Paul Hostovsky is the author of ten books of poetry and five poetry chapbooks. He has won Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net awards, the FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize, and has been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac. Website: paulhostovsky.com
Poetry and Rain in the Time of COVID
I remember the poet Alicia Ostriker saying, “We poets are lucky: we have something to do.” It was during a poetry festival at the Frost Place in Franconia, NH, many years ago. Poetry, from the Greek poiesis: to make or do. And I’ve found myself saying it to people over the last few months when they ask me how I’m doing in my isolation and seclusion during the pandemic. I’m lucky, I tell them. I have something to do. “Oh, are you working?” they ask. Well, no, I got furloughed in March. I’m not working. I’m playing. Making poems. Lots of them. And they don’t usually know what to say to that. Unless, of course, they’re making poems themselves, in which case they say, “Send me some.”
When we were kids, it was our job to play. Remember? Go out and play, the grownups said. We’d call up a friend and ask them: Wanna play? And if they couldn’t come out and play, well, we’d play alone. We were good at playing alone when playing was our job. But now that our job is work, most of us have forgotten how to play. Even those fortunate ones among us, whose job it still is to play–artists, musicians, athletes–we think of it now as work, and we even call it work. But for me, writing will always be how I get my playtime in. As a mature adult hominid living in the early Anthropocene, whose day job (yes, I’ve kept my day job all these years just in case the poetry thing didn’t work out–which it hasn’t) doesn’t allow for much playtime, I write. Some people play golf. Me, I make poems. We learn to love the things we love from others who loved them before us. Before I started making poems, I read a lot of poems. I didn’t love all the poems I read, but I loved some of them–maybe ten percent–enough to start imitating them. I know, ten percent doesn’t sound like a lot. But I’ve read a lot of poems. Maybe a few hundred thousand–maybe a million–in my lifetime. So go figure.
People who love poetry are like people who love the rain. We’re in the minority. Most people hate rain. They look out their rain-streaked windows and scowl as though faced with a long and difficult poem. Or they blink beneath their umbrellas and shrug as though under the penumbra of an inscrutable poem. And sometimes it isn’t raining exactly, but sort of misting. Or sleeting. Or spitting. It’s kind of like that with poetry. Not exactly, but sort of.
There’s a poem by Marie Howe called “The Copper Beech,” about a child climbing a tree and leaning against the trunk midway up in the branches, where she can “practice being alone.” Then it starts to rain. Hard. “Darkening the sidewalk… And I was happy / watching it happen without it happening to me.” I love that poem. And I love walking in the rain. I don’t love to get wet, mind you, but I love being out in it, in my raincoat, rain pants and rubber boots, staying dry on the inside, watching it happen without it happening to me. These days, in my solitude, you’ll find me at home working on poems, or reading poems (“Reading and writing, twins of the same conversation,” as the poet Thomas Lynch has put it). Often I’ll be looking out the window, thinking about something else, something a little off the point. And if it looks like rain, I’ll put down the poem and open the window, and take a sniff. And if it smells like rain, I’ll get very excited. Because I know what’s coming. And when it comes I go out and exult in it. As the poet Ana Blandiana puts it: “I love the rain / I passionately love the rain, / the mad rains and the gentle rains, / the chaste rains and the rains like unbridled women, / refreshing rains and endless, boring rains…” I love that poem. And I love the rain. And I love that there’s no need to worry about social distancing when I’m out in the rain because I’m usually the only one out in it; no one else has enough sense–or they have too much sense–to come out in the rain.
Earth needs poetry as much as it needs rain. Even people who hate poetry and rain will grudgingly, grumblingly, admit this meteorological fact. They would just prefer that the poetry and the rain occur someplace else, someplace where the people who love poetry and rain can dance around and exult in it and the rest of us can take it in in smaller doses, in bottles or, preferably, teaspoons. And then there’s the smell of the rain, which is not unlike the smell of the poem. The smell of the rain before the rain is practically a poem itself. And the smell of the rain after the rain is reminiscent of poems about poems. There are poets who never write poems about poems, and would just as soon not have to read them. They are like the people who come in out of the rain and fold up their umbrellas and briskly wipe off their shoulders and arms and sit back down to the task at hand. But then there are poets who love poems about poems. They write them often and love to read them. And they are like the people who come in out of the rain and their shoes are filled with the noise of it, and they do a little dance and give a little shout, and they leave their umbrellas open to dry on the floor like big, black, articulated flowers which the cat eyes from a distance and is soon emboldened to approach and sniff and sit beneath and contemplate and lick.
I don’t have an umbrella–I have a raincoat–but when I’m done walking in the rain and I come home and peel off my raincoat and rain pants and rubber boots, and leave them dripping near the fireplace, my cat likes to lick them. And I like watching my cat lick the rain. In fact, sometimes I stop writing the poem just to watch my cat licking the rain. And what sometimes happens is, after the cat is done licking the rain, he will be inspired to start licking himself. And he really gets into it, spreading it around, slathering the taste of the rain all over himself. And then, maybe, I’ll be inspired to write a different poem, a poem about the cat licking himself. Which is also a poem about the poem, how it’s focused on one thing only, like the cat: One, two, three, and maybe one, two, three, four accented licks to the forepaw, then a rub to the ear, which is where the true focus of all these dripping syllables lies, the licking a kind of calibrated flow from a faucet onto a washcloth, the softly repeating hook to the ear a kind of chorus, a kind of Q-tip, a kind of hook that has distracted me from my life, from myself, from my focus on myself–the way the cat suddenly stops licking, looks up, ears shaped like a hat changing heads on his head, listening intently for something else to focus on. And then, not finding anything out there more compelling than this, he returns to it, and gives himself over to it. Utterly.
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