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vera pavlova

When I’m blocked, blank, speechless, I fill the silence by internalizing a poem. I pick one that I know has something to teach me—some diction or rhythm that, once ingrained, might knock me free. I don’t think “memorization” is an accurate term for this practice. I prefer to call it learning by heart. It has little to do with rote remembering, and much to do with the commitment to know, invoke, embody the poem.

I borrowed the idea from Kim Rosen, whose book SAVED BY A POEM illustrates the difference between using the mind and using the heart in relation to reading and learning poetry—how poetry affects us on both cellular and spiritual levels.

“The healing did not come through writing poems or even through reading them. It came when I discovered that taking a poem I loved deeply into my life and speaking it aloud caused a profound integration of every aspect of me—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. I felt a wholeness I had never before experienced. I felt like I was flying. I was speaking the truth, and the truth was setting me free…

As you read poems, listen to them, and speak them aloud, try meeting them as you would a piece of music. Allow your rational, linear brain to relax. Dare to not understand, to lose your grip on making sense of the words. Let the images, like musical notes, pour over you. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes that poetry “comes before thought . . . [R]ather than being a phenomenology of the mind, [poetry] is a phenomenology of the soul.”

Tonight at the National Arts Club, Vera Pavlova (http://cli.gs/ma8q1) spoke her poems in Russian and her husband/translator Steven Seymour read in English. Steven mentioned that Vera knows all of her more-than one-thousand poems by heart—and she delivers them sweetly, as though saying the names of her oldest and dearest friends, without faltering. Poem 24 from IF THERE IS SOMETHING TO DESIRE:

Why do I recite my poems by heart?
Because I write them by heart,
because I know that kind of spleen
by heart. But I lie to the pen,
not daring to describe how I ambled
along the distant ramparts of love,
barefoot, wearing a birthday suit:
the placental slime and blood.

I want to begin praising If There is Something to Desire by Vera Pavlova, translated by Steven Seymour (her husband, her muse! how romantic, how intrinsic!) released last month from Knopf, her first collection published in English. These one hundred poems go so far so terrifically fast (almost all under ten lines) that Pavlova seems to intentionally strive to increase poetry’s audience and relevance—this is, after all, Love in the Time of Tweets and Text Messages—with brevity and bravura; meditations for our culture’s dwindling (and, mostly, already shallow) attention spans. This Valentine’s day, send an entire poem to your dearest—take number 14 for example: the lengthy course of a relationship in eighty characters:

No love? Let us make it!
Done. Next? Let us make
care, tenderness, courage,
jealousy, glut, lies.

Now I want to follow Simone’s lead and leave you with a letter, from James Schuyler to Frank O’Hara, found in a charming pocket-sized edition from Turtle Point Press edited by William Corbett. Schuyler writes O’Hara with advice on what poems to include in the manuscript of Meditations in an Emergency, and in the process gives him the kind of generous encouragement we all need from time to time.

New York, New York



The old crank would like to see “in,” 3 Penny, Now I am quietly waiting, and There I could Never be a Boy.

Can you really leave out Debussy, which I love?

And there’s Les Etiquettes Jaunes, The Starts are tighter (with or without its last stanza, if its last stanza bothers you), and I like Morning very much.

Personally, I like My hearts a-flutter better than the one called Spleen.

And we don’t want to be unfair to “He can rest.” Do we now? Of course we don’t.

Well, give my love to the sky children. We’ll have good times talking about all this.

But mercy, don’t think the straight bolts you shoot from your crystal bow are tipped with marshmallow! They’re unbending yew fletched with eagle feather. (That means, don’t be silly and mistake sincerity and inspiration for sentimentality and goopiness.)

Je t’adore, fils du Baltimore, mon oriol, oiseaux sauvage!

PS I fainted twice and then ascended into the sky (just to the left of the UN Building) when I got to the lines in “There I could never” about “as if I were Endymion. . .”