Laura Dzubay: A Poetry Playlist for the end of the year
Finals are here, which means it’s time for the last Poetry Playlist of the 2017-2018 school year.
This was initially just going to be a finals-themed list, full of poems about perseverance and hardship and so on. But as the list was coming together, it quickly became clear that there are a lot of different associations that go along with the next few weeks, and not all of them have to do with academics. You might be graduating, saying goodbye to some old chapter in your life and hello to a new one. Feelings of rebirth or emergence often go along with the beginnings of spring, which is in many ways a period of transition. You might just be celebrating spring itself (unless you’ve looked outside, in which case you’re more likely wondering where spring is to begin with).
“The Dreamer,” by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Poetry Foundation refers to Paul Laurence Dunbar as “one of the first influential Black poets in American literature.” Unfortunately, I had never heard of him until this semester, when I was lucky enough to be exposed to him in one of my English classes. Dunbar has an exquisite command of language and a remarkable ability to slip between various voices and styles of poetry, depending on the piece of work. “The Dreamer” brings to mind the idea of processes of achievement. The other day, a friend who is graduating told me about how weird it is to be asked about her future plans in life, when it would feel better to just stop and celebrate the present after having worked so hard to get to where she is. Similarly, at one point in the poem, Dunbar’s dreamer “could no farther go; / But paused in joy that he was even there!” It’s a great poem about perseverance and the many steps it takes to make one’s dreams become reality in the “living, pulsing world.”
“Spring is like a perhaps hand,” by e.e. cummings
I try to limit my indulgence in e.e. cummings, because the man gets enough attention as it is, but he does write some very nice poetry, and this piece in particular does a good job of capturing the delicacy of spring’s entrance. Spring is slow and careful, rearranging the entire world gently, one little piece after another, and cummings recalls this gingerness in both the diction and the structure of the poem.
“Reverie in Open Air,” by Rita Dove
Very few situations exist for which there is not a perfect Rita Dove poem. “Reverie in Open Air” is a great poem for springtime, especially if you’re the type of person who relates to her “status as a stranger.” In the poem, she forsakes visibility in favor of true presence within the world: the speaker wears “inappropriate clothes” and keeps “odd habits,” and when she beholds a lawn “leveled for looking,” she “(kicks) off (her) sandals and (walks) its cool green.” It’s a simple kind of agency, personal and fresh.
“Knowledge,” by Kim Addonizio
This poem seems dark when you first read it, and that’s because it kind of is. The main “knowledge” in the poem is the kind that most of us come to face at some point or another: Life is short and hard, that nothing has meaning, and that people are generally self-serving and cruel. But there’s another knowledge at work in the lines, on the other side of the harshness, and that’s the knowledge that despite all of the horrible and meaningless things we witness, there is a love and an innocence buried within us. At its core, it’s not a hopeful poem, and I’m including it here because moving through a transition isn’t always an experience of hope alone. Sometimes there’s also fear and horror. But as Addonizio points out, we still have to go on; even harsh knowledge can be a kind of armor.
“Renascence,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
The story of “Renascence” is one of my favorite Millay stories, and there are a lot. Most of the stories I know about Millay have to do with everyone around her being obsessed with her, whether it was a matter of her personality, her beauty, her poetry or all three. She wrote “Renascence” when she was 19 and submitted it to a poetry contest, and everyone thought it was so good that when she was awarded fourth place, the first-place winner called his own award “as much an embarrassment to me as a triumph” and the second-place winner offered her his $250 prize money. It’s a poem about realization and rebirth, so it fits in well on a list of poems having to do with spring.
“The Journey,” by Mary Oliver
“The Journey” is one of my favorite poems I’ve read recently, with a simple premise and a dynamite ending. It’s a fitting poem for graduation or for any type of moving on — a reminder that sometimes you simply have to drown out the voices of everyone around you, whether they’re putting you down or giving you bad advice or demanding things of you. At the end of the day, you can really only do one thing, which is to live the live that only you can live, and to “save / the only life you could save.”
“Today I Was So Happy, So I Made This Poem,” by James Wright
This last poem is short and sweet, a snapshot of fulfillment. Amid all of the new knowledge and understanding and the fear of the future, it’s good to allow yourself moments, however brief, of pure joy, and to take them in whenever you’re lucky enough to come across them. “Today I Was So Happy, So I Made This Poem” captures the idea that the best thing life can offer you sometimes is the answer to a prayer you didn’t even know you made.