Freeing verse - Issue 166 - Magazine | Monocle

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Ada Limón, the US poet laureate, still remembers the first  poem that she fell in love with. “It was Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’,” she says. “I had seen it in a test when I was 15. About the same time, I started working in a bookshop in Sonoma, California, where I was born and raised.” There, Limón would browse the shelves and discover other poets: Lucille Clifton, Pablo Neruda, Sharon Olds, Philip Levine. She often thinks back to reading Bishop at school and wonders what it was that first drew her in.

Bishop’s “One Art” explores the “art of losing”: the things that we misplace (keys, watches, hours badly spent) and how we come to accept their absence. It’s a topic that Limón, whose poetry often tackles grief, is familiar with, though she is more preoccupied with the business of keeping. “One of my biggest fears has always been that the world is passing me by and I haven’t been paying attention,” she says. So, in her poetry, Limón makes a point of noting small, everyday details: rain clouds gathering, groundhogs, her dog eating a sugar snap pea. And since publishing her first collection, Lucky Wreck, in 2006, she has found that other people enjoy thinking about these things too.

Over the years, Limón’s commitment to chronicling the seemingly mundane has garnered her legions of readers and several prizes, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and the prestigious Guggenheim fellowship. Named the 24th US poet laureate in 2022, she was appointed to an unprecedented second two-year term in April.

Limón, who believes in poetry’s capacity to heal and bring people and communities together, has always endeavoured to make it more accessible. In her second term as poet laureate, she hopes that she can continue to make that happen. “We have this gap where we think of poetry as either something that we teach children, that can rhyme and be beautiful, or as something that’s really dark and depressing,” she says. “There’s nothing in between. But I’m interested in showing people what it feels like to find the full range of human emotion in poetry: there are poems that can hold rage, poems that can hold fear and uncertainty, and poems that can hold hope. All of those things can be true.”

To encourage people to engage with the form, Limón struck up a partnership with the US National Park Service and the Poetry Society of America earlier this year to present poems – as well as writing prompts to inspire new poetry – in several green spaces across the country. “It’s not just about reading a poem in nature but about making your own poem,” she says. “How many times are we sitting somewhere but remembering past wounds or a weird conversation with a friend – or just having a hard time being present?” It’s easy to be in a beautiful place and not pay attention, says Limón. “But if you can actually take a moment and look at your surroundings, it becomes a way of saying, ‘I’m here!’” 

Learning how to be present is a lesson that Limón has learned the hard way. “Like many of us, I spend a lot of time with my own fears and anxieties,” she says. “But if I can notice the maple tree outside – if I can notice the variegated dogwood, the crepe myrtle and how it’s growing, what it needs – it takes me out of myself and out of my own mind,” she says. “That’s really useful in reminding me that I’m part of something.”

The CV

1976: Born in Sonoma, California.

2001: Receives a master’s from New York University, where she was taught by Sharon Olds and Philip Levine. 

2006: Publishes her first book, Lucky Wreck.

2018: Her fifth collection, The Carrying, wins the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. 

2022: Appointed as the 24th US poet laureate.

2023: Reappointed as poet laureate for a two-year term.

2023: Nasa plans to send one of her poems into space.

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