Suddenly In Flight
by Emily Bedard
I work with high school sophomores, about 100 of them, and over the last few months, we’ve been dive-bombing poetry together in a hundred different ways. Whatever the task at hand—memory poems about other people’s mothers, place poems composed entirely of fragments, love poems featuring zombies and the Minnesota Vikings defensive line—we have been trying first and foremost to create powerful images.
Focusing on how imagery is made and why it works has been a goal of the residency from the beginning, and it is a humbling and remarkable task. As luck would have it, I think we’re getting somewhere. One proof of this was a great day in November when I brought in a Billy Collins poem called “Litany.” (You can see the poet himself read and discuss the piece here.)
“Litany” is a long series of images, piled on top of each other in a way that is frequently funny and irresistibly moving at the same time. We read it together out loud as a class, each student taking an image in sequence. And then we talked about what the poem’s line “marsh birds suddenly in flight” achieves that a substitute line like “birds moving,” a basic translation of the same action, does not manage to do. How the marsh bird line suggests a moment before the moment, how it locates the reader immediately in a particular place on the planet, how it sharpens the details of what we see and hear, how it hints at a story and fine-tunes the mood.
The students went on to write their own litanies, and when I read the work in my study that evening, I got a case of the actual shivers. Here is the ending of one poem by a student named Juliet:
I can never be the ice melting into water
Only the water freezing into ice
I am the driver of the chariot
But not the face behind the mask
Lines like that do everything I like best in poetry. They make me feel like I am sitting bolt upright and slowly falling at the same time. They help me hold two contradictory thoughts in my head at once and believe equally the truth of each. They are sincere and strange and inexplicably important.
When I asked Juliet about the poem later, she said, “Well, I was trying to come up with an ending. And those lines just seemed to make sense.” It was a great answer, especially because there’s nothing expected or tidy or easy about her poem’s ending. It simply makes a leap and takes the reader along—exactly what a strong image does better than anything else.
As February progresses, I’ll be starting over with a new round of students. We’ll be digging into imagery again. If things go well, they’ll come to see that the images they make, the ones that they seek out with purpose and honesty and trust and their own personal brand of weirdness, and then set down to paper, really do matter. Getting it right matters. Making it vivid matters. Lending another person your eyes and ears and heart for a moment matters.
After all, we all know already that birds move. What we care about is that the marsh birds are suddenly, beautifully, in flight.