By Shirley McPhillips
It’s National Poetry Month! For inspiration, we have invited Shirley McPhillips, poet and NWP Writers Council member, to share some thinking about WHY poetry matters and HOW, as teachers and writers, we might jump into it. For more on writing seasonal poems, and to better understanding the central role poetry can play in our personal lives and in our classrooms, you may want to read Shirley’s book Poem Central: Word Journeys with Readers and Writers, Stenhouse Publishers, 2014. Also, her latest collection of poems called Acrylic Angel of Fate, made its debut in 2016, Finishing Line Press.
Like the wheel of the year, we are called to move forward, beyond old
limiting stories we have lived by, to create new myths closer to our heart’s desire.
—Arlene Gay Levine
Several years ago in early summer, I gave myself a retreat in an enchanted cottage in the Shawangunk Mountains in upstate New York. I needed a break. A relationship was not moving in a direction we had envisioned. A project was languishing. I wanted to get away, let myself empty out, hoping to be filled up again with courage and new beginnings of joy.
I awoke with the sun each day, had tea on the porch, greeted the deer family and hailed Hughie the woodchuck. I sketched by the Rondout Creek, wrote among the hummingbirds and read in the shadow of the owl’s nest. I hiked around the pond and wandered local farms for fresh tomatoes and corn right out of the field for supper. I walked and biked the Rail Trail along the old D & H Canal, calling out questions and makeshift answers. I stood still in rain. Evenings, I watched the sky blend from mountain blue to salmon to stars.
It was idyllic. Life affirming. But with that hole in my heart, it was hard. Stepping into the moments as they came, trying to find the possibilities around me, summer in that place reshaped my soul. And hey! I got three poems from it all. Reading and making poems, making art, saved me. I could bring the outside in, transform it, and send it back out again. I could trust anew that change was possible. In creating, I could make something of the material of my life.
I think all of us would agree that this has been a season of discontent across the land. Many of us are struggling with how to be in a world becoming less familiar. We can’t all “get away,” nor stay away, from the day to day. It’s where we live. I think of teachers who, in the face of all that tugs at them, step into the moments of the day searching with their students for ways to take pleasure in what they find there. In times such as these, it’s good to remember with poet and teacher Tony Hoagland, “In everything we have to understand, poetry can help.”
Seasonal Poems Remembered
The seasons are like bulbs, fat and full underground. In their time, they edge up and unfold with meaning. With a focus on the season, poets, conscious and careful, reach deeply into their senses. They summon the muses of emotion and memory. They gather a bounty of words and images and hone them with the specifics of the moment. Exploring seasons, we can connect with the music of all life’s processes and join in the harmony.
Harry, a stage manager, can still quote Frost’s “Dust of Snow.” It reminds him of his winter walks as a young man growing up in Minnesota. How even the slightest sound or sight or bit of energy can resound and stay. “The way a crow / Shook down on me / The dust of snow / From a hemlock tree…”
Anna Lee, a cellist, remembers, as a child, turning the pages of a book of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems, gazing at a faded watercolor scene of the sea, yearning for summer. “When I was down beside the sea / A wooden spade they gave to me…”
A more current poem by Li-Young Lee called “Falling: The Code” reminds my friend David of his grandparents’ apple orchard on a hill in upstate New York—the “stem-snap, the plummet / through leaves, then / the final thump against the ground.” He can still smell the spicy fruit in fall and imagine the deer reaching up at dusk to pull off one or two. He can hear the pumph of apples as they hit the ground.
Fifth-grade teacher, Calley, studied and wrote Haiku and other short forms for an entire summer in preparation for working with students. She wanted her teaching to come from the inside out. She read the masters and contemporary poets. She kept a notebook, jotting observations, images, sketches and snatches of short poems. In the tradition of early Haiku poets, the words in these two final poems suggest the season:
under the forsythia—
chasing sparrow dreams.
sweeps over the snowy field—
wings splinter moonlight.
Poet Adrienne Rich reminds us what is true: Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire. Remember the retreat in the country I gave myself one early summer? My season of renewal? Here is one result:
Life On the Edge
The nest of my poem
is too loosely constructed
to hold much hope, all shreds
of thistledown and hay on the verge
of a ledge under the drainpipe,
sunblasted shortly after noon,
whipped by a race of rain
through scumbles of late clouds.
Day after day, a motherflurry
of wings, and the newborns, beaks
grub-woozy with expectation,
gape for a taste not altogether
alien. One bullies itself to the edge,
alive with a divine trembling.
How quickly its heart
beats in me.