A Poem a Day

January 11, 2012

It began on the Feast of Stephen, December 26. In a four-minute audio essay on NPR entitled “A Poem a Day: Portable, Peaceful and Perfect,” fiction writer Alan Heathcock recalled a time of some personal turmoil when, after a resetless night, he plucked a volume of poetry off a shelf, and opened it at random. It happened to be a book by Mary Oliver, and the poem he read was “Egrets.” The experience bolstered him against the difficult day ahead, he said. Since then, he has endeavored to read a poem a day. Because he picks the poems at random, there have been mornings when he laughed, when he walked around all day with a playful image, and others that were more reflective, evocative of loss and pain rather than the beauties of nature.

I met Alan Heathcock last summer at Bread Loaf. He was a fellow, a writer with at least one book published who serves as something of an assistant in a workshop. I had never heard of him. That’s typical of my experience with the fellows. They are new to me unless they’ve been a contributor before, or someone I know who knows the fellow promotes his work.

He was teaching a craft class that I signed up for. I cannot honestly remember what the subject was that drew me without getting out my notebook. As I recall, it had something to do with point of view and scene, and involved a photograph of a lynching. But I can say with certainty that Alan Heathcock’s energy and generosity as a teacher just lifted me, bolstered me for the year of work ahead. Craft classes at Bread Loaf can be hit or miss. This was definitely a hit.

The first book I read when I got back from Bread Loaf was his story collection, Volt. One reviewer called it “blistering . . . stark realism leavened by a lyric energy.” And that it certainly was. I copied out a number of intriguing lines, used one of them as the epigraph for my Festivus complaint.

I read Alan’s NPR essay and thought it compelling. Other people did too, and the link made the rounds of our Facebook updates and Twitter streams and blogs. Within a few days there was a hashtag on Twitter: #todayspoem, and I found myself checking what others were reading, often being drawn in by the briefest of excerpts. (The hashtag consumes 10 of the 140 Twitter characters. That leaves little left for title, author, and excerpt.)

I go through periods where I actually do read a poem every day. Why not be more intentional about it, the way I was about short stories last May? And keep a list.

I began with a book that was in the “currently reading” stack near my kitchen table, where I start each day. It happened to be Satan Says, by Sharon Olds, one of ten volumes of her work that I own. I had begun reading her fairly intentionally in November, searching for artistic expressions of certain difficult subjects such as family violence, sexual assault, and other kinds of abuse. Her work is difficult, and not likely to leave the reader feeling peaceful. The poems I read across the first four days of January were ones I’ve marked with Post-It flags, the ones I return to again and again.

On the fifth day, I opened Nicky Beer’s The Diminishing House. I have to admit, this was unintentional. I’d bought it at Bread Loaf last August, after hearing her read. It was in the bag of books I’d carried from the car to my study, where it had rested, unopened, all these months. And the only reason I opened it on January 5 was to get a book intended as a gift for a friend I would be seeing a few days later. I read from Nicky Beer that day and the next, remembering why I had been drawn to her in the first place.

The next day I picked up a volume of the New England Review, the literary magazine published by Middlebury College, that I had also brought back from Bread Loaf. I read “Macbeth,” a poem by Rachel Hadas, whose work I find compelling, and “Prelude,” by Shane Omar, a poet I had never heard of.

That’s when I made the decision to be more random in my choices. At left you see the poetry shelves in my house, as they looked in 2007, on a day when, seeking to avoid a writing task which was giving me anxiety, I decided to organize all the poetry books I had. Yesterday I pulled out the work of R. S. Thomas, a book I’d bought for a seminar a few years ago and not looked at since. This morning it happened to be Tangled Vines, an anthology of poems about the relationships between mothers and daughters.

I see myself in the mornings that stretch ahead into this new year, coming down the steps, walking into the kitchen, fixing my coffee and then, while my first cup brews, walking into the library, running my hands along the spines, and choosing one book to open at random. Judging from the size of my collection, I will be able to do this every day for many years to come without reading the same poem twice.

I tweet my daily selection, marked #todayspoem. I go by “silkentent” on Twitter, should you want to follow me there. I also post to my Facebook news feed, even though I recently read that the posting of poetry is one of the top annoying things people do there. And I’ve started keeping a list here, under “Always Books in Your Room, Margaret.” That line is from a poem by Irish poet Pat Boran, in a volume that is likely near the right of the top shelf. Chances are I’ll be looking at that one soon, if only to be able to quote a line with my name in it.

And, once again, thank you for reading, so much, so often.

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