A Poem that Changed My Life: Seven Pew Fellows on the Works that Inspire Them
Poetry is as varied and complex in its power as it is in its form. As these Fellows share below, poems can “celebrate survival,” offer “truth, wisdom, and beauty,” teach us “to listen and notice more deeply the people and things that surround us,” and a great deal more. In celebration of National Poetry Month, we invited some of our Fellows to reflect on the poems that have been most meaningful to them and how they have shaped their practices and their lives.
Pew Fellow Major Jackson. Photo by Erin Patrice O’Brien.
Poem: “Venus’s-Flytraps” by Yusef Komunyakaa
I am five,
Wading out into deep
Unmindful of snakes
& yellowjackets, out
To the yellow flowers
One of my favorite activities in life is to recite from memory a favorite poem, partially as a way of promoting the art, but ultimately because some poems contain a magic that cannot be experienced solely on the page. If we are friends or even remotely acquainted, you have heard me recite one of my beloved poems by Yusef Komunyakaa, “Venus’s-Flytraps,” a poem I have read aloud at literary events, in restaurants between courses, and holiday parties. Spoken from the perspective of a precocious young boy who finds meaning in the outdoors, the poem gives voices to the adventurous spirit of children and their powers of intuition. The speaker in this poem contains an imagination and curiosity that afford him insight into the adult world. Sensuous of the natural world arrive with great velocity and are in abundance here: bees, butterflies, yellow flowers, cows beside train tracks, and yet, too, images and allusions that insinuate so much more than on the surface of the poem. Over the years, I have felt connected to the speaker in “Venus’s-Flytraps,” having myself, by necessity, sought signs that would afford me a window into the minds of grownups.
Pew Fellow Nathalie Anderson. Photo by JPG Photos.
Poem: “The Opposites Game” by Brendan Constantine
This day my students and I play the Opposites Game
with a line from Emily Dickinson. My life had stood
a loaded gun, it goes and I write it on the board,
pausing so they can call out the antonyms –
A poem that’s changed my life: nearly every poem does, a dozen times a week. Here’s one: Brendan Constantine’s “The Opposites Game,” where a teacher invites students to find opposites for the first words of Emily Dickinson’s “My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun.” What’s the opposite of “gun?” The class can’t agree. Their ideas are vivid, thought-provoking, and their arguments humorously thought-provoking too: juvenile name-calling, passionate factions. The poem’s conclusion comes with sweetness as the teacher suggests that “Maybe all of you are right,” but Constantine then turns that sweetness towards something more chilling, more revelatory: “The opposite of a gun is wherever you point it.” There’s more, and it’s moving, but that’s where I’m caught, considering the beauty and variety and substance of the world, and recognizing what threatens it, including my own inaction, and imagining what I might be able to do to help protect it.
Pew Fellow Emily Abendroth. Photo by Layne Mullett.
Poem: “LOOK” by Solmaz Sharif
It matters what you call a thing: Exquisite a lover called me.
This single poem manages across its three short pages to: highlight the implicit violence of official bureaucratic language and militarized policies; reveal the countless, rippling secondary effects of dehumanization that the aftermath of war produces; describe the equally numerous and branching efforts that individuals and families put forth to counter those impacts; and draw attention to the powerful capacity of loving recognition to create a different set of worldly possibilities. In this poem, as in many others in the collection, Solmaz Sharif incorporates terms from the United States Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, while at the same time refusing to accept their definitions as given, turning them back against themselves, deploying them to new, previously unintended ends.
To my mind, changing someone’s life almost always has a dimensionality that is less grand and less instantaneously epiphanic than is popularly portrayed. Instead, and even more powerfully, it’s about teaching us to listen and notice more deeply the people and things that surround us on an hour-to-hour basis. It’s about modeling the potential that exists to confront those forces/dynamics that do us harm and to not only neutralize their violence/toxicity but to insist on the redirection of those energies toward processes that lead us out of cycles of harm and into relationships of mutual aid and recognition. That is a lot to ask of a single poem. However, like all the best poems, this one did all of that for me and then some.
Pew Fellow Afaa Weaver. Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths.
Poem: “Middle Passage” by Robert Hayden
Jesús, Estrella, Esperanza, Mercy:
Sails flashing to the wind like weapons,
sharks following the moans the fever and the dying;
horror the corposant and compass rose.
Such a wounding, the trans-Atlantic transport of millions of Africans, enslaved to work inside what was, at first, the Thirteen Colonies, such a wounding, and it is captured here in the hand of a brilliant poet. The evocative power of the poem translates as theater for me. While alone, I have read it aloud many times. The dramatic use of diction, the delicate interspersing of historical fact, and the empathy all combine in a poem made from an observance of history. As a teacher, I learned to acknowledge the muted positioning of the female presence, how the objectification arises in places. However, if ever a poem should be read aloud before both houses of the U.S. Congress, it is this masterpiece by Robert Hayden. Such has been the impact of this poem on my sensibility, my life.
Pew Fellow Susan Stewart. Photo by American Academy in Berlin.
Poem: “The Thrush” by Edward Thomas
When Winter's ahead,
What can you read in November
That you read in April
When Winter's dead?
There are so many poems that have made an intervention in my life: I cannot in fact imagine the continuity of myself as a person without thinking of the force of individual poems by Dickinson, Donne, Yeats, Brontë, Herbert, Hardy, Keats, Wordsworth, Whitman, Hopkins, Baudelaire, Mandelstam, Auden, Césaire, Bishop, and myriad others. These works have offered truth, wisdom, and beauty in the very moments when they were needed. On a larger canvas that stretches back to childhood and adolescence, Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Dante’s “Commedia” so fundamentally changed, and continue to change, my consciousness that I know I never will be done with them.
Yet for now, in this year that has brought such suffering to Philadelphia, I will mention a brief lyric by Edward Thomas, the friend of Frost who perished in the First World War. I came upon "The Thrush" early last summer at a time when I realized the pandemic was only beginning. In these months I have several times sent this poem to friends in the hope that they would find it as sustaining as I have.
Pew Fellow Rachel Blau DuPlessis.
Poem: “Paterson” by William Carlos Williams
—Say it, no ideas but in things—
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident—
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained—
secret—into the body of the light!
It wasn’t a short, memorable, and focused poem that changed me and my life, but a long, sprawling, hard-to-assimilate, 236-page poem that no one (in 1964) had much bothered with—”Paterson” by William Carlos Williams. If a poem were to write a novel—it would be “Paterson!” It bounced dramatically all over the page, had Climactic Events and small ones, cited documents, and conversations; it was elegiac, lyric and satiric, all with a compelling social sweep. The work posed a big question (“beauty” and poetic “rigor” in the real, sloppy world), as if the poem’s purpose was to ask a meta-question, and the vocation of a poet was precisely to pose such unanswerable (unconsoling) questions in a difficult zone. The poet became a mechanism to investigate, to detect, to assemble evidence, to confront, and to quest to find poetic substance from writing honestly what he thought about a throbbing city and a despoiled New Jersey landscape with the dynamic Paterson Falls running through, a “language” to which the poet listens ceaselessly.
Pew Fellow Trapeta B. Mayson. Photo by Anna Mulè.
Poem: “won’t you celebrate with me” by Lucille Clifton
won't you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me” is one of the poems that has had the greatest impact on my life and on the way I choose to move through the world as an artist and African American woman of Liberian descent. Sister Lucille does two significant things in her beautiful short lines. First, she lets the reader know that her life, though it may be a “kind of life,” is worthy of celebration. Her life is her invention, it’s her own. Though haphazardly crafted due to circumstances beyond her control, it is hers and it is worthy of praise! Second, she celebrates not only her survival, but the fact that she is thriving despite overwhelming circumstances. I first encountered Lucille Clifton and this poem somewhere in my early thirties. When I read this poem, or rather, when this poem “read me,” it was the balm that I sorely needed. Today, it is my validation and my daily mantra.