The Poems We Should Read Now
For Poetry Month, Graduate Center scholars and authors highlight poems that speak to our times.
April is Poetry Month and to celebrate we invited Graduate Center writers and scholars to share a poem or lines of poem that they think the world needs to hear right now, and why. The verses below show the power of poetry to delight, to challenge, to inspire, and to make us view the world in new ways.
Professor Celina Su
“Käthe Kollwitz” by Muriel Rukeyser
The very first lines of the poem establish the multiple, grand scales of the speaker’s context and what’s at stake — wars, revolutions, our neighbors in the streets — amidst “dailiness,” intimate moments, and the seemingly quotidian.
The poem places us in conversation with Käthe Kollwitz’s work, alongside Rukeyser; in doing so, it refuses easy tropes or narratives and instead emphasizes interdependence, tensions, and contradictions: “A woman pouring her opposites.” The poem’s most famous lines — “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?/ The world would split open”— remind me to remain vigilant about questions of bearing witness, of who speaks with authority in the public sphere, of whom we get information from, and of documentation, research, and art as a mode of inquiry.
Professor Celina Su has appointments at the Graduate Center (Psychology, Urban Education) and Brooklyn College (Political Science). Her most recent book is Landia, a collection of poetry.
“The Wall” by Gwendolyn Brooks
This Gwendolyn Brooks poem, published by Broadside Press in 1967, is now on display at our neighbor, The Morgan Library & Museum. The poem describes the energy of the Chicago Black community at “The Wall of Respect” located at 37th and Calumet on the south side of the city. The wall was composed of portraits of major Black artists, musicians, and heroes and it was unveiled in 1967, and so celebrated in the poem, which mentions the jazz great Phil Cohran and others. In the past several years, there have been several books centered around the Wall, discussing its political and artistic impact. How wonderful to have this poet account from the time, written by one of our greatest poets, on display so close to the Graduate Center.
Ken Wissoker is the director of Intellectual Publics at the Graduate Center and senior executive editor at Duke University Press
“In The Woods” by Adrienne Rich
I keep returning to a volume of Adrienne Rich’s early collected poems, and though I have loved and studied her work for over a decade, many of her poems still surprise me. I want to offer “In The Woods” to you. In this poem, she writes about “difficult ordinary happiness,” or a kind of happiness nobody believes in. She also writes about coping with relentless bad news, and the striking moments in which, “outrageously, something good / finds us…”.
It’s incredibly difficult to write about happiness, and Rich approaches this challenge with a mix of caution, optimism, and sensory description. “Happiness! how many times / I’ve stranded on that word, / at the edge of that pond; seen / as if through tears, the dragonfly— // only to find it all / going differently for once / this time: my soul wheeled back / and burst into my body. // Found! Ready or not.” Her use of exclamation points feels freeing, as does the knowledge that happiness is so difficult and ordinary that it will come again. Things will go differently.
I love a poem that tackles subjects like hope and happiness because there’s risk here. She addresses the guilt many of us feel when taking a few moments for ourselves or encountering a moment of peace: “Writing these words in the woods, / I feel like a traitor to my friends, / even to my enemies.” We can picture her sitting on her blanket “behind the pine-tree’s crest,” where she is not hiding, but allowing herself to be found by something good —“My soul, my helicopter, whirred / distantly…” I think it’s important, if not radical, to write about moments in which the soul sparkles to life and we feel reconnected, restored, and surprised by our capacity to feel a range of things, including hope. Sarah Ahmed considers happiness to be a happening — and this poem is a happening that wheels the soul back into the body, ready or not.
Madeleine Barnes is a Ph.D. candidate in English, a Public Humanities Fellow with the PublicsLab at the Graduate Center, and the author of Women’s Work, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE GOOD, Light Experiments, and The Memory Dictionary, forthcoming from Ethel Press in fall 2022.
Professor Ammiel Alcalay
“Instead of a Preface”
In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent
seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad.
Once, someone "recognized" me. Then a woman with
bluish lips standing behind me, who, of course, had
never heard me called by name before, woke up from
the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and
whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there):
"Can you describe this?"
And I answered: "Yes, I can."
Then something that looked like a smile passed over
what had once been her face.
April 1, 1957
Translated from Russian by Judith Hemschemeyer
In one of the greatest poems of the 20th century, Anna Akhmatova becomes the memory of her people. As she is recognized by the “woman with bluish lips,” she has also, literally, saved her own face. From a U.S. perspective, I have to wonder, What of us: where is our face?
Two retired U.S. Presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, recently laid a wreath at a Ukrainian church in memory of war victims. Perhaps their schedules didn’t permit them to lay a wreath for their Iraqi victims. Clinton’s Secretary of State, the late Madeline Albright, also the author of Fascism: A Warning, once famously said, in support of sanctions against Iraq, that the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children was a price worth paying to depose Saddam Hussein. The Bush administration, with full media complicity, lied to the world about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and proceeded to destroy and occupy a sovereign nation. Were any Americans ever sanctioned, fired from their jobs, banned from participating in sports, not allowed to do very basic things because of the actions of their leaders?
While my sympathies, always, are with the victims of war, I watch with outrage as many of the same politicians who brought us Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and so many other catastrophes, all move to the center to become arms dealers in the eastward expansion of NATO. Instead of attempting to address long-standing Russian concerns and grievances, they willfully subvert negotiations and attempt to cancel and nullify a whole nation, people, and culture with collective punishment to protect the order of this dying U.S. empire. With utter cynicism for the lives of actual Ukrainians, one doesn’t need to guess what a U.S. response would look like to, let’s say, the overthrow of Ontario by Iran, with heavy weapons pointed at Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee. And though we ought to scream, we also speak — in the face of the enormity of these double standards and this war machine — as we can, in whispers.
Professor Alcalay has appointments at the Graduate Center (English, Comparative Literature) and Queens College and is the founder and general editor of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative. His recent books include Ghost Talk, A Bibliography for After Jews and Arabs, and A Dove in Flight, poems by Faraj Bayrakdar, co-edited with Queens College colleague Professor Shareah Taleghani.
Distinguished Professor André Aciman
Two haikus by Bashō (below from translations by Robert Hass)
Even in Kyoto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyoto.
It says everything I’ve ever thought about place.
First day of spring—
I keep thinking about
the end of autumn.
It says everything I’ve ever thought about time.
Have I started or stopped thinking about these haikus? I don’t know.
And they won't tell me.
Distinguished Professor André Aciman has appointments at the Graduate Center in French, Comparative Literature, and Biography and Memoir and he directs The Writers’ Institute at the Graduate Center. He is the New York Times best-selling author of Call Me by Your Name, Find Me, and Harvard Square, the memoir Out of Egypt, and the essay collections False Papers, Alibis, and Homo Irrealis.
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