Can poetry change the world? United States Poet Laureate
Juan Felipe Herrera thinks so. But he tells NPR that the change poems can
effect in people is often subtle, by nudging along shifts in perception or
Does it concern you that the smartest Presidents have been the worst?
I don't grant your premise, but -
John Quincy Adams was so full of himself, he could hardly build a coalition around having eggs for breakfast. How many grand theories of international relations did Wilson come up with that were dead on the arrival in Congress?
I don't care.
Because before I look for anything, I look for a mind at work.
Let me explain something to you. This is sort of my field. The people on these sites? They're the cast of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. The muu-muu-wearing Parliament smoker? That's Nurse Ratched. When Nurse Ratched is unhappy, the patients are unhappy. You? You're McMurphy. You swoop in with your card games and fishing trips -
I didn't swoop in, I came in the exact same way everyone else did.
Well, now I'm telling you to open the wardroom window and climb on out before they give you a pre-frontal lobotomy and I have to smother you with a pillow.
[nodding] I'm Chief Bromden, yes, at this particular moment. I'm assigning an intern from the press office to that website. They're going to check it every night before they go home. If they discover you've been there I'm going to shove a motherboard so far up your ass - What?
Poetry readers, prepare yourselves for a passing of the
laurels. The Library of Congress announced in the wee hours Wednesday that the
next U.S. poet laureate will be California writer Juan Felipe Herrera. He will
be the first Latino poet to be appointed to the position.
“This is a mega-honor for me,” Herrera said in the
announcement, “for my family and my parents who came up north before and
after the Mexican Revolution of 1910 — the honor is bigger than me.”
Juan Felipe Herrera gives his first official reading as the nation’s new
poet laureate on Tuesday. He talked to NPR’s Renee Montagne about his writing
process, his migrant farmworker mother and a poem he wrote about the shooting in Charleston, S.C.
Oh you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn,
or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me….
-The Heiligenstadt Testament
Three miles from my adopted city
lies a village where I came to peace.
The world there was a calm place,
even the great Danube no more
than a pale ribbon tossed onto the landscape
by a girl’s careless hand. Into this stillness
I had been ordered to recover.
The hills were gold with late summer;
my rooms were two, plus a small kitchen,
situated upstairs in the back of a cottage
at the end of the Herrengasse.
From my window I could see onto the courtyard
where a linden tree twined skyward —
leafy umbilicus canted toward light,
warped in the very act of yearning —
and I would feed on the sun as if that alone
would dismantle the silence around me.
At first I raged. Then music raged in me,
rising so swiftly I could not write quickly enough
to ease the roiling. I would stop
to light a lamp, and whatever I’d missed —
larks flying to nest, church bells, the shepherd’s
home-toward-evening song — rushed in, and I
would rage again.
I am by nature a conflagration;
I would rather leap
than sit and be looked at.
So when my proud city spread
her gypsy skirts, I reentered,
burning towards her greater, constant light.
Call me rough, ill-tempered, slovenly— I tell you,
every tenderness I have ever known
has been nothing
but thwarted violence, an ache
so permanent and deep, the lightest touch
awakens it… . It is impossible
to care enough. I have returned
with a second Symphony
and 15 Piano Variations
which I’ve named Prometheus,
after the rogue Titan, the half-a-god
who knew the worst sin is to take
what cannot be given back.
I smile and bow, and the world is loud.
And though I dare not lean in to shout Can’t you see that I’m deaf? —
I also cannot stop listening.
There are many that I miss having sent my last one out a car window sparking along the road one night, years ago.
The heralded one, of course: after sex, the two glowing tips now the lights of a single ship; at the end of a long dinner with more wine to come and a smoke ring coasting into the chandelier; or on a white beach, holding one with fingers still wet from a swim.
How bittersweet these punctuations of flame and gesture; but the best were on those mornings when I would have a little something going in the typewriter, the sun bright in the windows, maybe some Berlioz on in the background. I would go into the kitchen for coffee and on the way back to the page, curled in its roller, I would light one up and feel its dry rush mix with the dark taste of coffee.
Then I would be my own locomotive, trailing behind me as I returned to work little puffs of smoke, indicators of progress, signs of industry and thought, the signal that told the nineteenth century it was moving forward. That was the best cigarette, when I would steam into the study full of vaporous hope and stand there, the big headlamp of my face pointed down at all the words in parallel lines.
“I’m here to encourage others to speak,” he said, “to speak out and
speak up and write with their voices and their family stories and their
sense of humor and their deep concerns and their way of speaking their
own languages. I want to encourage people to do that with this amazing
medium called poetry.”
We’re leaving Nebraska with our minds filled with the thoughtful conversations we’ve had with folks in York County about Keystone XL, far from the partisan rhetoric that’s dominated the national discussion. What comes through in every conversation I’ve had is the deep, deep connection people here feel to their land.
Listen for our story next week on All Things Considered. Meantime, here’s one of my favorite poems from Nebraska poet (and former US poet laureate) Ted Kooser. I love the sense of place in these lines:
So This Is Nebraska
BY TED KOOSER
The gravel road rides with a slow gallop
over the fields, the telephone lines
streaming behind, its billow of dust
full of the sparks of redwing blackbirds.
On either side, those dear old ladies,
the loosening barns, their little windows
dulled by cataracts of hay and cobwebs
hide broken tractors under their skirts.
So this is Nebraska. A Sunday
afternoon; July. Driving along
with your hand out squeezing the air,
a meadowlark waiting on every post.
Behind a shelterbelt of cedars,
top-deep in hollyhocks, pollen and bees,
a pickup kicks its fenders off
and settles back to read the clouds.
You feel like that; you feel like letting
your tires go flat, like letting the mice
build a nest in your muffler, like being
no more than a truck in the weeds,
clucking with chickens or sticky with honey
or holding a skinny old man in your lap
while he watches the road, waiting
for someone to wave to. You feel like
waving. You feel like stopping the car
and dancing around on the road. You wave
instead and leave your hand out gliding
larklike over the wheat, over the houses.