Organic Poetry

Poetry Column by Jeffrey Shotts, HPC Member

There is in poetry the great tradition of the walk. Many of Wordsworth’s poems were written while he was out walking the countryside, and the often strict iambic meter—the soft syllable, followed by a hard one—seems to enact footsteps across the lines. It is part of the Romantic tradition.

Now that the snow has, for the most part, cleared, we can walk outside again and resume the tradition. April is National Poetry Month, and with it comes a spate of new poetry titles. One such is the popular poet Jane Hirshfield’s new collection, After. One poem in it recalls the walking tradition:

A Man Walks Through His Life

A man walks through his life
as he did when he was a boy,
taking a pear here, an apple there,
three peaches.

It is easy. They are there, by the roadside.

I want to say to him, stop.
I want to say to him, where is the plum tree you planted?

But how can I say this?
I suck on the pit of my question,
I who also eat daily the labor of others.

This is no writerly stroll. There is no easy, plodding meter. Instead, the man is walking through his life, taking what he assumes he has rights to, quite literally the fruits of others’ labors. The speaker observing this, perhaps walking those same roads, becomes tripped up on her own question, as the implications of her own complicity quickly clarify.

The truth is, most of us have no idea where our food comes from—our produce, our boxed cereal, our milk, our spices—but we assume it is there for our taking. One of the pleasures of the co-op, and especially of volunteering, is becoming acquainted with where the bulk goods, the eggs, the cheeses, the vegetables, and fruit come from, their quality, and how they arrive on your table. It is a powerful lesson, and one that allows us to become more deliberate and conscientious in our food choices.

Another of Hirshfield’s poems evokes and complicates another poetic traditional mode, the first-person speaker. Like the poem above, it involves the dilemma of being both self-aware and aware of the larger world. How do we accomplish both?

A Day Comes

A day comes
when the mouth grows tired
of saying “I.”

Yet it is occupied
still by a self which must speak.
Which still desires, is curious.
Which believes it has also a right.

What to do?

The tongue consults with the teeth
it knows will survive
both mouth and self,

which grin—it is their natural pose—
and say nothing.

“A Man Walks through His Life” and “A Day Comes” by Jane Hirshfield from After, published by HarperCollins, 2006.