“they don’t pause, don’t buzz, don’t / fly up in fear and light again”

I’ve been itching to feature this poem all summer, but I restrained myself until the timing was right — and now it is!

Image courtesy SweetCrisis / Freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy SweetCrisis / Freedigitalphotos.net

This week, I’m working on Andrew Hudgins’s sublime “Wasps in August.” You can hear Professor Hudgins read the poem here, at Slate (text too). And you should immediately go find Ecstatic in the Poison, from which this poem comes. I own two copies, and I am, sad to say, not sharing.

Professor Hudgins is one of the best living formalist poets, and a kind and funny man to boot (he teaches at The Ohio State University, alma mater of your humble blogger). I’ve never had the pleasure of taking his classes, but my friends who did treasure the experience. He was gracious enough to support the campus literary magazine and its young poets, and he was (and is) a highly-regarded mentor to new poets.

This poem describes the dying days of the wasps outside the speaker’s home, who defend and nurture their larvae in the nest. But it’s about more than that: frailty, death, rebirth, renewal, futility . . . I could go on.

The last line will floor you.

Recommended Essay: “Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America,” by Tony Hoagland

Tony Hoagland’s piece in Harper’s, which you can read here, is long and worth the length. His opening salvo is a lament for the state of poetry in schools, and an argument for poetry’s necessity:

 . . . poetry is our common treasure-house, and we need its aliveness, its respect for the subconscious, its willingness to entertain ambiguity; we need its plaintive truth-telling about the human condition and its imaginative exhibitions of linguistic freedom, which confront the general culture’s more grotesque manipulations. We need the emotional training sessions poetry conducts us through. We need its previews of coming attractions: heartbreak, survival, failure, endurance, understanding, more heartbreak.

He’s certainly not the first to suggest that students (and sometimes teachers too!) have a difficult time engaging with non-contemporary poetry, but I like his concrete proposal for building a common American cultural vernacular: teach twenty contemporary poems to all students.

Now, I know there’s a lot of talk out there in the education world about Common Core standards, and I’m not going to get into it here (I have my doubts, to put it mildly.). But I do think it’s essential, as does Hoagland that we all share at least some cultural references in common. I’ve written before about the all-university summer reading requirement at Ohio State, and how wonderful that was.

As I used to tell my students, you’ll be awfully embarrassed at your in-laws’ cocktail party/barbecue/mini-golf outing/gallery opening if you don’t know who Hamlet is.

What I especially like about Mr. Hoagland’s piece is his suggestion that we do not jettison the classics, but rather work backwards toward them:

The cultural chain has been broken, as anyone paying attention knows. Moreover, the written word always needs renewal. Art must be recast continually. “Dover Beach” and “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” are not lost, but instead are being rewritten again and again, a hundred times for each new generation. Culture is always reanimating itself, and when it does so, it validates, reorganizes, and reinvigorates the past as well as the present.

If anthologies were structured to represent the way that most of us actually learn, they would begin in the present and “progress” into the past. I read Lawrence Ferlinghetti before I read D. H. Lawrence before I read Thomas Wyatt. Once the literate appetite is whetted, it will keep turning to new tastes. A reader who first falls in love with Billy Collins or Mary Oliver is likely then to drift into an anthology that includes Emily Dickinson and Thomas Hardy.

Brilliant. And true; pairing contemporary poems with older poems is an excellent teaching method, in my experience. Students are surprised (and thrilled) to learn just how sex-filled John Donne’s poetry is (oh is it ever), and that a good number of Shakespeare’s sonnets were written to a man.

You’ll find the list of twenty poems that Mr. Hoagland recommends at the end of his essay.  I’d add Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” and “Ecstatic in the Poison” by Andrew Hudgins. Which poem or poems would you add?

“Three days of spring winter and suddenly / birds everywhere.”

I had a lovely Mother’s Day — thank you for asking! My husband gave me the gift of extra sleep in the morning, which was glorious, and I woke up to homemade biscuits smothered in hollandaise. Couldn’t have been better.

I was looking, this week, for a poem about mothers, but I find that they tend to be, necessarily, incredibly specific, tied to the poet’s or speaker’s own mother or conception of motherhood. And, as I thought about it further, I realized how difficult it would be for me, personally, to write a poem even about one small aspect of my relationship with my own (amazing, kind, generous, hard-working, accomplished, intelligent, warm, self-sacrificing) mother.

So I gave up, and nosed around for a poem that would express a little of the happiness I’ve felt over the last few weeks when enjoying time with my son (it’s only my second Mother’s Day), and I came across Kathy Fagan’s “Letter from the Garden,” from her 2002 book The Charm.

Now, a disclaimer here: Professor Fagan teaches at my alma mater, and while I never had the privilege of taking one of her courses, several of my friends did, and I’ve met Professor Fagan once or twice, though there’s no way she’d remember me. Personal feelings and alumni pride aside, she’s a wonderful poet, and you should head over to your local bookseller and ask for one of her books.

“Letter from the Garden” has nothing to do with mothers and sons — it’s addressed to a lover — but what made me choose it this week is the poem’s attention to birds, filling the space of early spring, appearing “everywhere.” We’ve had that experience this year. I rather dislike birds (excepting only penguins, owls, and ducks) and their beady, gold-rimmed or black-pooling eyes and reptilian feet. Flying dinosaurs.

My son, however, loves them. He stares at them from the dining room windows. He chases every single one he sees, despite the fact that they always flee from him, and seeing ducks in a pond or robins at the cemetery is the highlight of many a weekend.

looking at the birds


Two weeks ago, we saw a wholly golden-yellow small bird (a finch?) alight on a tree next to us, and he turned to me and whispered, “Quiiiiii–et”; when it disappeared, he determined that it was sleeping, and that’s why it wouldn’t come back. I try now to see the birds through his eyes: the graceful hops and undignified racing for the trees when they see his little body bopping toward them, the sudden, knowing turn of the head.