[encore] 625: Not everything is a poem

[encore] 625: Not everything is a poem

[encore] 625: Not everything is a poem

This episode was originally released on March 7th, 2022.


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

I have been asked before how I come up with ideas or subjects for poems. The answer is — almost always — that they are not hard to find, but rather they are hard to winnow down. When you are living in the present moment and observing and listening to the world, the potential for poetry is everywhere. It can be almost hallucinatory. I think of the movie the Sixth Sense and a little poet saying, “I see poems everywhere.”

Sometimes I don’t even want the poem. I see it on the edges unfolding in its blur like a glitch in the matrix, but I want to leave it be. Sometimes I don’t want to turn the real thing into a poem because what if I ruin the real thing? What if, in an effort to make a poem, I ruin the magic of the moment, or the clarity of the moment.

During the month of April I often try to write a draft of a poem a day. I like the way it makes my brain feel. Sure, many of the drafts are straight up trash, but some drafts are salvageable and have been turned into poems that are now in my books. But one thing about writing a poem every day is that your brain becomes attuned to the world in a new way, perhaps it’s like taking acid, or psilocybin mushrooms, the brain’s synapses are enlivened, time shifts and connects and folds in on itself. The poems start to form in everyday moments, whether you like it or not.

In today’s brilliant poem, we watch as the speaker tries to resist the urge for poetry, for always finding a poem, and yet of course, poetry comes, a poem comes. And where does it come from? It comes from that original beloved subject: survival. Here’s a poem by Maggie Smith.

Not everything is a poem
by Maggie Smith

or has a poem inside it, but god help me
if I can’t find one when I empty

my son’s pockets before I do
the wash: one acorn, two rocks

(one smooth and gray, one rough 
and glittering, flecked pink),

a chunk of mulch, a wilted
dandelion. The poem is there,

I think, pressing itself against
the grit or splinter or bitter

yellow, but I question its mother-
softness, suspicious of flowers

and laundry. I swear I’ve seen
poems riding my boy’s back

as he runs around our weed patch
of a lawn, letting crabgrass

saw his ankles because killing it
would mean killing the wild

violets, his sister’s namesakes.
I don’t dare look for poems

in spring even if all the purple
and green are on clearance then.

Two springs ago, my son
was so ill, he smelled bad-sweet,

and one morning he woke
shitting blood, saying my name,

my name, my name. No poem
kept his body from bruising

purple that would fade to green,
his skin a field of flowers—

no, not this poem and not
a poem at all. But he lived.

It’s spring again and he lives.
It’s spring again and his pockets

are full of petals and stones.

From GOLDENROD by Maggie Smith. Copyright © 2021 by Maggie Smith. Reprinted by permission of One Signal Publishers/Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.