A Poem For Saturday

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Dish poetry editor Alice Quinn writes:

The English poet Ted Hughes presented a series of BBC programs in the 1960s addressed primarily to children to help them feel at home with writing poetry. “In these talks,” he wrote, “I assume that the latent talent for self-expression in any child is immeasurable.” These were later anthologized in a book very much worth looking for titled Poetry in the Making: An Anthology of Poems and Programmes from ‘Listening and Writing’. In it, he outlines all sorts of valuable poetic exercises and comments on poems that illustrate his points. From the chapter, “Writing about People”:

From time to time I have read a good deal about Sir Francis Bacon, the great Elizabethan statesman and philosopher. . . . I read a lot about him while just searching for the clue that would tell me what he was really like. At last I found it. I read that he had peculiar eyes—eyes, we are told, like a viper…. At once I was able to feel I knew exactly what that man was like. I felt to be in his presence. And everything that I could remember about him became at once near and real. And this is what we want.

Elizabeth Bishop felt that her poem “Sandpiper” (1962) was an accurate self-portrait. Accuracy was one of the three qualities she admired, she said, “in the poetry I like best.” (The others were spontaneity and mystery.) Reading this poem I always feel her presence “at once near and real,” yielding a strong sense of what she was “really like.”

“Sandpiper” by Elizabeth Bishop:

The roaring alongside he takes for granted
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

–Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them,
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focused; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan and gray,
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

(From Poems by Elizabeth Bishop © 2011 by the Alice H. Methfessel Trust. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Photo by Ashley Harrigan)