Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



September 2014

“I know it’s a good poem when it makes me spin around in my chair.”

Alice Quinn, during a Q & A after a lecture

A Woman’s Notebook

Dear Reader,

Decades ago, my husband John Gaumond gave me a gift - a woman’s notebook: being a blank book with quotes by women. The title made it sound a little serious and Virginia Woolf-ish, so I vowed not to fill it with just any old writing, such as early drafts of my poems or clippings about writing by writers for writers.

The cover of the blank book, with its gentle floral sketch, seemed to whisper “I am special.” Each page was framed with simple line and offered a quotation from a woman of note. I leafed through words of wisdom, highbrow and low, from Nancy Mitford, Francoise Sagan, Marilyn Monroe and Mae West, but weeks went by before I picked up a pen and wrote in it.

I happened to be reading a book of poems by Stanley Kunitz and came across “The Layers.” I remembered choosing it decades ago to end a speech I was asked to give at a Kappa Delta Pi induction ceremony. It seemed a perfect way to send these future teachers off to a life filled with changes – losses and gains that would and should affect them profoundly.

When I read “The Layers” that day, I knew what I had to do with my notebook. I copied it word-for-word into a woman’s notebook, creating a repository for poems that shook me to my core. These poems are all good poems. Good for me. Alice Quinn was asked how she knew when to accept a submission for The New Yorker. Her answer stayed with me: “I know it’s a good poem when it makes me spin around in my chair.” What a great way to describe the elation when a poem get us (and we get it).

While I cannot offer any of the poems a place in a prestigious magazine, including them in my notebook is a benediction of sorts. I read these poems repeatedly and, through the act of reading, keep them alive. I am still left in the breathless state as when I first read them.

Here are several poems in my notebook: Patrick Kavanagh’s “Wet Evening in April,” Louise Gluck’s “Happiness,” Elizabeth Jennings’s “Delay,” Wallace Stevens’s “The Reader,” Ian Johnson’s “Lying in the Sun,” William Matthews’s “Fireworks,” Sara Teasdale’s “Nights without Sleep” and “Duty,” James Schevill’s “The Will of Writing,” Carolyn Kizer’s “The Ashes,” Jane Kenyon’s “February: Thinking of Flowers,” Susan Hahn’s “January Ovaries,” Rilke’s “Sunset,” Thomas Lux’s “Refrigerator, 1957,” Jane Sylvester Norton’s “The Mangle,” Timothy Lui’s “Sunday,” Elizabeth Pierson Friend’s “Steam Reassures Him,” Albert Goldbarth’s “The Invisible World,” J. Allyn Rosser’s “Then Too There Is This,” Pak Chaesam’s “Untitled – in sunlight suffused,” Kathryn Starbuck’s “A Gift,” W.S. Merwin’s “The New Song” and the poem I had to write in my notebook today, E. E. Cummings’s “1 – into the strenuous briefness.”

We live in the day of search engines, so perhaps these poems can be yours, too, and they can do their work of shaking you to your core.