In the latest edition of “Village Voice,” using poetry to better understand our lives and times, Richard joins Jim and Margery to celebrate National Poetry Month with work by US Poet Laureates, Stanley Kunitz, Philip Levine, Tracy K Smith, and Juan Felipe Herrera.
“I wanted to think about the position of the US poet laureate, which is somewhat mysterious. The official term is US Poet Laureate Consultant of Poetry. Officially it’s run by the legislative branch of the government. In its original conception, it was a poet who advised the library of congress on matters of poetry, and that’s still what it is, technically. Of course, it’s grown into something much larger. Many amazing projects have come from these poets which are appointed for one year and then they can opt to do a special project and stay on for another year. Our current poet laureate, Joy Harjo, is one of just less than a handful of poet laureates serving a third term. She has an amazing project called “Living Nations, Living Works,” Native American Voices in Poetry in America.
Because of the inauguration, people often think that the inaugural poet is the poet laureate. I get that all the time! I don’t deny it! I’m like, “Sure, I’m the poet laureate of the United States!” It’s interesting because the inauguration is obviously the executive branch. You would think that the poet laureate would read poems at every inauguration, but that’s not the case.”
Read along and enjoy the conversation with thoughts and reflections on the poems listed below.
Stanley Kunitz, Poet laureate 2011-2012.
My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
The Simple Truth
Philip Levine, Poet Laureate 2011-2012
I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. “Eat, eat” she said,
“Even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.
Tracy K Smith, Poet Laureate 2017-2019.
sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people
He has plundered our—
destroyed the lives of our—
taking away our—
abolishing our most valuable—
and altering fundamentally the Forms of our—
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for
Redress in the most humble terms:
Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.
We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration
and settlement here.
on the high Seas
Almost Livin’ Almost Dyin’
Juan Felipe Herrera, Poet Laureate 2012-2015.
for all the dead
& hear my streets
with ragged beats & the beats
are too beat to live so the graves push out with
hands that cannot touch the makers of light & the
sun flames down through the roofs & the roots that slide
to one side & the whistlin’ fires of the cops & the cops
in the shops do what they gotta do & your body’s
on the fence & your ID’s in the air & the shots
get fired & the gas in the face & the tanks
on your blood & the innocence all around & the
spillin’ & the grillin’ & the grinnin’ & the game of Race
no one wanted & the same every day so U fire &
eat the smoke thru your long bones & the short mace
& the day? This last sweet Swisher day that turns to love
& no one knows how it came or what it is or what it says
or what it was or what for or from what gate
is it open is it locked can U pull it back to your life
filled with bitter juice & demon angel eyes even though
you pray & pray mama says you gotta sing she says
you got wings but from what skies from where could
they rise what are the things the no-things called love
how can its power be fixed or grasped so the beats
keep on blowin’ keep on flyin’ & the moon tracks your bed
where you are alone or maybe dead & the truth
carves you carves you & calls you back still alive
cry cry the candles by the last four trees still soaked
in Michael Brown red and Officer Liu red and
Officer Ramos red and Eric Garner whose
last words were not words they were just breath
askin’ for breath they were just burnin’ like me like
we are all still burnin’ can you hear me
can you can you feel me swaggin’ tall & driving low &
talkin’ fine & hollerin’ from my corner crime & fryin’
against the wall
almost livin’ almost dyin’
almost livin’ almost dyin’
This episode first aired on Boston Public Radio on April 23rd, 2021.