American Journal Fifty Poems for Our Time Tracy K. Smith

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The Sorrow of Horses


As a kid reading Jonathan Swift’s classic, Gulliver’s Travels, I marveled not so much at the Lilliputians as at the Houyhnhnms, that society of horses blessed with reason—a society far above the Yahoos, Swift’s derisive name for humankind.

It all came back to me as I read Ross Gay’s wonderful poem, “becoming a horse,” in Tracy K. Smith’s collection, American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time.

It contained lovely ideas, such as the poet becoming “a snatch of grass in the thing’s maw” or “a fly tasting its ear.” It contained lovely concepts, such as the poet coming to know the world as a horse knows it: “the sorrow of a brook creasing a field,” “the small song in my chest,” “the slow honest tongue.” All that from the simple act of “putting my heart to the horse’s.”

Empathy. The world through another’s eyes—even another creature’s eyes. More than anything, it teaches us the sorrow of being human. Don’t believe me? See for yourself:


becoming a horse
by Ross Gay

It was dragging my hands along its belly,
loosing the bit and wiping the spit
from its mouth made me
a snatch of grass in the thing’s maw,
a fly tasting its ear. It was
touching my nose to his made me know
the clover’s bloom, my wet eye to his
made me know the long field’s secrets.
But it was putting my heart to the horse’s that made me know
the sorrow of horses. The sorrow
of a brook creasing a field. The maggot
turning in its corpse. Made me
forsake my thumbs for the sheen of unshod hooves.
And in this way drop my torches.
And in this way drop my knives.
Feel the small song in my chest
swell and my coat glisten and twitch.
And my face grow long.
And these words cast off, at last,
for the slow honest tongue of horses.


As a writer, you might try it yourself: becoming a dog, a red fox, an owl—whatever stirs the wonder and sadness in you. It is an exercise in empathy and beauty.

Writing Prompts: They Hide in the Wide Open


Traci K. Smith divides her anthology, American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, into five sections: “The Small Town of My Youth,” “Something Shines Out From Every Darkness,” “Words Tangled in Debris,” “Here, the Sentence Will Be Respected,” and “One Singing Thing.”

Think about it. Each of those section titles would make a great prompt. Five stirrers for your daily writing cocktail. The first opens up memoir-like possibilities from your past and the town you grew up in.

The second offers a study in contrasts where you can use the rhetorical device of antithesis to explore one small phoenix that poked out from the ashes.

The third? Play with words and see how even tangled debris can take on significance.

Looking at the fourth title, I think of how the word “sentence” can be taken two ways, one if my diction and two if by the judge’s gavel.

And finally, the wonder, the shout, the ode of “one singing thing.”

So much for “I have no ideas.”

As an example of a poem Smith chose for the first section, “The Small Town of My Youth,” here is a poem by Oliver de la Paz:


In Defense of Small Towns
by Oliver de la Paz


When I look at it, it’s simple, really. I hated life there. September,
once filled with animal deaths and toughened hay. And the smells

of fall were boiled-down beets and potatoes
or the farmhands’ breeches smeared with oil and diesel

as they rode into town, dusty and pissed. The radio station
split time between metal and Tejano, and the only action

happened on Friday nights where the high school football team
gave everyone a chance at forgiveness. The town left no room

for novelty or change. The sheriff knew everyone’s son and despite that,
we’d cruise up and down the avenues, switching between

brake and gearshift. We’d fight and spit chew into Big Gulp cups
and have our hearts broken nightly. In that town I learned

to fire a shotgun at nine and wring a chicken’s neck
with one hand by twirling the bird and whipping it straight like a towel.

But I loved the place once. Everything was blonde and cracked
and the irrigation ditches stretched to the end of the earth. You could

ride on a bicycle and see clearly the outline of every leaf
or catch on the streets each word of a neighbor’s argument.

Nothing could happen there and if I willed it, the place would have me
slipping over its rocks into the river with the sugar plant’s steam

or signing papers at a storefront army desk, buttoned up
with medallions and a crew cut, eyeing the next recruits.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I could be anywhere,
staring at a hunk of asphalt or listening to the clap of billiard balls

against each other in a bar and hear my name. Indifference now?
Some. I shook loose, but that isn’t the whole story. The fact is

I’m still in love. And when I wake up, I watch my son yawn,
and my mind turns his upswept hair into cornstalks

at the edge of a field. Stillness is an acre, and his body
idles, deep like heavy machinery. I want to take him back there,

to the small town of my youth and hold the book of wildflowers
open for him, and look. I want him to know the colors of horses,

to run with a cattail in his hand and watch as its seeds
fly weightless as though nothing mattered, as though

the little things we tell ourselves about our pasts stay there,
rising slightly and just out of reach.

From Chaos, Unexpected Order


american journalSometimes chaos seems to have a purpose. Like yesterday morning, when my wife suddenly shouted, “Oh my god, I’m suppose to be at tennis!” and went into a Tasmanian devil whirlwind to outfit herself for the courts where three other ladies were no doubt looking at their watches and wondering about her absence.

Bad to worse: her car was almost out of gas. And mine, being a stick shift, was beyond her driving skills. “Can you drive me?” she asked. Um. Of course.

Ideas for poems come out of chaos. Slowly, you pull strands and fight them into some manner of order. Today I would learn that even something as humble as a book could be born of chaos. After dropping her off, I had an hour to kill. Luckily for me, there was an independent bookstore—that rare beast!—but a mile away.

In the poetry section, I came across American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time selected and introduced by Tracy K. Smith (Poet Laureate of the United States). I read the first paragraph of her introduction:

“This is why I love poems: they invite me to sit down and listen to a voice speaking thoughtfully and passionately about what it feels like to be alive. Usually the someone doing the talking—the poem’s speaker—is a person I’d never get the chance to meet were it not for the poem. Because the distance between us is too great. Or because we are too unlike one another to ever feel this at ease face-to-face. Or maybe because the person talking to me never actually existed as anything other than the figment of a poet’s imagination, a character invented for reasons I may not ever know. Even when that someone is the real-life poet speaking of things that have actually happened, there is something different—some new strength, vulnerability, or authority—that the poem fosters. This is why I love poems: they require me to sit still, listen deeply, and imagine putting myself in someone else’s unfamiliar shoes. The world I return to the the poem is over seems fuller and more comprehensible as a result.”

It’s a pretty good reason to love poems, don’t you think? And, in our fraught political times, it’s nice to think of poetry as a place where people can calmly sit and listen to each other via the arbiter called poetry. I especially like the bit about putting ourselves in another’s shoes. Empathy and vision—a new vision—are essential to a poem’s living spirit.

Later in the introduction, Smith continues:

“Poems call upon sounds and silence to operate like music. They invoke vivid sensory images to make abstract feelings like love or anger or doubt feel solid and unmistakable. Like movies, poems slow time down or speed it up; they cross cut from one viewpoint to another as a way of discerning connections between unlikely things; they use line and stanza breaks to create suspense. Even the visual layout of words on the page is a device to help conduct the reader’s movement through the encounter that is the poem. These and other tools help poems call out attention to moments when the ordinary nature of experience changes—when the things we think we know flare into brighter colors, starker contrasts, strange and intoxicating possibilities.”

As the book contained 50 newer voices in the poetry world, I knew it was for me. I brought it to the register and cashed in. And now I’m looking forward to reading and rereading Smith’s choices slowly. In order. Like focusing on one voice at a time in a choir. All because of chaos.

The tennis ladies forgave my wife and said it happens to all of us. I thanked her and said, because of her, this book happened to me. Fate is funny that way.