“Magnitude and bond”

For this month’s Famous People poem, Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Paul Robeson” and “Of Robert Frost” (because just one Gwendolyn Brooks poem at a time isn’t enough. Also I’ve missed a few of this supposed-to-be monthly series).

I had to wake up super early last Sunday morning, which I wasn’t that thrilled about, but when my radio came on it happened to wake me up with the sound of Gwendolyn Brooks’ amazing voice, and then I didn’t mind so much. (A BBC show not currently available online, alas). Her delightful presence and dynamic reading voice even on old somewhat scratchy recordings is just phenomenal—I would have loved to hear her in person.

Here she is reading her most-anthologized poem “We Real Cool” (and explaining that she sort of wishes she were also known for writing other poems) so you have a taste.

Brooks wrote about regular people (“Gay Chaps at the Bar“, “The Bean Eaters” for e.g.) with great compassion and insight, and she wrote about some famous people too with her remarkable precision and verve. Here are two, “Paul Robeson” and “Of Robert Frost“. They’re both short portraits, focused, the Frost poem’s lines lines long but with short, blunt sentences, with the wonderful detail of his eyebrows “neither too far up nor down.” The Robeson lines and sentences contract and swell, and wind up on one of my favorite phrases in Brooks’ poems, “we are each others’ / magnitude and bond.”

(After reading “Paul Robeson” you will undoubtedly want to revel in his famous voice a while. Here he is singing for workers at the in-progress Sydney Opera House, and here being interviewed about civil rights.)

By Heart

I’m an increasingly big fan of memorizing poems, and have decided to do something I’d thought about before but never implemented: memorize one poem a week this year. (And now that I’ve said so publicly, well I’ll have to do it won’t I. Oh well, why not? This week it was “Musee des Beaux Arts” by Auden.)

I think knowing poems by heart is wonderful as a regular person (among other things, it means if you’re stuck somewhere totally boring you can recite a great poem in your head, or if you come to a split in a ski trail you can go all Robert Frost and impress your friends, and you just never know when you might wind up stranded on a freaky tropical isle, or a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and will need something memorized with which to entertain yourself between adventures, or console yourself during zombie terrors etcetera. Television has made me sure of that possibility.) And it’s probably essential as a writer. (How wonderful to not only have great poems even faster than “at hand” but also to internalize their rhythms and movements and mystery.)

There are lots of methods out there for memorizing poems — here’s mine. Continue reading “By Heart”


September: Autumn (“and gathering swallows twitter in the skies”), time for school again (or for skipping school (“We / thin gin”) or for staying home sick (like “little Peggy Ann McKay”)), for remembering September 11th (“the photograph halted them in life”), time for apple picking (“the scent of apples: I am drowsing off”) and for dinner dates with apple pie (“there are very huge stars, man”), for watching harvest moons (“As a beautiful friend / Who remembers”) . . .