National Poetry Month Begins Friday: A Guest Post by John Morgan

You catch a whiff of something on the border of consciousness. A phrase floats into your head and you recognize the voice. A fly buzzes at the windowsill; you wonder what it thinks it’s doing. Usually we dismiss such occurrences. They seem to have no practical use. But the suspicion lingers that these events may be trying to tell us something, to point out a meaning that, in the course of our busy lives, we’ve been too distracted to face. Everyone has such moments, but what do you do with them? What do you make from them? What purpose can they serve?

Robert Frost called the poem, “A momentary stay against confusion,” and the poet Greg Orr explains: “We are creatures whose volatile inner lives are both mysterious to us and beyond our control. How to respond to the unpredictability of our own emotional being? One important answer is the personal lyric, the poem dramatizing inner and outer experience.”

In other words, poetry gives form to our feelings and helps us come to terms with them. Facing the emotions of a personal crisis, a poem can be the beginning of healing. The crisis may be small or massive—a cut finger or a child in a coma—but in either case poetry is one possible response. The widespread rediscovery of poetry after 9/11 illustrates this point.

But if poetry is good in a crisis, it’s also a way of reaching out for new experiences and renewing our lives. Poems place themselves between the world of dream and what we might think of as the prose of reality. Using metaphor, seductive sound and fantastic narrative, poems can evoke mysterious states. When I’m working on a draft, it’s this feeling of otherworldliness, no matter how ordinary the subject, that tells me I may have a poem going.

But how do you recognize a poem, when you sense one buzzing around the room? Well, of course there’s not just one way to go at poems. A phrase pops into your head, or a rhythm, a mental image, a smell, or sound. Things are always floating into our heads. Usually we brush them aside, but maybe there’s a poem there. Even that fly on the windowsill—as in Emily Dickinson’s disturbing and wonderful poem, “I heard a fly buzz when I died…”

It’s my contention that poems are happening all the time. In a quiet moment, you can cultivate one. I sometimes go out to a spot overlooking the Tanana River and just sit and wait. Soon I’m noticing things that hadn’t been apparent at first. And what I see draws new thoughts to mind that I’d been too busy to notice. I step back and start taking mental notes on what I’m seeing, hearing, thinking, and as often as not these things begin working themselves into a poem. Here’s an example:


for the New Rochelle High Class of ’61

A crane, in snow showers, drifts above the river
where, this morning, two jet fighters buzzed

the flats. I look for other signs of life.
A scrap of blue-green color on the ground

turns out to be the wrapper of a half-inch
firecracker. Did Jeffrey—ten next Thursday—

set it off? Last fall (as thought steps back)
at our 25th reunion, Molly, now a writer of romances

seemed old in flashy make-up and long lashes.
We danced in the 9th grade to Buddy Holly

holding close, and once, in nursery school
as I recall, we shed our underpants

to have a look. Now ‘Muzzy’ (John Mazzulo)
is a medical professor, adamantly gay.

And most bizarre—John Seaman, our
annual class president, still “a real

nice guy”, has made himself a star
in porno flicks. But look at me. With hair

down to my shoulders, back east from far
Alaska and a poet—I’m one of the exotics

of the class. We sat on the grass beside
the whitewashed Tom Paine Cottage—kept

as it was by those radical D.A.R.s—and talked
about the ones who weren’t there. Steph,

my hopeless crush in the third grade,
dead of a brutal tumor these ten years,

and Andy Miller, 6-2 white point-guard, who
turned to drugs and dealing, and got blown away.

I said we’d put on masks: balding, gray,
and wrinkled “monster” versions of ourselves.

And now banning that thought, knitting
my brows, I spot a spider netting two

spruce bows. What’s near at hand grows deeper
in the evening light. Beyond her web

the mountains darken under storms. A crescent moon
flies suddenly among the splotchy clouds. The river’s

mud-green current swells under thinning ice.

Most poems don’t give their full meaning away easily. It can take a week or a month to bring one to completion. I spend some time every day working on a draft, and this daily contact is renewing, as the poem grows and shapes itself. In the course of revision I’m learning from the poem what it really wants to say.

And along with writing poems, I read them. If reading poetry seems hard at first, it’s probably because you’re out of practice. Like anything else, it gets easier the more you do it. Find an anthology and check out some old favorites. Then read around in the book and see if you can make new discoveries. When you find a poet you like, check in the library for a collection of his or her work.

For some, poetry expresses itself through dance or music, but in its root form, of course it’s language. Language that dances. Language that sings. Poems remind us, consciously or not, of our first burblings and vocalizations and the pleasure they gave us as infants. Then came nursery rhymes and the jingles of jump rope and hopscotch. As we grow up, we ask other things from poems, but we should never forget that first sensory intoxication.

That’s why, even when it shocks us or brings us close to tears, one underlying theme of every good poem is a celebration of human experience.

Fairbanks poet John Morgan studied with Robert Lowell at Harvard, where he won the Hatch Prize for Lyric Poetry. He was awarded the Academy of American Poets’ Prize at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and served for many years as director of the creative writing program at UAF. He has published four books of poetry as well as four chapbooks and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The American Poetry Review, The Paris Review, The New Republic, The Kenyon Review, The Alaska Quarterly Review, and many other journals, as well as in more than twenty magazines. Morgan has won the Discovery Award of the New York Poetry Center, a Rasmuson Fellowship and two writing fellowships from the Alaska State Council on the Arts. Last June, he was selected as the first Writer-in-Residence at Denali National Park.

Morgan will teach a three-hour class “A Formal Feeling: Getting Started in Poetry” in Anchorage on Saturday, April 16 from 1-4 p.m. at the 49 Alaska Writing Center, 645 W. 3rd Ave; registration is at That evening at 7 p.m., Morgan will read with poet Kelsea Habecker at the MTS Gallery, 3142 Mountain View Drive, in a free 49 Writers Synergies-Still North public event “Land Beyond Landscape: Honoring Alaskan Poetry” which also includes a video documentary-in-progress featuring the late poet John Haines.

3 thoughts on “National Poetry Month Begins Friday: A Guest Post by John Morgan”

  1. agingabundantly

    I'm not from Alaska, but I stumbled upon your blog and am an instant fan. I was spellbound by the poetic description by John Morgan of poetry that is itself poetry. Language at its best. Thank you.

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Poetry can bring us close to tears — and your poem did that for me, John. I was also moved by the reminder that we all need to take more time to observe, remember, and find a way to capture those moments using distilled language. Thanks to you, I'll read more poetry this month and will continue to reflect on what you shared here.

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