Three Yaddo Poets Stop Time at the Precipice

March 24, 2020

A moment of stillness, a zing of recognition, a window opened on the soul— these are among the rewards of poetry, each of them sorely needed right now. Join us here for an occasional Yaddo series, curated by Soren Stockman.

James Baldwin Photo: Ralph Gatti / Getty Images

“Untitled” by James Baldwin

James Baldwin, “Untitled” from Jimmy’s Blues. Copyright © 2014 by The James Baldwin Estate. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press. Source: Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems (Beacon Press, 2014)

Baldwin’s plea for respite in a storm quickly becomes an urgent command for mercy, buoyed by a final statement of his own vulnerability. His deference to a greater power transforms into a reckoning with his own comparative powerlessness, though the two are ultimately intertwined. Accepting what one cannot control coincides with taking all available action. Though we are vulnerable witnesses to the great force of the water’s landing, we are not passive observers. Our vulnerability determines that we step into our own guardianship, and perform the divinity we require. — SS 

Jane Hirshfield Photo: Michael Lionstar

“My Life Was the Size of My Life” by Jane Hirshfield

Originally published in The Beauty (Knopf, 2015); all rights reserved. Copyright © by Jane Hirshfield.

Hirshfield portrays her meandering, unsteady relationship to her own life first by emphasizing it’s indistinguishable banality, before pivoting to her own sudden and voracious embrace of that particular banality as hers. Our lives can seemingly become entirely distinct from ourselves at certain calamitous moments, the intense dislocation of which can feel bewildering even aside from the calamity itself. It is worth remembering the ordinary in extraordinary times. It is worth remembering what is always truly extraordinary. — SS

Marie Howe Photo: Brad Fowler

“Part of Eve’s Discussion” by Marie Howe

From The Good Thief. Copyright © 1988 by Marie Howe. Reprinted by permission of Persea Books, Inc., New York.

Anticipation breeds uncertainty, and motivates the mind to reach for clarity. In “Part of Eve’s Discussion,” Howe invokes the Keatsian notion of negative capability, in which a person may rest within ambiguity, and frames the mythic proportions of an unknown future in modest, everyday circumstances. When fact and reason escape understanding, Howe practices accommodating the unknown, and reminds us that the unknown is our most ancient companion, and will outlast us. — SS