Michael Buschmohle on an Ellen Bass Poem and Barbara Simmons on an Amy Lowell Poem
And we wind up National Poetry Month with two more short essays on impactful poems chosen by Writing It Real members. It has been a month of learning about poems new to us and poems to revisit. Thank you to all of you who have submitted your short essays and invigorated others with the meaning of poetry and its value in our lives. This week Michael Bushmohle and Barbara Simmons contribute to the literary conversation.
If You Knew
by Michael Buschmohle
In poet Ellen Bass’s 2007 book The Human Line, the poem “If You Knew” expresses to me what the pandemic reminds us of: the value of touch and the brevity of life. As a grim reaper, Covid 19 has taken millions of those we love, often before we could touch them goodbye. Her first sentence asks, “What if you knew you’d be the last to touch someone?” She describes the ticket taker who “might take care to touch that palm, brush your fingertips along the lifeline’s crease.” Her simple descriptions of everyday events invite patience and compassion even for those who annoy us: “if only we could see them as they are,” and “remember they’re going to die.” And we too deserve compassion for all of us are, “pinned against time.”
Keeping Amy Lowell’s Poem “Patterns” Alive – as I Observe the World
by Barbara Simmons
My junior year in high school, I found myself a member of the Speech and Debate Team needing to choose a poem that I could share in the category of Poetry during the Massachusetts Speech Festival. We’d been reading American poetry in English class, and I’d been drawn to the movement of the Imagists (Ezra Pound, H.D., Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, among them) and their desire to “return to economy of language, a willingness to experiment with non-traditional verse forms, …the use of free verse.” I was taken by Amy Lowell’s poem “Patterns” – published in 1915.
Reciting the poem as I practiced for the speech festival, I remember becoming the poem’s speaker sharing the story of my walking through garden paths, observing images of daffodils and squills (similar to lilies), constricted by my “stiff, brocaded gown,”, and realizing that I, too, am a pattern.
This poem helped me look so much more intently and intensely at what the world was showing me. What it showed the poem’s speaker was that her passion could not be constricted by a stiff brocade gown, that her sorrow could not be contained by the boned gown she was wearing. Indeed, when news of the betrothed death (he is a casualty of war) is brought to her, in the garden, she keeps it hidden in her bosom, trying to remember some more pleasurable times when she imagined herself free from patterns and able to truly love the man she was supposed to marry.
I still remember the final stanza, where Lowell continues the patterns of the garden, the patterns of the gown constricting the speaker, and the patterns of seasons when summer yields ultimately to winter, and still, the speaker is in her gown, her “softness…guarded from embrace’,” because the pattern of war has taken her lover from her. And then, the plaintive cry, “Christ! What are patterns for?” ends the poem – and continued to live within my poet’s consciousness over decades as I looked around at the many paths I would take: which college to attend, which writing graduate program might I join, where should I teach school, should I marry, should I move to another coast, will I have children, and ultimately, how will I continue to grow to understand the patterns of my life even when, as Lowell wrote, patterns, while present, often offer no explanation of why they are but offer images of how our life is pieced together, sometimes making sense, sometimes not. BUT, always, for the imagist’s mind, the patterns are there to observe, to capture in delineated details (“stiff brocaded gown”) that should have been released by a lover, but instead are “guarded from embrace.” In the visualization, in the notation, in the question in that last line of “Patterns,” Lowell inspired me to look, to note, to ponder, and to question — because the images themselves have bestowed upon me more than any answer ever could. Thank you, Amy Lowell!