Sue Burke (mount_oregano) wrote,
Sue Burke

Couplets: poetry on tour

April is National Poetry Month. To celebrate, Upper Rubber Boot Books is coordinating a book blog tour called Couplets, and today I'm proud to host Sr. Anne M. Higgins.

Fifty poets are participating in this tour. You can find links to other Couplets posts at:


Couplets: My life as a poet
by Sr. Anne M. Higgins

I wrote my first poem in fourth grade, at the encouragement of my teacher. It was nine-year-old occasional verse about Thanksgiving Day … but I had an ear for rhythm and rhyme. And I liked writing poetry, figuring out how to put words together.

My poems began to move into open form in high school, though I was still telling more than showing; still philosophizing. But they were published in the high school literary magazine, which was called Flight — prophetic for me as a future birder! Sometime in high school I found the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins … loved his poem "Heaven Haven" and really loved figuring out the meaning of his poem "Spring and Fall: to a Young Child." I loved the way he played with words, and the sprung rhythm he used, and I began to imitate his style.
In college, I had some good mentoring from Martin Galvin, a poet and professor at my school. It was then that I began to write as a practice, rather than writing as a way of explaining the world to myself.

My first poem published in a magazine was published by Commonweal in September of 1970; I literally collapsed on the floor when I read the acceptance letter! It was called "The Engineer on the Train" and described my encounter with a businessman/mathematician on a train trip from Baltimore to New York.

During the first five years after college, my poetry writing went into a major slump for many reasons. Finally I began to settle down; I was going to grad school at Hopkins in the evenings and summers while teaching at Seton, a Catholic girls' high school. In the midst of that organized busy-ness, I began to write again. Commonweal published a second poem: "Elizabeth Seton" about the newly canonized saint the school was named for:

Elizabeth Seton

Proud straight woman
with the snapping eyes,
you had to look up
to your benefactors.
You had to sail oceans
to make up your mind,
and lose all your lace
to be stubborn.
You had to be cold
in a damp stone house,
rubbing your hands together
before you could play
that piano,
and you had to wear black
to understand.
Proud loving woman,
pulled into heaven
between last minute
to earth!

This, too, was a prophetic poem. In 1978, at the age of 30, I joined the Daughters of Charity, the order of Sisters with whom I was teaching. Needless to say, it was a major life change!

My belonging to this new life has never prevented me from writing poetry, though, and in the last twelve years I have also been going to poetry conferences, meeting other poets, and widening my own writing. Since 1970, I've had about 100 poems published in small magazines, both print and online. I was especially excited when Garrison Keillor read two of my poems on The Writer's Almanac — one in October 2001, and the other in August 2010.

I write both fixed form and open form poems, though the open form ones predominate.
Josephine Jacobsen, a marvelous poet who died in 2002 at the age of 94, was my mentor for thirty years, and she used to say that it was the poem itself which dictated the form. I agree.
Here is an open form poem which grew out of a Boccaccio story and two paintings:

Handling the Pot of Basil

Holman Hunt, on his honeymoon,
used his wife as the model for Isabella.
She's passionately warm and fleshed out,
large dark eyes wide, head resting on
the pot of basil. Half of her
waist length black hair
is draped over the top of the pot.
The basil plant flourishes,
passionate and fleshy, bushy
and glistening.
The pot itself is full bellied,
gilt porcelain, richly designed,
though skulls the size of tennis balls
adorn four sides of its base.

Isabel had a lover, Lorenzo.
Her brothers lured him away
and murdered him
for the sake of the family honor,
buried his body and told her
Lorenzo had gone to another town.
But in a dream she sought him;
his ghost led her to his grave.
She dug up his body,
sliced off the head,
wrapped it in a shawl,
took it home,
planted it in that ornate pot,
planted the basil on his crown,
and covered it all with soil.
She watered this plant with her tears,
which it must have liked.
So, between the softly decaying
sinuses and corneas,
the tongue, though more earthy now,
whispered love words to her,
while the teeth grinned through the roots.

John White Alexander painted her, too,
in 1897.
Here, she's wan as the pot,
in which no basil is evident.

Trance-trapped, she's lit from below.
Her fingers trace shadows on the skin of the pot.
Her feet are hidden beneath volumes
of gauzy white nightgown.


Eventually those damned
interfering brothers,
seeing that she had gone round the bend,
crazed with grief,
wondered why she lingered with the basil plant
on which she lavished care and tears.
They took it from her,
upended it, and finding
the remnants of tissue,
tearstained skull,
knew they must get out of town,
far away.
The story does not tell
what happened to Isabella.

That's something else I love to do: write ekphrastic poems. I love to wander the Phillips Gallery in Washington in some kind of daze, waiting for a painting to call out to me.

For the last twelve years, I've had the joy of teaching English at Mt. St. Mary's University, a small coed school set on the side of a mountain in rural Maryland. I teach Freshman Comp as well as a variety of other courses — my favorite is Introduction to Poetry, where I get to introduce my students — mostly non-English majors, and all four years of undergrad school — to the work of poets I love: Richard Wilbur, Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, and yes, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

During these years, after countless rejections, I have finally had some five books of poetry published. This didn't happen until I was in my fifties, so I say to younger poets — don't lose heart!

Tags: poetry

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