could it be otherwise? “The brightness of the day becomes/ the brightness of the night.” Though a poet cannot restore beauty, beauty is; the work goes on.

Writing Prompt

Part one: Write a long list of questions beginning “Are poems for…?”. Try to write one hundred, enough so that you can freely include what may feel trite as well as more imaginative or metaphorical renditions. Part two: Take a walk somewhere you love. You are going to also write a description of something in the natural world, a description which may include what has been and what will be. You may write in prose or poetry. Part three: Draft a poem in which you try to use the questions (Part one) to animate the description (Part two). Can you include ten questions? If five are changed to statements? Having used the questions (and statements) to shape the description, see if now you can cut some of them out? Do you have a poem?

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Sally Keith

Sally Keith

Sally Keith’s fourth collection of poetry, River House was published by Milkweed Editions in 2015; she is the author of The Fact of the Matter (Milkweed 2012) and two previous collections of poetry, Design, winner of the 2000 Colorado Prize for Poetry, and Dwelling Song (UGA 2004).  She has published poems in a variety of literary journals, including Gettysburg Review, New England Review, A Public Space, Black Clock and Literary Imagination.  Recent Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, she is a member of the MFA Faculty at George Mason University and lives in Washington DC.