Sunday, February 28, 2010

Poem of the Week: "What I Understood," by Katha Pollitt

Every once in a while, I stumble across a poem that I really like but don't know why. This is one of those poems. It doesn't have the kind of devastating affect or interesting language that I usually look for in a great poem, but for some reason, it really grabs me. I think there's two things that attract me to this poem: the lonely and simple image in the middle of teachers in their empty rooms, and the idea that we are "saved" by the smallest things. This idea of loving the world through a bird or inanimate object really gets at why I love poetry. Because it's the little things that matter in a poem - the easily tossed word, the flash of color or texture. So, here's a poem about little things:

What I Understood, by Katherine Pollitt

When I was a child I understood everything
about, for example, futility. Standing for hours
on the hot asphalt outfield, trudging for balls
I'd ask myself, how many times will I have to perform
this pointless task, and all the others? I knew
about snobbery, too, and cruelty—for children
are snobbish and cruel—and loneliness: in restaurants
the dignity and shame of solitary diners
disabled me, and when my grandmother
screamed at me, "Someday you'll know what it's like!"
I knew she was right, the way I knew
about the single rooms my teachers went home to,
the pictures on the dresser, the hoard of chocolates,
and that there was no God, and that I would die.
All this I understood, no one needed to tell me.
The only thing I didn't understand
was how in a world whose predominant characteristics
are futility, cruelty, loneliness, disappointment,
people are saved every day
by a sparrow, a foghorn, a grassblade, a tablecloth.
This year I'll be
thirty-nine, and I still don't understand it.

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