Reginald Shepherd, a name I was unfamiliar with until yesterday, has written one of the most captivating first two sentences in any piece of prose I’ve read in a long time. In the piece, titled “Why I Write,” Shepherd wrote “I write because I would like to live forever. The fact of my future death offends me.” Those are two lines that not only can motivate most readers to continue reading, but almost have the power to drag a reader further into the text.
Besides writing prose, Shepherd also wrote poetry. He wrote the poem, “Syntax,” in a style reminiscent of e. e. cumming’s. It starts with these stanzas:
Occasionally a god speaks to you,
rutted tollway a flint knife breaching
gutted fields hung on event
horizon, clear cut contradiction
through soybeans and sheared corn: blue
pickup an orange blaze, white letters
The first line is straightforward; however, the second line detours into surrealism. It’s a puzzle whose pieces, at first glance, don’t seem to fit together. It’s as if Shepherd doesn’t even expect or want a reader to try to interpret it, but rather, just to flow with its words and create a new, personal experience from them.
If you’re unfamiliar with Carl Dennis’ poetry, a good introduction is his New and Selected Poems 1974-2004. The strength of his poetry is its accessibility. His lines don’t create mazes readers must waste their mental energy wending their way through in their hunt for meaning. Instead, his language opens door for readers into rooms in which Dennis has turned on the lights.
As an example, his poem, “Listeners,” is about traveling words. In particular, it’s about words of his that began their journey on a telephone life, overheard by a telephone operator “lonely among the night wires,” “night wires” a metaphor that deepens rather than obscures meaning. Further on, Dennis comments that such operators “all do it … breaking the rules.” (This is an activity born before the Internet when party lines still reigned.)
To Dennis, words, once said, can travel on unexpected paths, reaching ears for which they were never intended. Even whispers said to oneself — even thoughts — can enter what Dennis refers to as the “far world” where they can assume new forms, such as stone, losing not only their identify but also their ability to engage others.
While Dennis’ “stones” might not engage his poetic characters who encounter them, his words have the power to pull readers into a poetic world he makes “near.”
Poetry is a powerful weapon against the ignorance that clouds our world, even on the sunniest days.
Yesterday, I read Marilyn Nelson’s poem, Sequence, for the first time. It contains two lines that erased a tiny spot of ignorance from my brain, a spot I’ll never miss and, for its absence, I’ll be forever grateful.
Here are the two lines:
For him, I gave away my father’s name.
He gave away his mother’s love for me.
That sounds like such an unfair trade, a father’s name for a mother’s love. But then, life often seems unfair when viewed through judgment’s lenses.