Thursday, May 19, 2011

David Wagoner Wins Prize

The New York Times reports today that the poet David Wagoner was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters with the Arthur Rense Poetry Prize given every third year for excellence in poetry.

I found myself getting a little emotional about this news, as Mr. Wagoner is one of "my poets," if you know what I mean. Well, in case you don't, I mean the sort of poet that isn't too well known and that you run across on your own without the help of a teacher or expert. And then when you read his stuff, you find yourself wondering why you haven't read him before. It should be noted that actually Wagoner is a famed poet, probably the leading writer of verse in the American Northwest. To give you an idea of why I like Wagoner so much, here is one of the poems I recall encountering when just leafing through a copy of the Atlantic. It is called "Lachrymals."

Some Roman women saved their tears in them.
They held flat narrow-necked heart-shaped delicate phials
Below their eyelids against each cheek in turn
And caught their tears. No one could shed enough
In a single spasm to fill that tiny hollow,
So the women stoppered them with glass teardrops
And waited. In the meanwhile, some wore them
Like pendants to have that smooth translucent glass
(The colors of changing light on the hills)
Nearby all day and all night: none could be certain
When grief or pain or a sudden abundance
Of sorrow might come welling into their eyes
Again. When they were full to the brim,
Some women carried them as charms
Of remembrance through their lives
And into their tombs, and some would pour them out
Into quiet streams or onto the bare earth
And walk away, and some would drink them.

This is a beautiful poem and an amazing set of images skillfully arranged for appealing lucidity and maximum emotional impact.

Here's another that I found in a volume of his poetry that I picked up in West Philadelphia near the University of Pennsylvania campus. The poem is called "Lost."

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

There is something so reassuring and comforting about this poem. Of course, we CAN be physically lost, but we often overestimate the extent of our separation from our surroundings and forget that those surroundings are to a certain extent part of who we are, part of what it means to be. To be at home in the world is sometimes to be lost, but also to know that it will not last too long and that you will learn something worthwhile from the experience.

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