Philip Levine’s “The Poem of Chalk”

I only own three books of poetry: If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, The Poetry of Robert Frost, and Fuel: Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye. Ah, I guess I own a few of the epic poems, too: The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and Inferno…I think that’s it.

I like T. S. Eliot, Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, Richard Siken, Pablo Neruda, Louise Glück, and stray poems here and there from writers whose work I haven’t explored. A couple weeks ago I went to a Philip Levine reading. “The Poem of Chalk” in particular stood out for me, out of everything he read. Specifically these excerpted lines, which I still remember:

He knew feldspar.
he knew calcium, oyster shells, he
knew what creatures had given
their spines to become the dust time
pressed into these perfect cones,
he knew the sadness of classrooms
in December when the light fails
early and the words on the blackboard
abandon their grammar and sense
and then even their shapes so that
each letter points in every direction
at once and means nothing at all.

4 thoughts on “Philip Levine’s “The Poem of Chalk”

  1. Wow, what a lovely excerpt! Readings often, for me, make me excited about poetry – I think they are meant to be read out loud much more than fiction.

    I do have a few poetry collections – like five different collections of Romanticism poetry (because I’m always trying to find lesser known poets from that period too), one Imagism collection (I love all those peeps), Dorothy Parker (her poems are clever), and my favorite poet ever: Sara Teasdale. I have yet to find a complete collection of her poetry that isn’t shoddily printed, so I’m making due with one I bought from Amazon with, like, no page numbers, poems printed more than once, and a clunky layout ;_;

    1. Yes! I agree – at readings, for the most part, I like hearing the poems more than the fiction.

      Omg! Dorothy Parker, I love. I haven’t read Sara Teasdale, but I will definitely check her out! I also like that poem you recommended to me earlier this year, “Patterns”? I need to build up my collection, but I’m holding off until I can create a space for my library, instead of having to move them back and forth.

  2. That is a wonderful little excerpt. I also think I’ve fallen in love with the word “feldspar,” which I believe I first and last encountered during my second grade geological studies field trip.

    Tumblr has actually been a surprising source for poetry for me. I rediscovered Neruda there, and have come across a few other poets that I like as well. That said, I do need to just check out more poetry books. The last one I read was Keats (mostly for nostalgia’s sake, and because I find his moony, dramatic romance strangely enjoyable), and I came across a poem we hadn’t covered in class, Meg Merrilies that I found rather fun. It reminded me of your poetry stories.

    1. I actually had never encountered that word before! Or at least, not to my recollection.

      And yes! I’ve been finding great snippets of poems and novels from Tumblr. I feel like I have “read Meg Merrilies” before…from your recommendation, too, I want to say. And I love poetry stories! “The Highwayman” comes to mind, though I like the idea of it more than the language.

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