The days I read a new poem I am young, younger, suddenly—young as a verb almost, as a growing-down somehow simultaneous with upwardness. My favorite poems are prescient and precocious, as if a child had written them with perfect understanding despite the cruelties of anachronism and time, as if she had written them with some fore-urgency. Some of the best poets lead me to believe that they are decades younger than they are—Olena Kalytiak Davis’ “Please don’t misunderstand: / We still suffer, but we are / happy,” her “five chambered heart / Filling with the panic of birds, asking: What? / What if not this?” Dorothea Grossman’s little missives: “I have to tell you, / there are times when / the sun strikes me / like a gong, / and I remember everything, / even your ears.” Eileen Myles has seemed my age and appropriately rebellious for it as far back and forward as I’ve read in her work—“Listen to all your voices now.”
This applies to being taken out of time, too, I think. Rumi could probably be thought contemporary. When I found Yuan Chen’s poem “Letter Smuggled in a Fish” online I assumed it to have been written within the decade:
Your letter unfolds and unfolds forever.
I flatten it with my hands to read:
tearstains, tearstains and a touch of rouge
where it must have touched your cheek
—And then I looked him up online a few days ago only to discover that he lived from 779 to 831 CE, despite how close he feels, here with no bodily hereness any longer.
Children themselves speak some of the best poetry unintentionally, as if pulled out airily on a stick, cotton candy words; as the plum pit suddenly appearing in what was soft. Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge, in her book Poemcrazy, details a few similar incidents with her children and students, and quotes Kenneth Patchen’s ideal that a poet should “wear comfortable shoes and see a lot of children.” My favorite story is her son’s:
I saw my son, Daniel, shaking our new lilac bush the spring he was three . . . I asked him what he was doing. “I’m stirring the sky, Mama,” he told me. I asked only that he stir it gently. How can you tell a child to stop stirring the sky?
Poetry is my way of never growing up, of residing in that childspace forever, heady, unconscious, smelling of tall grass or pond water. To be a poet is to never stop digging the hole, planting the marigold, stirring the sky.