Elevating Experience avec Tous Les Mots Justes

I just had half a discussion about why we read poetry and I am thinking at the same time about why I write poetry. I think during the Teenage Angst Years, I wrote for the same reasons a lot of kids write: to Express My Inner Turmoil. This is not a bad reason for writing, and if you can also make money off it (which some novelists and pop singers do manage to do), that’s even better.

Sometimes I write to experiment with sound, as I did when I wrote a dozen poems about Jack of the Beanstalk with tons of internal rhyme to get a bit more of a constant rhythm going, or when I wrote twice that many about flamenco, using staccato short lines to try to convey the percussion’s feeling.

Sometimes I write to tell stories, as I do when I unpack what I think is going on in a Japanese woodblock. Sometimes I write to take a story that already is out there—Jack of the B, Xena Warrior Princess, the Wright brothers—and go deeper into it, looking at it from a few sides.

But sometimes it seems just a matter of elevating experience, giving dignity to our joys and sorrows as Marge Piercy might say, through finding all the exactly right words to make Truth happen.

My Boys, Wilbur and Orville


So 112 years ago the Wright Brothers made the first successful airplane flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. A while back I wrote an oratorio about their process and I even had a composer who was working on it, but then we kept having our planned meetings go strangely awry—buses that were an hour late and the like—so I have actually never heard the music she wrote for it. Anyway, here is a taste of my attempt to capture their voices.


Finding Wind/Kitty Hawk Tango Baritone/Wilbur


When I sought for a safe place to practice

To learn the aeronautic riddles of flying,

They sent me to stand on a stretch of sandy land

In Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.


The abode of mosquitoes and buzzards,

A clime either roasting or raw,

A suitable location

Fraught with vexation:

I found it at Kitty Hawk.


I desired to make tests meticulous

In winds exceeding fifteen miles an hour,

Even quicker gales are here ubiquitous,

Enough to make a bold man cower.


The sand drives forth like an army

Over the hills and the flat.

The winds that rattle the tent

Are grand for experiments

But you’ll want to hold onto your hat!


If you desire a wind continual,

A place for vying with your flying machine,

The unbroken wind of the Kill Devil Hills

Will shrill and splinter your dreams.


I pity you, sir, for a coward,

If you dislike the picture I draw:

A land riddled with erosion

Betwixt Sound and Ocean:

Where I build my camp at Kitty Hawk?


How the Birds Rise Tenor/Orville


Consider the owl,

The predator of night,

Who glides through the darkness,

Keeping the field mouse in his sight.

And then he dives down

Without disturbing the air.

The mouse is carried aloft

And never knew the owl was there.


And I am left to ponder

Mother Nature’s wonders:

How the owl glides,

How the stars sing,

How the birds rise.


Now consider the gull,

The scavenger of day,

Who sails across the morning

And her flying is play.

How she turns on a wingtip!

How she soars without a care,

Calling out her jubilation

Carried on ascending air.


And I am left amazed

At Mother Nature’s ways:

How the gull soars,

How the sand stings,

How the birds rise.


Now with the wind I sing,

I will learn to fly

As the owl glides,

As the gull soars,

As the birds rise.