A few years back, a really great writer told me she didn’t like poetry. She said she didn’t “get it,” that poetry was too obscure, too vague. And who can blame her? There’s plenty of poetry I don’t get, and I studied it in college. I don’t love poems that make me feel stupid, but I don’t really like anything that makes me feel stupid, and there are heaps and heaps of things I don’t understand in the world.
There are plenty of poems out there, however, that are accessible yet deep, understandable but leave room for the imagination, specific yet universal. There are poems that speak to me, that move me, that change how I see the world. I hope to pique your interest in poetry, if it needs to be piqued, with poems from these contemporary Southern writers.
“I Can’t Sleep so I’ll Tell You a Story” by Tom C. Hunley
I came across this poem earlier this year while going down the rabbit hole of the Internet, though I can’t remember where my search started and for what I was looking. Sometimes while scrabbling around in the dirt, I come across a piece of gold like this one.
First, I love a good story. Second, if it combines drama and humor, count me as a fan. I read it once, twice, three times. Each time I read it, I liked it even more. I read it out loud. (Please try this if you have not already, especially with this poem.) When the speaker returns to the present in that last stanza, something shifts — I treasure this in any poem that manages it — that makes the poem open out, open wider.
“The Raincoat” by Ada Limón
As I am writing this, my parents are in my house — my father working on his computer in his makeshift “desk” at my kitchen table, and my mother by the fireplace in the den, sorting out a jigsaw puzzle. They traveled over three hundred miles to take care of me for a medical procedure I will have tomorrow morning. The recovery, I am told, will be two weeks, and while my dog comes in quite handy for barking at people who come to the door, she is not much help when it comes to making food or helping me shower. My husband has full days at work, and it’s hard in his line of business to drop everything and stay at home so he can retrieve a glass of water for me or help me take pain medication. My parents offered to come and take me to the procedure and stay for a few days afterward because they wanted to make things easier for me. They have always, always wanted to make things easier for me.
Which brings me to this poem by Ada Limón. I read this poem for the first time last year, and I immediately wished I had written it. But it’s not the first poem by Ada Limón that I have envied and loved. I have used “How to Triumph Like a Girl” to open many of my author talks. The problem is it chokes me up every time. So does this poem.
I doubt you need to have loving parents to love this poem, but it’s what I have. I hope this poem speaks to you.
“Plaintive Lives” by Jesse Graves
I grew up in a small town in Ohio — a town I loved — from kindergarten through high school, but as tan adult, I moved to a number of new places and new states, but always I returned to my hometown in between.
The hardest move, by far, was when I packed up my car in my twenties and moved with my new husband from Ohio to North Carolina. Looking back, I can see why it was hard: I felt unmoored instead of free, I was trying to adjust to married life and who I was in the relationship, and giving up things and people I loved was yes, done by choice, but not one I wanted to make. My then-husband did not want to live in Ohio, and for the first time it felt like I would never be able to return to my beloved family and my Ohio town, not if I wanted to be married to him.
Jesse Graves’ poem, “Plaintive Lives,” reminds me of that time. He writes of the poem:
“Plaintive Lives” was written at a time soon after my family and I had moved to a new town. We missed living in the familiar city that we loved, in a little house where we always felt at home, and in jobs and schools that challenged and satisfied us. We had departed from one comfortable station, yet had not arrived at the next. We could not settle in, could not get fixed in our new habitat. We had more, but felt we had less. Such feelings, luckily, can change as quickly as the direction of the wind, or the shape of a cloud, but in this poem, the in-between-ness seems like it could last forever. (from North American Review, “Station to Station,” February 9, 2017)
“Mood” by Courtney LeBlanc
One of my poetry teachers used to say that if you were stuck and didn’t know what to write, to start with something concrete, an object that has meaning for you: the pale blue scarf that your mother wore to weddings and funerals, the pocket watch your father kept on his nightstand even though the watch stopped working twenty years ago, the set of football pencils you stole from your sister when you were eight and refused to give back.
If you start with something concrete that has meaning, my teacher said, then just begin describing it (what it looks like, where it came from, how it smells, how heavy it is, who gave it to you, etc.) and eventually the object, and your writing about it, will take the poem where it needs to go, where you might not have even anticipated.
Courtney LeBlanc’s poem, “Mood,” reminded me of those words of wisdom.
LeBlanc is one of the most prolific writers and poets I know. She’s also in constant motion — setting up readings on her travels, publishing poems, giving talks, and reading an incredible number of books in a short time, all while also managing her non-poetic career. But one of the things that distinguishes her from some other writers is that she takes every opportunity to champion work by other people, especially other poets. We can all take a little lesson from her and learn to champion other people a little more.
I was drawn to this poem because it brought back memories of my own young self. This poem takes a particular object — a mood ring — and describes its relationship to the speaker, an object a young girl wanted so much she thinks of it as a “treasure” and presses it to her skin. By the end, the poem, for me, has gone where it needed to go, and taken me with it.
Courtney LeBlanc’s poems often focus on relationships, and she is never timid about talking about subjects that others (I’m raising my hand here) find more challenging, like sex and domestic violence. Her poems often tell a story. She has just released a full-length collection of poems, Beautiful and Full of Monsters. You can find “Mood” in its pages.
By Ada Limon
Published August 14, 2018
Beautiful & Full of Monsters
By Courtney LeBlanc
Vegetarian Alcoholic Press
Published March 10, 2020