More Quiet Than This

by Kate Light

More quiet than this, I guess, one needs:
quiet, and more privacy, and light,
to get the thoughts one fishes for to bite,
and see the muse come out among the reeds;
but sun sears my brain and someone’s singing
a Joni Mitchell song; a bearded man with a hat
talks to himself; two bicycles bring
an argument down the pavement, then a cat
on a leash, two dogs growling tug-of-war with rope—
And I am not getting much writing done. “Fifty-nine,”
a jogging man mutters under his breath; my periscope
is up and I can’t stop looking—I guess that’s fine.

Kate Light’s volumes of poetry include Gravity’s Dream (Donald Justice Award, 2006), Open Slowly (2003), and The Laws of Falling Bodies (Nicholas Roerich Prize, 1997). Her poetry has been featured four times on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac and is included in The Penguin Book of the Sonnet and many other publications. She is the librettist of The Life and Love of Joe Coogan (an opera based on “The Dick Van Dyke Show”) and Einstein’s Mozart: Two Geniuses, featuring Mozart’s music. She has been Visiting Professor at Cornell University and at Tokyo’s Musashino Art University, and is also a professional violinist.

Who are some poets you are reading now, if any? Do you have any poet crushes? I don’t have too much reading time per se right now, but I caught recent readings in New York by Molly Peacock and Billy Collins, two of my favorite poets; and I’m also paying lots of attention to some of the great Tin Pan Alley and Broadway lyricists, intensified by the fact that friends in the business are leading me to some of their most-admired individual songs. What these poets and lyricists have in common is a sense of the thoughts unfolding before you, as if the poem or song is being spun out for the first time right at that moment.

Of course songs are especially meant to unfold in real time. You have the music parceling the words out to you a few at a time, with the suspense of what’s to come next and the thrill when it does; you can feel these little chimes of recognition or surprise—or both.

Molly has a wonderful poem in which she finds a pink paperclip; she’s about to throw it away when her husband tells her he has a home for such orphaned things. Their joint rescue and her creation a poem from something so almost-familial, so domestic and practically too simple to form into a poem, Molly declares symbolic of her mission in committing the act of poetry, her wish to let everything be named.

So many of Billy’s poems take off from a familiar thought or situation or phrase—taking the exploration of the thought, situation, or phrase farther than you’d ever dreamed, but yet leaving you thinking you almost could have gone there yourself—or at least you really wish you could have. In one poem, the speaker is told he’s arrived barely too late for some spectacular seasonal peak in Vermont or somewhere, which leads him to remember what he’d been told he missed in some other part of the country six months before, and then yet something else somewhere six months before that, while he rode planes or wrote poems, or otherwise lived in his outsider, “almost” kind of way. Who are those people who are in the right place at the right time, experiencing all the peaks the rest of us barely miss? Maybe, anyway, we aren’t as interested in hearing about those perfect, lucky folks.

Another great one is Billy’s “Horoscopes for the Dead,” which if you haven’t heard or read, you must. All these poems seem to unfurl especially for you as you read.

With the lyricists, I am especially interested in Yip Harburg, Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, Leo Robin, Noel Coward, Dorothy Fields, Carolyn Leigh, and Sondheim. Too huge a subject to encapsulate; but there are amazingly inventive rhymes, there’s super-condensed storytelling (and characterization, in Sondheim’s case) and, as with Billy and Molly, that line between laughing and crying keeps being crossed. (We’re just talking about words and leaving the music aside for the moment, but of course it has so much to do too with how and why it holds your attention.) You’re in the world of both overt emotion and understatement, a powerful place. I love it.

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