Iambic pentameter makes me feel like that person in the room who is clapping off-beat. I still don’t quite get that rhythm, but in the poetry class I audited with Jenny Browne, I did learn other valuable things. Beautiful things, like: an aubade is a poem written for the morning, and, to be a poet, you don’t need to be anything different than who you already are. You just have to notice life as it’s passing and go the few steps beyond. Write it down. Process it. And like all other types of writing, well-written poems result from not just tireless revision, but the practice of reading other good writers.
I also learned there are Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, but reading this poem, written in 1917 by the Pulitzer prize-winning poet, Wallace Stevens, made me feel like I was blindfolded in front of a piñata, getting spun around in circles. The meaning was opaque, because the words were supposed to be felt, not logically understood.
Learning poetry from Browne was life-altering. Her lectures are powered by a pure, unadulterated engagement with her craft and she imparts this knowledge with exuberant clarity. She’s filled with poetry quotes that help to point her listeners in the right direction.
Last week I got to interview Browne for the Rivard Report in honor of her investiture as San Antonio’s Poet Laureate. I would never miss the chance to talk with Browne about anything, but especially poetry. Before we met, I sat down with two of her books that I already owned and started to look through them again. When I looked up from reading, I realized I was 15 minutes late to a meeting.
I was reading a found poem that she wrote after her father died. She found one of her father’s textbooks from medical school, and she made a poem from the words he underlined in the book.This is taken from her third volume of poetry, Dear Stranger, published in 2013:
Auscultation (Or A Year After His Death, I Find What My Father Underlined in His Textbook on Listening to the Human Heart)
There is no substitute for a quiet room.
Respiration must be suspended while one is listening.
Loudness is the subjective aspect of sound.
At the base of the heart, the second sound is louder than the first.
The term gallop is no longer of value.
A thrill is a palpable manifestation of a murmur.
Vibrations are produced downstream.
The farther the sound has
through the chest wall
the fainter the sound will be.
I love the ending of this poem, which feels like she is saying goodbye to her father. At her investiture, she said that poetry helps her to address things like “waking up in body that won’t always be here.” Poetry lives in the same zone as my middle-of-the-night moments, when I wake up with a panicked awareness of mortality. Poetry is a form of prayer. Poems arise from “a sense of mystery, or of wanting to try to name,” as Browne said when we talked.
“There’s this idea that words aren’t enough and language fails and it’s true,” Browne said. Being a poet, you’re “trying to translate imagination and memory and sensory detail and feelings into language and it’s impossible, you can’t do it, but what other tools do we have?”
Browne has also showed me so many other poets to read, an infinity of voices to explore and discover. I just bought Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions, which she mentioned. He asks things like:
Why did cheese decide to perform heroic deeds in France?
Why don’t they train helicopters to suck honey from the sunlight?
Did autumn’s hairdressers uncomb these chrysanthemums?
Browne has a daughter who is my daughter’s age; we’ve sat in the halls of the ballet studio together, but somehow while doing that, she has also managed to be this incredible teacher and writer. All while I’ve been running errands and meandering the aisles of HEB. There’s this:
Taking Children to the Cemetery
may require donuts and repetition.
No, you may not walk there. No, you may not stand on that.
I know he is not here. I know I said we were going to visit. I know I said we were going to see.
I learned about the poet Gwendolyn Brooks from Browne. In 1950, she became the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. Browne is drawn to her because she writes about “women’s domestic experience…her mothers and her aunts in the street, and so certainly for me as someone who has been raising kids and writing and teaching and having a public life and a private life and thinking about so much of my time is spent doing this stuff of daily life, this experience of being in that space while my mind is often in a lot of other places.”
I can relate; there are so many times that my daughters have had to say my name more than once. The lure of reading poetry, said Browne, is that it allows you to connect to “a lived life that I recognize on a page, because that’s what I think we’re always looking for, is something that makes our own experience visible.” The part about “making our own experience visible”–that’s why I love to read.
But also poetry can illustrate the lives of others in ways that allow you to lives you would otherwise never connect with. Poetry can express empathy. “It’s a way to hold another human experience.”
Browne’s most recent work involves ecology. She is collaborating with scientists because “you can have all the facts in the world; you can have all of the science and this is being played out every day, but it doesn’t mean that it’s going to make any body feel or change or do anything if you haven’t figured out a way to communicate it.”