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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, May 13, 2007

Poetry appeals to people who get bored easily. It can accomplish a lot in small spaces: sometimes, in almost no time at all. Often, it works by moving rapidly, skipping over predictable or needless steps, disregarding or exploding the obvious. Sometimes, it feints in one direction, then takes another. Or, the poem quickly upends our first, easy associations, as when William Blake uses the nouns "rose" and "love":

THE SICK ROSE

O rose, thou art sick;

The invisible worm

That flies in the night,

In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy,

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

Blake reverses conventional expectation from his title onward, with a violent and exuberant forward thrust. A poem in Dorianne Laux's recent collection Facts About the Moon also has the quality of speed, incorporating reversal into a more zigzag movement:

LITTLE MAGNOLIA

Not nearly a woman like the backyard cedar

whose branches fall and curl,

whose curved body sways in wind,

the little magnolia is still a girl,

her first blossoms tied like white strips of rag

to the tips of her twiggy pigtails.

Who are the trees? They live

half in air, half below ground,

both rooted and homeless, like the man

who wedges his life between

the windbreak wall of the Laundromat

and the broken fence, a strip of gritty earth

where he's unfolded his section

of clean cardboard, his Goodwill blanket.

Here's his cup, his candle, his knife.

The title is like a magician's gesture of misdirection. The metaphors of the first sentence get displaced or amended by the central question, and even the simile that compares "rooted and homeless" trees to the "rooted and homeless" man is not a resting place or resolution. It depends on the more enigmatic, unresolved question: In what way does the homeless man, or anyone, live "half in air, half below ground"?

The poem touches on the way any perception, any thought, perhaps any life, exists in two elements, half-submerged and half-exposed. As the three nouns of Laux's final line suggest, human life, like poetry, requires -- along with a container for sustenance and a source of light -- a sharp instrument.

(William Blake's poem "The Sick Rose" can be found in collections of his poetry. Dorianne Laux's poem "Little Magnolia" is from her book "Facts about the Moon." Norton. Copyright 2005 by Dorianne Laux.)

Robert Pinsky was poet laureate of the United States

from 1997 through 2000.

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