Character And Voice: Picks For National Poetry Month Librarian Nancy Pearl shares the work of a few of her best-loved poets. They include a former nun who wrote about Marilyn Monroe, a man who was left paralyzed after a bicycle accident, and writers who — despite the sometimes rigid requirements of their chosen form — find surprising, inventive ways to use words.
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Character And Voice: Picks For National Poetry Month

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Character And Voice: Picks For National Poetry Month

Character And Voice: Picks For National Poetry Month

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We are in the middle of April, which is National Poetry Month. And so we brought in librarian Nancy Pearl, as we often do, with some reading selections.

Hi, Nancy.

Ms. NANCY PEARL (Librarian, Best-Selling Author, Literary Critic): Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: And youve sent along a selection of poetry. I've got a stack of books that reaches almost up to the microphone, here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PEARL: Well, doing this show made me - it just gave me such pleasure because I got to re-read some of my very favorite poets, some of whom I hadn't gone back to in a long time and it was just wonderful to reacquaint myself with them.

INSKEEP: And one of them is Paul Guest, I guess. The book is called "My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge."

Ms. PEARL: And I think what you need to know when you're reading this book, is that when Paul Guest was 12 years old, he was in a bicycle accident that left him basically a quadriplegic. And all of these poems - either as a kind of subtext, or really as the main theme of the book -all of these poems refer back to what it's like to live in a world where the majority of other people can move their bodies at will and he cannot.

Their fabulous poems, but sometimes they are so painful to read. But this is how his poem "Bad Mood" begins.

(Reading) Bad mood and bad dog and bad luck like my broken neck or heart or head playing out so much bad weather, like kinked yarn unraveled by a bad black cat, which summons luck again, that diffident lover, half naked in the dark.

INSKEEP: Hmm. And you have just hit, Nancy Pearl, on what I think makes poetry live for a lot of people, when the poetry seems to connect directly to real life. Its beautiful words, but it might be really raw sentiments.

Ms. PEARL: I think that what poetry does, is uses those raw sentiments and turn them into something that makes them accessible. I like poetry that is direct, that is in a way conversational, that doesnt use words that I have to go back and look up in the dictionary. But that makes, of what they say, something more than the words themselves.

INSKEEP: Does "Blue Dusk" - another book on our stack here - count as that kind of poetry?

Ms. PEARL: Oh, absolutely. "Blue Dusk" is just filled with some of my very favorite poems. Madeline DeFrees has a very interesting background. She became a nun when she was 17, left the convent about 38 years later, and went on to write some absolutely remarkable poetry.

This is a poem in which the title is the first line of the poem. And it goes...

(Reading) The day you were leaving, the lock stuck on the attic door, a bolt slipped into gear for the last act, the forked dark under the rafters closed on itself. I took to my bed, icepack heavy on lids, as shot driven through holes in the skull or weights slung from crossed winter limbs. Someone who put on my old voice from a drained throat said lines you wanted to hear. Smoke collapsed around hair that clung to the brush, ash drifted, sill and floor, from trays left to please empty themselves, the days and the night you were leaving.

Whats so interesting to me and so wonderful to me about that poem is the way she plays with the title, the first line of the poem: The day you were leaving, in the second to the last line of the poem, it becomes: The days and the night you were leaving. I think that thats just - that that rounds the poem. It makes it a poem.

INSKEEP: You have also included Edward Lear's "The Owl and the Pussycat." What brought this to your attention?

Ms. PEARL: Well, a small publisher in Canada called Kids Can Press has brought out a new series called "Visions in Poetry," and this is aimed to children from the ages of about 10 to 14. And theyve taken a series of rather well-known poems and asked an illustrator to take that poem and turn it into a picture book. And "The Owl and the Pussycat" is one of those books. Theyve also done "The Raven," "The Highway Man," "Casey at the Bat."

And "The Owl and the Pussycat" - I mean it's a wonderful Edward Lear nonsense poem. But what the artist has done is bring out the playfulness of it and set it in a kind of Parisian atmosphere. So the owl and the pussycat are sitting at a little caf� table, and you can imagine them drinking something bubbly and just chatting before they set off on their pea green boat.

INSKEEP: Nancy Pearl, you have also included in your list of poets to consider, "Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo."

Ms. PEARL: Well, I actually have two poets here who are kind of iconic Northwest poets; and one is Richard Hugo and the other is William Stafford.

With Richard Hugo, again, what I love about him is that directness, that voice thats speaking to you. And my favorite poem, I think, is "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg," and it just - I just want to read the first three lines - two and a half lines.

(Reading) You might come here Sunday on a whim. Say your life broke down. The last good kiss you had was years ago.

INSKEEP: Hmm.

Ms. PEARL: Now, how could you stop reading there? Isnt that wonderful?

INSKEEP: Yeah.

Ms. PEARL: I mean that just opens up a novel in verse for you.

INSKEEP: It actually feels like the opening of a movie to me...

Ms. PEARL: Yes.

INSKEEP: The broken down character with one last chance showing up at a strange place and there it is, yeah.

Ms. PEARL: Right, yeah. Oh, such a wonderful book.

INSKEEP: Also William Stafford is on your stack here, "The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems."

Ms. PEARL: And William Stafford is another one of those poets who, the words are so - they are words that we would use every single day. There's nothing unusual about the words, but the way he puts them together. And here's a poem called "What's In My Journal." It goes...

(Reading) Odds things like a button drawer. Mean things - fish hooks, barbs in your hand, but marbles, too. A genius for being agreeable. Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous discards, space for knickknacks and for Alaska. Evidence to hang me or to beatify. Clues that lead nowhere, that never connected anyway. Deliberate obfuscation, the kind that takes genius. Chasms in character. Loud omissions. Mornings that yawn above a new grave. Pages you know exist but you cant find them. Someones terribly inevitable life story, maybe mine.

INSKEEP: Hmm.

Ms. PEARL: he's not hiding anything from you. He's inviting you to find it all.

INSKEEP: Nancy Pearl, here, on National Poetry Month.

Nancy, thanks very much.

Ms. PEARL: Oh, thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Nancy is the author of "Book Lust" and "Book Crush." All of her poetry picks are at NPR.org, where you can also hear some of the poets reading their own work. And all this April, we'll be sampling new poetry collections.

Next week, Renee talks with the editor of an anthology of African-American nature poems.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

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