*Scroll to the bottom to read a wonderful poem — “The Space Traveler’s Contented Moments”*
You know what’s awkward? Listening to a middle-aged Ukrainian business man read a Maya Angelou poem with the line “I dance like I’ve got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs.” (“Still I Rise”)
Luckily, instead of dwelling on the crotch diamonds, Sergiy wanted to know what sassy meant, and how to pronounce haughty. He also didn’t understand how dust could rise.
“Dust is dirt, yes?” he asked. “Why will it rise?”
“You know when the sun shines into your room?” I tried to explain, “and you see these little specks floating in the air? That’s dust.”
He still seemed confused, but over-all he liked the poem. He said it felt up-lifting and strong.
I tutor Sergiy every day over Skype, and sometimes we read and discuss poetry together. It exposes him to new vocabulary, and he says it helps him to “feel” the language better. I try to find poems with good rhythm and rhyme because that helps with his pronunciation. (Sergiy still thinks that “leave” and “live” sound the same, and he can’t hear the difference between “man” and “men.”) Plus, he likes rhyming poetry better, and, often, so do I.
That means we don’t read much modern poetry. Because as far as I can tell, most poetry written these days doesn’t rhyme. Doesn’t make much sense either.
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I’m okay with the not rhyming part. I have found some beautifully mind-blowing contemporary poems that don’t rhyme. There is one poem in particular (“The Space Traveler’s Contented Moments” by Benjamin Grossberg — see below) that I think is so magically wonderful that I have a copy of it on my refrigerator, and I email it to people when I think they need a little pick-me-up. I found it randomly in an Indiana Review a few years ago (Summer 2011), and I’ve been partial to IR ever since.
But in my journeys through literary magazines over the years, I’ve also come across an awful lot of modern free-verse poetry that is weird and difficult and obscure and leaves me utterly baffled and annoyed. Instead of welcoming me, these poems shut me out. I don’t understand them, and they don’t seem to want me to. I would never in a million years share them with Sergiy, or anyone else.
I’m not suggesting that poems need to rhyme, or that they should be easy to understand. But I do wonder why contemporary poets have practically thrown out many of the conventions of poetry that worked for hundreds upon hundreds of years. I wonder why poets don’t seem to want their work to be accessible to anyone except other poets and literary scholars.
But I don’t want to get into a big argument about the state of contemporary poetry, because the truth is I don’t read enough of it to really know what I’m talking about. All I will say is that I wish I knew of more modern poems like the one below. I want to read a poem and see the world in a different way, or be moved by the beauty (or terror) of a single phrase. I don’t want to read a poem and feel belittled, like I’m not smart enough to read it. I want to read a poem and feel changed in some small but significant way, like finally hearing the difference between man and men. I want to read a poem and feel uplifted, like dust rising through a column of sunshine. I want to find poetry I love so much I feel the need to share it with others.
Here is the poem I always share with others, and now I will share it with all of you.
The Space Traveler’s Contented Moments
by Benjamin Grossberg
Think of the way your thumb
held in front of you can cover
the moon. Granted, humans have
big thumbs and a small moon, but
there you are: in a corn field,
celestial bodies disappearing
behind your digits. At some distance
above the earth (if you looked
down) your left foot would blot
North America. And farther up,
the planet become so small
you could stand on it only
as a ballerina, aloft on a toe.
A little farther, and you, human,
would become a space traveler.
So it is, sometimes, this ship
displaces the universe around it:
so far from all, the universe
recedes into a tangle –
a string of your Christmas lights
balled up in a box to stow
for next year. But lit.
And here’s the odd part –
it does that even though
I’m inside it, a speck somewhere
amid brightness and writhing
wire. These moments
are unstable, they puncture,
are frail to corrosion by
elements that would extend
your periodic table into
a lord’s banquet. But, human,
more than once I have wished
to take you up with me, to share
how what startles with immensity
can balance, cat’s eye,
on the palp of one finger