Poetically Speaking: How to Triumph Like a Girl by Ada Limon

“How to Triumph Like a Girl” by Ada Limón

I like the lady horses best,
how they make it all look easy,
like running 40 miles per hour
is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.
I like their lady horse swagger,
after winning. Ears up, girls, ears up!
But mainly, let’s be honest, I like
that they’re ladies. As if this big
dangerous animal is also a part of me,
that somewhere inside the delicate
skin of my body, there pumps
an 8-pound female horse heart,
giant with power, heavy with blood.
Don’t you want to believe it?
Don’t you want to lift my shirt and see
the huge beating genius machine
that thinks, no, it knows,
it’s going to come in first.

***

Ada Limón is a widely known poet whose work straddles the line between being known both in writerly circles (thanks to her numerous accolades and awards) and more broadly (thanks to social media).

You can find and buy her books on Bookshop.org

Honestly, I can’t believe I haven’t featured anything by Ada Limón before now for Poetically Speaking. It feels like an egregious oversight considering how many of her poems cross my path via social media and just browsing for poems online (as one does). So as I was looking for poems to highlight this year during National Poetry Month, I knew I wanted to feature something by Limón. But which poem to choose? I hadn’t read “How to Triumph Like a Girl” before and when I first saw it online, I admit I wasn’t sure about it. But like all good poetry, this one got under my skin. I kept thinking about it. And that, I knew, was reason enough to share it.

I love the way a poem can build and the way that where a poem starts isn’t always the same as where it ends. What begins as broad observations narrows and sharpens by the end. What at first seems like an offhand conversation turns into something else as Limón ably shifts the narrative.

I’m always a sucker for a good last line and this poem is no exception. When writing booktalks for work one of my friends advises that the last line should echo–it should have resonance and stay with the listener. That’s what comes to mind for me when I read the final couplet here. I especially like the certainty and sense of inevitability as you read “it’s going to come in first” that makes it clear there was never any other outcome worth considering.

Check back every Friday in April for a new Poetically Speaking post. Until then, you can also browse older posts (and guest posts) for more poetry.

Poetically Speaking: Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare

What’s the first word that comes to mind when you hear the name William Shakespeare?

For me, the immediate answer is “poet.”

Considering the iambic pentameter of his plays, it makes sense that Shakespeare was also a brilliant poet who wrote 154 sonnets over the course of his lifetime. In each sonnet, he drew out beautiful imagery and sentiments from the rigid form that follows a specific line structure and rhyme scheme.

One of my favorite Shakespeare sonnets, one I refer to often when trying to improve my own writing, is Sonnet 130.

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.

Like the best poems, Sonnet 130 is layered. Instead of showering his mistress with false comparisons, the narrator suggests that he loves her all the more fiercely for seeing her clearly–a beautiful thought that is as relevant today as it would have been in Shakespeare’s own lifetime. The interplay between what is overtly stated and what is left unsaid here works as a primer for how to write and how to do it well. This sonnet never calls the subject of the poem beautiful or any other niceties. Still, by the end, it’s impossible to think the narrator feels anything but a deep love for the subject.

Sonnet 130 challenges everything readers think they know about love poems–and it does so with humor. Being a sonnet is impressive enough, but also being funny and conversational? Being timely and relevant while being more than four hundred years old? Astonishing.

Like a magician diverting the audience’s attention, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is a misdirect of sorts as he uses simple language and plain ideas to give voice to an abstract concept. And, really, isn’t that the standard to which every poem, not to mention every writer, should strive?

This post originally appeared on Books Take You Places in 2015 as part of the Bard on the Blogs series.

Check back every Friday in April for a new Poetically Speaking post. Until then, you can also browse older posts (and guest posts) for more poetry.

Poetically Speaking: I Am Always Trying to Make My Poems Timeless by Olivia Gatwood

“I Am Always Trying to Make My Poems Timeless” by Olivia Gatwood

I’m always talking
around technology
like I get all of my information
from the dusty stacks
at the university library.

Like I know the man’s last meal
by heart. Like mentioning an iPhone
makes me a bimbo or something.

What I’m trying to say
is that honestly,
I think the stakes in Clueless
are higher than they are in Star Wars.

I think Cher preserving her Alaïa
red dress while getting robbed
at gunpoint is literally life or death,
while the galactic war is whatever,
because it isn’t even, like, real.

Honestly, I found the man my mom
had an affair with on Facebook.
I know your ex just graduated from
Nursing School. I think I’m prettier
than all of her prettiest photos.

I don’t write poems in my journal
because it takes too long.

I’m always like, I’m gonna delete my Facebook
but how will I know about the events happening
near me that I’m never gonna go to?

A rogue dream. Me, in a lilac dress
with an open back showing up on your doorstep.
I am holding your favorite Moscato.
I am holding your favorite fruit.
I am holding you hand as you lead me
through the house to the backyard.
No one was expecting me
but everyone is relieved I am here.
I am dressed perfectly for this weather.
I am so glad I chose this outfit.

I know exactly how to dance to this music.
I left my phone on the counter
in my apartment and I haven’t
reached for it once. I walked here with no map.
I ate the perfect breakfast for day drinking.
I am better than you. I smell just a little.

When the sky goes dark, I’ll shift
to an evening look with only a leather jacket
and a swoop of liquid eyeliner,
like the magazines promise
you are capable of doing.
Everything is so easy. I love my friends.

Let me tell you the truth, for once.
I don’t socialize because I’m afraid

I’ll disappoint people. I have spent
so many hours talking on the phone.
I still love chat rooms. The only thing I trust
about myself is how good I am at words.
I can make anyone fall in love with me,
as long as they aren’t close by.

***

Like a lot of the best things, I heard about Olivia Gatwood via word of mouth when VE Schwab shared on Instagram that she was reading Gatwood’s poetry. I immediately checked out her collections from the library and have been thinking about them ever since. This poem appears in Gatwood’s collection Life of the Party. You can find Gatwood’s work online and buy her books on Bookshop.org

You can watch Gatwood read other poems from that collection here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5sOap899Fg

I have been saving this post in a draft since last year because I knew I wanted to share this poem for Poetically Speaking. I have a soft spot for modern poetry and free verse (likely because my own poems fall into both categories) and I really love how relatable Gatwood’s work is even though we have different life experiences (as most people do since we are all unique and contain multitudes).

In this one I really appreciate the way she interrogates so many of those “perfect girl” stereotypes by showing what might be at play behind them. As a person who often suspects she is better on paper, the ending packs such a punch for me, especially that last couplet: “I can make anyone fall in love with me,
as long as they aren’t close by.”

Check back every Friday in April for a new Poetically Speaking post. Until then, you can also browse older posts (and guest posts) for more poetry.

Books to Read For National Poetry Month (And Any Other Month)

Books to Read For National Poetry Month (And Any Other Month)

April is National Poetry Month. I try to share poetry throughout the month in my Poetically Speaking series here on the blog. This year, I thought I’d also share some of my favorite poetry collections and verse novels to read this month and all year to add more poetry to your life.

You can shop the full list at Bookshop and Amazon.

Collections:

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz
Diaz’s work interrogates the erasure of indigenous peoples in America while making space for new stories.

Call Us What We Carry by Amanda Gorman
Are you like me and discovered Amanda Gorman and her work after she delivered her poem at the 2021 presidential inauguration? If the answer is yes, you will be as happy as I am to find this collection of some of Gorman’s other works.

Life of the Party by Olivia Gatwood
Gatwood is one of my favorite poets and, while grim, this is one of the most cohesive collections of poetry I’ve seen. Loosely inspired by Gatwood’s own interest in true crime this is a sharp, feminist collection that will stay with you.

Poisoned Apples: Poems For You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann
In this collection Hepperman presents 50 poems that bring fairy tale themes and ideas together with the lives of modern girls in clever ways. Eerie photographs accompany the poems to lend a haunting quality to this deceptively slim volume.
Read my review.

the sun and her flowers by rupi kaur
Kaur’s collections are and interesting combination of artwork and poetry. Sparse verse and line drawn art work well to complement each other in this visually oriented collection.

Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón
I love Limón and no poetry roundup would be complete without one of her collections.

the princess saves herself in this one by amanda lovelace
There are a lot of entry points to amanda lovelace’s work but this collection is still one of my favorites. I love the empowerment and the way the poems play with traditional fairytale imagery.

Verse Novels:

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
Can you know a sister you have never met? Can you claim a family that doesn’t know you? As Camino and Yahaira come to terms with their father’s lies and transgressions both girls will have to grieve everything they have lost while they try to understand what they have to gain in this verse novel that pulls no punches as it tells the story of a complicated family with immediacy and care.
Read my review. (Want even more Acevedo? Be sure to check out The Poet X too.)

500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario
What happens when your attempt to be a better person might be making you worse? To revamp her reputation with her Ivy League obsessed classmates, Nic Chen has a simple plan: she will write college admission essays. For a price. But as Nic learns more about her classmates, she realizes she still has a lot to learn about herself and her moral compass in this shining verse novel.
Read my review.

Lawless Spaces by Corey Ann Haydu
This verse novel introduces readers to the Dovewick family and tackles the isolation and loss of the pandemic (specifically 2020’s quarantine months) while also exploring what it means to carry generational trauma. A powerful, ultimately healing story that is easily my favorite book of the year.
Read my review. Read my interview with Corey about the book.

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
Rome, 1610: Artemisia Gentileschi had limited options when her mother died at twelve. She could join a convent or she could work in her father’s studio grinding paint, preparing canvases, and modeling as needed. She chose art. McCullough beautifully details Artemisia’s passion and commitment to her art in this verse novel that follows Artemesia’s teen years and continues through her rape by Agostino Tassi and the subsequent trial.
Read my review. Read my interview with Joy about this book.

After the Kiss by Terra Elan McVoy
This book explores a love triangle from two sides and dual POV and verse. It’s also one of the older ones featured but I had to included it because this book is such a key part of my blog. Terra was the first author I ever interviewed and in many ways this book inspired what eventually became Poetically Speaking.
Read my review. Read my interview with Terra about this book.

Amber & Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz
What begins as a story about a spoiled girl and a common boy becomes, in the author’s capable hands, a much larger commentary on art, friendship, and identity as we watch Melisto and Rhaskos transform, becoming “the girl as electric as amber, the boy, indestructible as clay” in this richly layered verse novel.
Read my review.

Beauty Mark: A Verse Novel of Marilyn Monroe by Carole Boston Weatherford
Everyone knows about Marilyn Monroe’s difficult life and tragic end. Few people know the traumatic start of her life watching her mother struggle with schizophrenia, moving through foster care, and even teen marriage. While evidence of her transition from brunette pin-up model to blonde bombshell is immediately obvious, the road that got her there has never been explored from her own perspective. Until now.
Read my review.

Poetry-Infused Stories:

And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard
Paul is gone and with him pieces of Emily are gone too. Even before his suicide, Emily knew she would never be the same. She just didn’t know it would hurt this much. Vacillating between guilt and anger, Emily Beam is sent to an all girls boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts. Surrounded by history from Emily Dickinson’s life, Emily delves into poetry and her new life hoping to escape.
Read my review.

Undercover by Beth Kephart
Kephart uses poetry and prose to tell a layered story about love in all of its forms whether for family, friends, nature or even for words in this book that is partly a retelling of the play Cyrano De Bergerac and partly something entirely unique.
Read my review.

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
This story is told entirely through Gabi’s diary entries as she navigates an especially complicated year in her life as many long-standing problems come to a head including her father’s addiction and Gabi’s mother’s disapproval of Gabi’s plans to go away to college.
Read my review.

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
Readers who are up to the task of a difficult read with darker subject matter will find a powerful story in Rose Under Fire with an incredibly strong and inspiring heroine at the center of its story.
Read my review.

Poetically Speaking: I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, (340) by Emily Dickinson

This year I’m bringing back Poetically Speaking for National Poetry Month (April) to discuss some of my favorite poems. Today’s poem is “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, (340)” by Emily Dickinson:

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –
I honestly can’t believe I hadn’t talked about this poem before! I love Emily Dickinson. She is always timely and resonant and that is such an amazing thing when you think about how long ago she lived. I think about this poem a lot when I have a headache or raw nerves. The imagery is so powerful and so evocative and, of course, the word choice is always stunning. There isn’t really a bad line here but “Wrecked, solitary, here -” is one that lives in my head rent free.

Poetically Speaking: Myth by Muriel Rukeyser

This year I’m bringing back Poetically Speaking for National Poetry Month (April) to discuss some of my favorite poems. Today’s poem is “Myth” by Muriel Rukeyser:

Long afterward, Oedipus, old and blinded, walked the
roads. He smelled a familiar smell. It was
the Sphinx. Oedipus said, “I want to ask one question.
Why didn’t I recognize my mother?” “You gave the
wrong answer,” said the Sphinx. “But that was what
made everything possible,” said Oedipus. “No,” she said.
“When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning,
two at noon, and three in the evening, you answered,
Man. You didn’t say anything about woman.”
“When you say Man,” said Oedipus, “you include women
too. Everyone knows that.” She said, “That’s what
you think.”

Sometimes the entire payoff for a poem is in the last line. I’ve been thinking about that “That’s what you think.” ever since I read this poem. Rukeyser really brings the flaw of male default thinking (as detailed in Invisible Women) to the forefront here and, furthermore, highlights its prevalence in all arenas–including history and classical literature. Hat tip to Laura Amy Schlitz for direction me to this poem when she mentioned it in her novel Amber & Clay.

Poetically Speaking: The Stolen Child by W. B. Yeats

This year I’m bringing back Poetically Speaking for National Poetry Month (April) to discuss some of my favorite poems. Today’s poem is “The Stolen Child” by W. B. Yeats:

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

I think about this poem a lot. Especially when the song by The Waterboys gets stuck in my head. I love the visuals and the way Yeats’ verse draws you into this strange and eerie world. It’s perfectly complimented by the music The Waterboys composed for their recording where “Come away, O human child! / To the waters and the wild / With a faery, hand in hand, / For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” becomes the song chorus–lines that truly resonate with every listening.

Poetically Speaking: Manic Pixie Dream Girl Says by Olivia Gatwood

This year I’m bringing back Poetically Speaking for National Poetry Month (April) to discuss some of my favorite poems. Today’s poem is “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” by Olivia Gatwood:

Have you heard this record? Manic Pixie Dream Girl says,
Let me save you with this record.
Let me put the headphones on for you, and smile, while you listen;
cut to your point of view

watch me smile while you listen. Hear that?
That’s the sound of you becoming a better person.

I’m gonna paint a picture of a bird on your beige wall
without your permission and you’re gonna love it.

And you thought you hated birds.
See me, encouraging you to take risks?

Manic Pixie Dream Girl wants you to do something you’ve never done before.
Like smile, or go swing-dancing.

You wanna know my name?
You never call me by it anyway.

If I had to guess, it would probably be a season
or after a dead actress who you loved as a child.

But this isn’t about me, this is about you
and your cubicle job, your white bedroom

your white Honda, your white mother.
Manic Pixie Dream Girl says, I’m going to save you

says, Don’t worry, you are still the lead role.
This is your love story, about the way I teach you to live.

Everything they know about me
they will learn when it is projected onto you.

Watch the way you pick up my bad habits
and make them look good.

Manic Pixie Dream Girl talks too much
says bad words out loud and cries at the commercials.

That makes me a funny woman, right?
The kind people like to laugh at?

It’s easy to root for you when I act like this–
so disagreeable, such a manic dream.

Dream Girl, your almost broken accessory.
Manic Pixie Dream Girl says

Let’s play make believe with my body.

I’ll be a vintage dress with an empty prescription
bottle, good girl, just bad enough

a burp
and a curtsy,

let me be not too pretty
hair fried from all that pink dye

sex when you need it puppet when you’re bored,
let me build myself smaller than you,

let me apologize when I get caught acting bigger than you.
Let me always wait for this, let me work for this.

The convenient thing about being a magical woman
is that I can be gone as quickly as I came

and when you are a whole person
for the first time, the movie is over

Manic Pixie Dream Girl doesn’t go on,
there’s no need for her anymore

Manic Pixie Dream Girl is too dream girl
and you just woke up.

Once, I told you I was afraid
of my father and for a moment, I looked so human

the audience lost interest
you saw the crow’s feet at the sides of my eyes

and a small chip on my front tooth.
I looked just like everyone else.

You can watch Gatwood read “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJjJfE_QNMY

I found this poem last year after picking up Gatwood’s collection New American Best Friend. You can find Gatwood’s work online and buy her books on Bookshop.org

This is the kind of poem that I wish I had written myself. I love the imagery, the distinct details, and the way the poem dismantles the supposed mythic beauty of the manic pixie dream girl trope.

Every part of this poem is haunting, particularly the conclusion, but I especially like this line: “The convenient thing about being a magical woman is that I can be gone as quickly as I came.”

Poetically Speaking: Forgetfulness by Billy Collins

This year I’m bringing back Poetically Speaking for National Poetry Month (April) to discuss some of my favorite poems. Today’s poem is “Forgetfulness” by Billy Collins:

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

During the pandemic I started doing weekly generative meetings with my writing group and began contributing some prompts. I came across this one when I was working on prompts about memories and forgetting.

I’ve started to think of this poem as the definition of bittersweet. The writing is so lyrical and conjures these poignant images even while talking about those same memories inexorably slipping away.

Poetically Speaking: The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams

This year I am doing a stripped down version of Poetically Speaking with a post every Friday about a favorite poem.

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams is arguably one of the best known and most significant modern poems. It’s iconic. It’s one of the first poems I read as a student of poetry in college and it’s probably part of why Williams is a favorite poet of mine to this day. I’ve always thought of him as a poet of the people–there’s something for everyone to love in his work. His poems are easily remixed and retooled and most of them are even social media friendly. I am certain that Williams would have loved Twitter.

Williams is part of the modernist poetry movement. He wrote poetry when our ideas of what a poem could be and what a poem should be were changing; he’s part of why those ideas changed. You can see why with “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

This poem is sleek and elegant but it’s also earthier and more subtle than many earlier poems (like Shakespearean sonnets or Romantic poetry from writers like Blake or Shelley). Williams brings the same intricacy and thought to this poem–that’s the whole basis of what a poem does, after all–but it’s still a bit shocking.

This poem is stark. It’s a flash. A moment. Blink and you might miss it. Read it too fast and the beauty is lost. Unlike many other poetic forms, this free verse poem is also deceptive. Williams effectively draws the reader’s attention away from the complexity of this poem. The simplicity of the wording and the form belie the underlying thought and intricacy. Looking at the way the words are laid out, it’s clearly a deliberate decision. More so, in conveying such an evocative scene with fifteen words (none of which repeat) in just one small sentence gives this poem added weight and significance.

The poem itself seems to be imploring the reader to slow down and really pay attention–a sentiment that is mirrored neatly with the content of the poem. So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens. Why is that so? Williams doesn’t need to tell us. Just by saying it, by drawing our attention to it, the scene becomes significant largely because we are observing it as readers.

Poetry is timeless. It is intensely personal but it can also be universal. I wanted to close out Poetically Speaking 2017 with “The Red Wheelbarrow” because it exemplifies all of those things. Our world isn’t the one that Williams inhabited. It may not be the one readers will see if they stumble upon this post a year from now or even further down the line. Everything changes but poetry and ideas endure. In a time when everything is moving faster and faster, this poem is one of the best reminders to stop for a second. To breathe. To look around and to look up. And to remember that so much can change because of one small moment observed.

I hope you enjoyed spending Fridays this month talking about poetry here. I’d love to hear your thoughts about “The Red Wheelbarrow” (or any other poems) in the comments as we close out another National Poetry Month.