The Poetry Issue: Free Verse -- A New York Miscellany

Christophe Gowans
Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously drew a line: "prose -- words in their best order; poetry -- the best words in their best order." Granted, Coleridge was a poet, not to mention a stoner of the first order, and therefore probably had a tendency to be defensive about things.

He was right, though. Had he not found life in death (to borrow a phrase) 180 years ago, dude would have been a force to be reckoned with on Twitter.

(Note to selves: Follow poets on Twitter.)

This being April -- National Poetry Month, for those who keep score -- the Voice thought it'd be cruel to ask Billy Collins to suggest a handful of New York poets we might reach out to for a collection of poems to share with readers. Collins, a New Yorker himself, and a former U.S. Poet Laureate, graciously obliged.

As did the poets, who, in response to our request for previously unpublished poems "about New York City, spring, or, frankly, anything you like," supplied, to our great delight, all manner of beast.

And so we present to you the following pages. In a generation hectored for its declining readership, in an age in which pieces of writing that take longer than five minutes to read have their own hashtag, we're pausing, ever so briefly, to honor the #shortform.

(140 characters: 100,000 chin-strokers may share a #longform story on social media. What % of that readership invests the time to digest even a single poem?)

Thanks to Billy Collins and all the poets who shared their work for this issue.

* * *

For the Children of the Student Mobilization Program

August 6, 1945, before 8:15

And, later, fire and water, wind and void,
much likelier than a city. The uncertain
figures in streetcars, busy with their thoughts
far from the bells and clatter, sway together,
west from the station to their destined stop.
The sun is shining and the sky is blue.
No smiles, few frowns. Nobody here is wild,
nobody peaceful. Often lack and tiredness
look just like mind-of-no-mind. Off they go
to work and wait for one of two or three
impossible and beautiful tomorrows.
The beer hall, office buildings, and a bank
roll by them, an absurd rear-screen projection,
a setting for a sunny modern picture,
but spoiled by children in their coats and field caps
hauling old wood away, monstrously brave.
And wouldn't it be good to be a child,
with energy, without equivocation?
Good to be. Good to do. And as these gangs
of schoolboys do, in lots along the tracks,
to move like stern, determined monkeys through
the thicket of a neighbor's pulled-down home.
School children everywhere go back to work.
Cinnamon-colored dust encircles them.
The false alarm is done. The three planes pass
far overhead, diminutive, ignored.
Are men inside them? Can they see our work?
What we could show the children of those men --
mothers who tear them with their fingernails,
girls who cry out for mercy to ensnare them,
boys who remove their eyes for souvenirs.
One comes back laughing. Now, as he begins,
his mouth curved down, his dark brow concentrated
into the shape of an advancing gull,
straining against a roof beam, he becomes
a mountain out of reach across the water.
A patient horse the color of the dust
snorts as it tugs a wagon toward the sun.
Laughing is done. Time, now, to ward off devils.
And so we bow our heads in earnest worship,
the Hundred Million Like a Shattered Jewel,
the last remaining masterpiece of order:
boys in their gaiters, heads like kiwi fruits,
and, elsewhere, girls in bangs and pantaloons,
tall shadows in the morning moving lumber
and dry brush from anticipated paths
of cogitable fires.

--Joshua Mehigan

Joshua Mehigan's first book, The Optimist, was a finalist for the 2005 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His poems have appeared in many periodicals, including the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and Poetry, which awarded him its 2013 Levinson Prize. His second book, Accepting the Disaster, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in July 2014.

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