If I were asked what might be the largest genre of poetry, I would likely answer “the poetry of longing.” I could likely classify a lot of poetry that’s been written as the expression of longing for what might be, for what might have been, for what is, for what can never be, for opportunities both lost and realized, even for getting what one wants (or doesn’t).
This rumination on poetry and longing started while I was reading The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong by David Orr (more on that soon). Orr is writing about Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken, ” which has an interesting genesis and an even more fascinating history. Part of it partially has to do with longing, longing for the choices we do and don’t make.
Two recent collections of poetry seemed to underscore this idea of poetry and longing: Guinevere in Baltimore by Shelley Puhak and Little Spells by Jennifer K. Sweeney. The two collections are about as different as you can imagine, but the idea of longing permeates both.
Guinevere in Baltimore takes the familiar story of Camelot but moves Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot forward about 15 centuries to contemporary Baltimore. Arthur is chairman of a corporation; Lancelot is a member of the board of directors. The poems are clearly in the specific voices of the three, caught in a love triangle. The tone of the poems is one of regret; the affair between Guinevere and Lancelot is almost inevitably continuing but the relationship has run its course.
In this poem, addressed to Arthur, Guinevere longs to return to the time before. It’s intriguing how Puhak uses the idea of an antique chest or highboy, connoting value, worth, and stability—things Guinevere longs for but knows are now impossible.
Guinevere to Arthur, on Starting Over
of some hulking antique. Let’s hunker down
into our dovetail joints – hand-hewn pins
and tails same as neurons bundled,
same as language braided at the juncture
of forest pathways: Old English dragan, to drag
this out, and Old German tragen, to carry,
to bear your long silences. Let’s slip off
into a solid maple highboy. Let’s squeak
and get stuck. In each of us there’s twilight
enough. There’s one square of darkness
framed out that each drawer is intended
for. Let’s wedge ourselves in and warp.
This is Puhak’s third poetry collection, having previously published Stalin in Aruba (2009) and The Consolation of Fairy Tales (2011). She received her MFA degree from the University of New Orleans and an MA degree from the University of Delaware. Her poems have been published in a number of literary journals, including Carolina Quarterly, FIELD, and Ninth Letter. She is a professor of creative writing at Notre Dame of Maryland University.
A significant part of Jennifer K. Sweeney’s Little Spells is, interestingly enough, devoted to fairy tales; there must be some connection between legends and fairy tales and the idea of longing.
In this collection, in addition to fairy tales, Sweeney’s poems cover a diverse array of subjects: nature, the seasons, people (one entitled “Janice Pocket” concerns a child who disappeared), learning dance, and even a blindness training center. They contain a sense of quiet, and that sense of longing, even when the object of longing may be unknown, as it is in this poem.
cross a few scratching off a list.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to be
makes a bad mantra.
But all the same.
It is the everyday that haunts.
A gradual greening,
assemblage of fungus
skirting rain-clogged trunks.
The train drags its warning diagonally
through town over and over.
I peer into the woods with no need to hurry home.
See a deer in the brush, then another
until every blond branch seems to be a deer
and the herd of them gallops through
a perfectly empty river.
Little Spells is also Sweeney’s third poetry collection; her first two were Salt Memory (2006) and How to Live on Bread and Music (2009), which received the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets for an outstanding second collection. She received her MFA degree from Vermont College; she’s been a visiting writer at Kalamazoo College and taught numerous writing seminars and workshops. Her poems have been published in such journals as The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Poetry Daily, American Poetry Review, Pleaides and Verse Daily. She lives in California.
I suspect that no literature can convey longing like poetry can. Both Guinevere in Baltimore and Little Spells, as different as they are, are evidence.
Browse more Poetic Voices
How to Write a Poem uses images like the buzz, the switch, the wave—from the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry”—to guide writers into new ways of writing poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology and prompts included.
“How to Write a Poem is a classroom must-have.”
—Callie Feyen, English Teacher, Maryland
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