At Some Point… by Tracy K. Smith

I’m currently reading and loving Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith, this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry to go with the theme of this month’s Poetry Project. I really feel like I could share any poem from this collection and so I  just turned to a random page. This is the poem I found and it is a lovely one.

At Some Point, They’ll Want to Know What it Was Like
by Tracy K. Smith

There was something about how it felt. Not just the during —
That rough churn of bulk and breath, limb and tooth, the mass of us,
The quickness we made and rode — but mostly the before.

The waiting, knowing what would become. Pang. Pleasure then pain.
Then the underwater ride of after. Thrown-off like a coat over a bridge.
Somehow you’d just give away what you’d die without. You just gave.

The best was having nothing. No hope. No name in the throat.
And finding the breath in you, the body, to ask.

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Last week, when I talked about how to love a poem, this is the kind of poem I meant when I said that you might love a poem you don’t fully understand. I can try and gleam meaning from this poem. I could try and come up with scenarios that made sense. I’m sure I could make a good case or two, but it doesn’t really matter. This poem sounds amazing. The last couplet is so filled with meaning, it is like a poem on its own.

Smith, Tracy K. “At Some Point, They’ll Want to Know What it Was Like.” Life on Mars. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2011.

Poetry Project – Reading the Pulitzer Prize Winners

Welcome to the August introductory post for The Poetry Project! Remember, if you’d like to play along, all you really need to do is write about poetry in the month of August. If you do that, come back to this post and join in our Mr. Linky, available at the end of this post. Link to any and all of your poetry posts, as long as they were posted in August (or after the July round up post, which you can find here at Kelly’s blog.)

If you’re participating in The Poetry Project by posting about our monthly theme, then August’s theme is Pulitzer Prize Winning Poetry. I’ve been accused of starting off a little bit strong here, but if you’re new to reading poetry, then it doesn’t hurt to start off with the best (as determined by an arbitrary committee, choosing based on their arbitrary interests, from a pool of poets that only come from one country). With all those caveats aside, there are some really great poetry collections that have won the Pulitzer. If you don’t know where to start, well, I have a few suggestions.

Welcome to So You Want to Read a Pulitzer Prize Winner! Let me start off by saying that I have not read the Pulitzer list widely, but I have read a fair bit of it. I plan on spending this month really exploring the list in a way that I haven’t had the chance to. My recommendations are based on the books I’ve read or the poets I’m very familiar with. For example, I haven’t read Robert Frost’s New Hampshire specifically, but I’m confident enough in my knowledge of Robert Frost that I can recommend that book to a certain reader.

I know this is a very US-centric challenge. For a future month, I’d love to focus on prizes that focus on poets from other countries. Please let me know if you have any suggestions for poets or prizes to feature!

Show Me the Classics!
If you’re working your way up to reading contemporary poetry, start here.  

The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver by Edna St. Vincent Millay – Winner 1923 – This title poem of this collection is probably most famous because Johnny Cash did a reading of the poem for the Johnny Cash show in 1970. I really recommend watching it, even though he did take some (small) liberties with the wording. If you haven’t read Edna St. Vincent Millay, I recommend it. She balances darkness, a keen eye, and a sense of humor well. The other good news is that this book is available in the public domain! You can read it for free here. I feel this is a good introduction, too, to how contemporary a sonnet can sound.

New Hampshire by Robert Frost – Winner 1924 – I think that everyone has a certain opinion of Robert Frost because they studied his poems in middle school or as Freshman in high school and they can seem very surface. When I was in college, we did a close reading of Frost and I really had a new appreciation for him. If you want to explore Frost as an adult, I really recommend it. As I said, I haven’t read this specific collection, but it does include poems you might have read, like “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Show Me Those Poet Laureates!
This is, admittedly, a completely arbitrary list, but if you are not as interested in the classics, these poets are an excellent place to start exploring contemporary poetry. 

Annie Allen by Gwendolyn Brooks – Winner 1950 – Poet Laureate of Illinois 1968 – It’s actually fairly difficult to find this book, so you might have to resort to a collection of Gwnedolyn Brooks’s poetry, but you should read it all. Brooks, above all, tells stories with her poems. Sometimes she does it in few words and experiments more with form, but her poems are filled with characters, with real people that you might know. I’ve always thought her poems were so strong because of this. Brooks is, without a doubt, one of the most important poets of the 20th century.

The Carrier of Ladders by W.S. Merwin and The Shadow of Sirius by W. S. Merwin – Winner 1971 and 2009 – US Poet Laureate 2010 – The Carrier of Ladders is available as a part of the collection The Second Four Books of Poems. Like Brooks, Merwin’s poems often tell a clear story. His language is clear and concise, but beautiful. Interestingly, when Merwin won the Pulitzer, he gave the prize money to support the draft resistance movement during the Vietnam War.

Delights & Shadows by Ted Kooser – US Poet Laureate 2004 – Delight is right. I love Ted Kooser. I love the way he writes poetry, I love the way he reads poetry. I’ve mentioned his American Life in Poetry Column here before. They’re lovely poems that celebrate the small. Try out this poem from Delights & Shadows called “The China Painters” to see if Ted Kooser is a poet you might enjoy.

Late Wife by Claudia Emerson – Winner 2006 – Poet Laureate of Virginia 2008-2010 – Full disclosure: Claudia Emerson was my poetry instructor when I was in college. Her poems are  beautiful and descriptive and if you aren’t sure where to start, but you know you’d like to read a contemporary poet, start with Emerson.

Show Me that Challenge!

Neon Vernacular by Yusef Komunyakaa – Winner 1994 – By describing this book as a challenge, I hope I don’t scare you away. That’s not what I want to do. This is probably one of my most recommended books of poetry. I love it, especially the first section, but Komunyakaa is not always the easiest poet to read. He plays around with form and also has a large number of cultural and literary references in his poems that I don’t often understand without doing research. That being said, there are lines from the poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa that ring so true and perfect. Even if you are a first time poetry reader, you should read Komunyakaa. Yes, his poetry might require a little bit of extra work, but it’s rewarding.

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Hopefully there is something from this list that will intrigue you! I also highly recommend Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, as I discussed back in February. For my own project this month, I’ll be reading some collections of poetry that won Pulitzer’s that I haven’t read yet. My goal will be to read one book for each decade. Here is my list:

2010-12: Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith
2000s: Time & Materials by Robert Hass
1990s:  Black Zodiac by Charles Wright
1980s:  Thomas and Beulah by Rita Dove
1970s: Now and Then by Robert Penn Warren
1960s: Pictures from Brueghel by William Carlos Williams
1950s: Collected Poems by Marianne Moore
1940s: The Age of Anxiety by WH Auden
1930s: Collected Verse by Robert Hillyer
1920s: Complete Poetical Works by Amy Lowell

Happy August poetry reading! I hope you find a Pulitzer prize-winner to fall in love with. Remember, any poetry post that goes up from July 25-August 30 (round up will be posted on August 31) counts, even if it is not about a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. Please add your links to the Mr. Linky below: