February 26, 2020

Varied Voices> Maine poets celebrate National Poetry Month

Ah, April in Maine.

Cruel, yes.

But now, thanks to U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Haas and the Academy of American Poets, April is also National Poetry Month.

For those who have dismissed poetry to the realm of “Huh?” a 30-day devotion to its celebration might be even crueler than a spring snowstorm.

But how about giving poetry another chance?

Maine has countless poets tucked into its coves and housed along its back roads, and has actively joined the national yahoo over poetry. Gov. Angus King recently selected Kate Barnes of Appleton as Maine’s first poet laureate. Bookstores are staging readings. Poets are offering workshops. And it’s all to celebrate the importance of poetry.

“Poetry is important?” you ask.

Sure. In fact, let’s be daring. Go ahead and ask that question out loud in a room full of poets. The resounding response might be more exhilarating than a basketball game, more engaging than a can of beer, more risk-taking than a bungee jump.


In other words, poetry is important. It can move us out of the activities and experiences we have comfortably come to know as normal. Poetry, after all, is the real world, too. And here in Maine, poems are written every day by Mainers who were born here or drawn to the state because it offers a most necessary tool to writers: quiet solitude.

But don’t take my word for the importance of poetry. Listen to what some of my favorite Maine-based poets have to say on the topic. These are the most famous or most published in the state (although they are all published poets). In a move of sheer favoritism, I chose them because I like their poetry and the encouragement they have given other writers. I also trusted their responses would provoke regular readers, ones who might not think they like or “get” poetry, to think about poetry. Maybe even read a poem.

In our conversations, I asked each of the poets to answer the same four questions: What is your favorite poem? What poem would you recommend to a newcomer to poetry? What can poetry do? What are you working on right now? The most difficult question for all of them was the first one.

Through this selection of living, writing poets of Maine, you may be able to hear the “varied carols” that Walt Whitman so loved when he wrote “I Hear America Singing.” It’s a strong legacy in our state.

Kathleen Lignell of Orono teaches English at the University of Maine.

Favorite poem:

“Psalm” by George Oppen. My choice could change tomorrow, but for today …

Recommended reading:

Any book by Mary Oliver. I would also send someone to William Butler Yeats for the music, and anything by George Oppen, and the works of Adrienne Rich for the way women’s poetry has changed over the years.

What can poetry do?

William Carlos Williams said that poetry gives us the news of the universe. I’ve always loved that. Poetry tells us what’s important in our culture. It may not be the news you read in the daily paper. But poetry, like all art, gives us the news of the developments, of what people are feeling and what has lasting value.

What are you working on now?

I’m finishing a collection of poetry called “Breaking and Entering,” which has to do with taking risks and with the way women’s bodies can be broken into by others and how women can also discover their own bodies.

Sylvester Pollet of Ellsworth is assistant editor at the National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, where he also teaches writing.

Favorite poem:

I really think more in terms of people than in terms of individual poems. I like Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and Ezra Pound’s “Cantos.”

Recommended reading:

Start with Emily Dickinson because it’s traditional enough that people can see the language of poetry and modern enough to twist their minds.

Can poetry change things?

That’s not the problem — nothing can STOP change. Poetry tries to make it bearable.

What are you working on right now?

My broadsides chaplet series, Backwoods Broadsides, which is a way of getting groups of poems out quickly and cheaply.

Farnham Blair of Blue Hill teaches English at Orono High School.

Favorite poem:

It’s “To My Friend Butts I Write” (Oct. 2, 1800) by William Blake. It’s a mindblower. It has everything.

Recommended reading:

“Praying to Big Jack,” by Anne Sexton.

What can poetry do?

It can make visible the grain of life.

What are you working on right now?

“The Movie Queen,” which you could call arguments on film, photography and painting. It will be out this summer.

Candice Stover of Mount Desert Island won 1994’s Maine Chapbook Award.

Favorite poem:

They change all the time. My current favorite is Naomi Shihab Nye’s “The Art of Disappearing.” But it’s a constantly cyclical list.

Recommended reading:

Go to the poetry section of your favorite bookstore and give it patience and attention. When you find a poem you love, read the whole book.

What can poetry do?

Both the reader and the writer of poetry can cultivate attention and patience. In order to read and write poetry, you have to slow down. In a culture that moves so fast, things that cultivate patience are precious and vital.

What are you working on now?

A collection of poems that use the museum as a metaphor.

Constance Hunting of Orono is publisher at Puckerbrush Press and editor of Puckerbrush Review, a literary magazine.

Favorite poem:

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 — it’s the one that begins “Let me not to the marriage of true minds …” It’s one of the nobler poems in the language. It’s a stunning, stunning work.

Recommended reading:

Emily Dickinson’s snake poem, which begins “A narrow Fellow in the Grass …” Not that she’s simple, but she has a simple way about her. Or start with a ballad — any of Ruth Moore’s ballads. They are simply wonderful.

What can poetry do?

One thing it does do is to give an intense and expansive look at the world. I was going to borrow from W.H. Auden and say poetry makes nothing happen. And isn’t that wonderful? Not many people can make nothing happen. That’s a big thing to do.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a series of poems and the subject is the rooms of memory. The word stanza means room and I thought that was rather amusing to work on.

Carolyn Page and Roy Zarucchi, a wife-and-husband team of Troy, publish Potato Eyes, a literary magazine.

What’s your favorite poem?

Hers: On the subject of nature, Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods” but, as a slice of life, Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Kitchenette Building.”

His: I suppose my pick would have to be the long narrative poem by Robert Browning, “Fra Lippo Lippi,” because it deals with two major themes that interest me — art and hypocrisy — which are still a center of controversy today.

Recommended reading:

Hers: I suggest a new young poet, my current favorite, Elizabeth Cohen of Albuquerque, N.M. Maine newcomers could visit Live Poets Society in Rockland to see poetry performed by local poets.

His: For a Maine person, maybe read some of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s work, such as “Richard Cory.”

What can poetry do?

Hers: If a poem is good enough, it can do anything — amuse, honor, cajole, conjure, convince, commiserate, inspire. Women tell me that my poems dealing with spousal abuse have empowered. What more can a poet ask?

His: Poetry can get inside your head and trigger imagination. I think the idea of a poem creating a place for the listener’s imagination and ideas is about as good a definition as I’ve seen anywhere.

What are you working on now?

Hers: I’m waiting to learn if I’ve received a grant to research a biography of a pioneer midwife-soddy school marm from 1868 to 1876. My next poetry collection will be “Hampton Poems: 1639-1659.”

His: My poetry work has been slow lately as far as writing them down. I’ve nearly completed a second book of poems called “Gunner’s Moon,” about night-flying over Laos in the late ’60s.

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