Sun-struck mornings, rainy afternoons, starry nights of poetry, come back to me now, remember me. Do not desert me, lifetime of encounters, lifelines, sentencings. I stumbled upon poetry as a teenager in Chicago—I was at sea and it offered me a raft—and it has sustained me for the past forty years. I have carried poetry with me like a flashlight—how many small books have I crammed into my pockets?—and used it to illuminate other lives, other worlds. I discovered myself in discovering others, and I have lived with these poems until they have become part of the air that I breathe. I hope they will become part of the reader’s world too.
Many of us remember with an eerie precision where we were when we first read certain crucial things:
I remember the spidery light in the second-floor warehouse of Wertheimer Box and Paper Company where I pored over Pablo Neruda’s “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” which I then shared with a couple of Puerto Rican workers whose job it was to feed corrugated cartons through enormous iron machines. “Sube a nacer conmigo, hermano,” one of them quoted (“Rise to be born with me, brother”).
I remember the circle of lamplight that ringed the page in my college dorm room where I was first stung by Gerard Manley Hopkins’s so-called terrible sonnets (“I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”). These lonely poems made me feel less lonely—I recognized their inner desolation—and I read through the night until I washed up on the crisp Iowa morning (“There lives the dearest freshness deep down things”).
I recall the cramped bookstores and branch libraries, the cafés and fast-food joints, the book-lined studies. I can still feel the drizzly homesickness of a café in London where I was pierced by Ezra Pound’s adaptations of Li Po. I think of the bugged hotel room in Leningrad—it was more like a closet—where I was mesmerized by Osip Mandelstam’s “Tristia” (“I have studied the science of goodbyes”). And I do not forget the dusky blues of an empty Warsaw café in midwinter where I was changed by Zbigniew Herbert’s “Mr. Cogito” poems (“you were saved not in order to live / you have little time you must give testimony”).
These poems have had a kind of talismanic power for me, and I keep them close at hand. I have kept my early loves in poetry nearby; I have held them as a touchstone and a reminder during the years I have been writing this book. They have dreamt with me through the night; they have been companions of the day. I have tried to remember throughout that poetry is made by flesh-and-blood human beings. It is a bloody art. It lives on a human scale and thrives when it is passed from hand to hand.
Poetry is as ancient as the drawing of a horse at Lascaux, or an Egyptian hieroglyphic, and yet it also feels especially relevant to a post-9/11 world, a world characterized by disaffection and materialism, a world alienated from art. The horrors we face daily around the globe—terrorist bombings, ethnic cleansing, the ravages of the HIV epidemic, children becoming soldiers—challenge us to find meaning in the midst of suffering. Poetry answers this challenge. It puts us in touch with ourselves. It sends us messages from the interior and also connects us to others. It is intimate and secretive; it is generously collective.
We live at a time when the pervasive influence of media and consumer culture blurs national boundaries and identities. The poems featured in Poet’s Choice consistently grapple with death, suffering, and loss. They defend the importance of individual lives, and rebel at the way individuals are dwarfed by mass culture. They are unaccommodating. They portray, and communicate on behalf of, people at the margins of society: exiles, transplants, refugees, nomads, people with no country, people split between two different countries, split between the past and the present. They search for meaning—in language and forms particular only to poetry—in the realm of emptiness, for company in the face of isolation. Poems are always in dialogue with other poems and in conversation with history, and they invite readers into that conversation, which offers a particular form of communication, communion, and fusion.
This book seeks to befriend the reader on behalf of poetry, which trembles with sensuous music, human presence. Each of these short pieces contains at least one entire poem that is worth our full attention. These individual poems—urgent, formal, insistent—need individual readers to experience them. It is an honor to introduce and present them to you. My idea throughout is to help unveil them, to explain their sometimes challenging formal devices and to provide a context for reading them, whether biographical, literary, or historical. I hope to accompany the reader in the experience of reading and internalizing a poem, which ultimately bypasses rational mind and lodges inside of us. It enters the dream life, and the dream works. It circulates in the bloodstream.
Poetry is a means of exchange, a form of reciprocity, a magic to be shared, a gift. There has never been a civilization without it. That’s why I consider poetry—which is, after all, created out of a mouthful of air—a human fundamental, like music. It saves something precious in the world from vanishing. It sacramentalizes experience. It is an imaginative act that starts with the breath itself. It arises from breathing. It is a living thing that comes from the body, from the heart and lungs, and thus seems hardwired into us. It enters our bodies through the material stream of language. It moves and dances between speech and song. These words rhythmically strung together, these electrically charged sounds, are one of the ways by which we come to know ourselves. A poem beats out time.
Poetry speaks with the greatest intensity against the effacement of individuals, the obliteration of communities, the destruction of nature. It tries to keep the world from ending by positing itself against oblivion. The words are marks against erasure. I believe that something in our natures is realized when we use language as an art to confront and redeem our mortality. We need poems now as much as ever. We need these voices to restore us to ourselves in an alienating world. We need the sounds of the words to delineate the states of our being. Poetry is a necessary part of our planet.