Kansas Poet Laureate Wyatt Townley spoke at the Hutchinson Public Library Friday, February 27. Townley’s theme was “Coming Home” to poetry. Her presentation weaved together the words of many poets, including Langston Hughes, William Stafford, Emily Dickinson, Tess Gallager, Billy Collins and others.
She encouraged people to memorize poetry. She said when she started her journey as poet laureate she realized she knew everyone’s poems except her own. She says she is always working on memorizing something these days.
“You will always have it. It will house and shelter you,” she says about poems you carry in your memory. “Come home to poetry,” she said. “Let poetry come home to you. Poetry’s porch light is always on.”
Townley said people often get bogged down in wondering what a poem means and she says that’s not the way to approach it. She says no one knows what poems mean, including the poets.
She said her favorite explanation of what poetry is comes from Emily Dickinson. “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” She says poetry is nothing to solve, but something to experience. Townley says one of poetry’s greatest gifts is consolation. “Poetry renders our solitude communal,” she says..
One of the parts of her presentation that spoke most directly to me was about finding beauty in life. She related a story Kim Stafford had told her about his maternal grandmother. She was having a very difficult pregnancy and the doctor prescribed an hour of beauty a day. Townley said she thought that was brilliant and encouraged those gathered to devote at least a few minutes every day to beauty – that it would be life-changing. Stafford’s grandmother, of course, was able to bring that baby into the world and the baby eventually became the wife of poet William Stafford and the mother of Kim Stafford.
Wyatt Townley is a widely published, nationally known poet and a fourth-generation Kansan. Her work has been featured on National Public Radio’s “The Writer’s Almanac” with Garrison Keillor, in US Poet Laureate Emeritus Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry” column, and published in journals ranging from “The Paris Review” to “Newsweek.” She has published three collections of poetry: “The Breathing Field” (Little Brown), “Perfectly Normal” (The Smith), and “The Afterlives of Trees” (Woodley Press), a Kansas Notable Book and winner of the Nelson Poetry Book Award.