The Three That Speak to Us: “Eating Walnuts, “There are Birds Here”, and “Anxieties”

This year my partner and I looked through The Best American Poetry 2015 and narrowed it down to three poems we feel strongly about.  The purpose of this assignment is to get high school students to take a look at these poems because we feel these three poems say something worthwhile to our generation. In the 2015 volume of The Best American Poetry, there was a focus on racial equality and cultural representation specifically. In this volume, we are going to pinpoint the poems, “Eating Walnuts, “There are Birds Here”, and “Anxieties” by Jennifer Keith, Jamaal May, and Donna Masini respectfully.  

Jennifer Keith is a poet, copywriter, and fictional writer who received an education from the University of Virginia and American University in Washington, D.C.  In 2014, she won the John Elsberg prize in poetry.  She is also a bass guitarist who performs in Maryland,where she currently lives, for the rock band Batworth Stone.  Today, she spends time with neurosurgeons because she is fascinated with the new ways they access the brain.  Keith’s work has been featured in City Paper, The Pearl, Sewanee Theological Review, Little Patuxent Review and The Nebraska Review.  One piece of her work that we focused on is “Eating Walnuts.”   

Structurally, this poem is uniform throughout containing five stanzas each four lines long. In each stanza, the first line has 10 syllables, the second and third have eight, and the fourth line has 10 syllables. There is no apparent rhyme scheme but nonetheless the poem reads smoothly due to the same backbone of each stanza. Granted her story writing background, this poem reads like a story so that helps the fluid nature of her writing.

The meaning of Jennifer Keith’s poem “Eating Walnuts” is to not give up when things do not go your way initially. She says, by interpretation, that everyone in life will fail and you cannot let the setbacks and failures stop the ultimate goal. Regarding eating walnuts “you do it wrong for many years,” because wisdom comes with age and only “the old man…knows the trick.” Not only does this relate to cracking a nut, but most importantly in life.  During the early stages of life, you will fail and you will find obstacles that are tough to get around, but these challenges will lead to positives if you keep trying. In life you will “sweep your lap and mutter,” meaning fail and get angry but all you have to do is “try again.” Eventually, with experience and situational knowledge, accomplishments will arise.  

This poem goes on to describe the strategy of using “right angles”  in order to successfully get to the middle of the walnut. This right angle method teaches the reader not always to believe what they see and “eventually learn to disbelieve the testimony of your eyes.” It may look like it should operate in one manner, but it almost is the total opposite. Disbelieving the testimony of the eyes is important in this poem because the messier it gets, the better the outcome because the best way “isn’t neat.” During this process, “the shattered pieces tell a story,” a lesson, a lesson that the best way may not be the easiest way.  Which is why this poem is relevant to high school students; in life, you actually have to put your best effort for the best results. Being lazy will only hurt you, and as a student, and high school individuals, the easiest way is always the most accessible, and this poem teaches the reader to stray away from that and put effort into everything-even eating a walnut.

Jamaal May is a writer and recorder of poetry, music, and short films. He is the author of HUM, one of The Boston Globe’s best poetry books of 2013 and has won and The Big Book of Exit Strategies. May is also a recipient of the Spirit of Detroit Award, the Wood Prize from Poetry, and fellowships from The Stadler Center, The Kenyon Review, and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation. He is also the founder of Organic Weapon Arts that he codirects with Tarfia Faizullah. His poem “There Are Birds Here” was also featured in The Best American Poetry 2015.

The poem has generally simple diction bringing more focus to what the words are trying to convey instead of complicated language. There are enjambments throughout the poem sometimes separating between stanza but the poem does not lose it’s flow. May even said, “My closing lines got worked and reworked until the music and sense synced with the enjambments.” The poem has a type of lyrical feel to it like it were music according to May and it is apparent by the flow and rhythm it has.

Jamaal May’s “There Are Birds Here” is a poem that promotes thinking simply. The poem is littered metaphors that the poet points out to the reader. His opening line is “There are birds here/so many birds here” and he is making it apparent that is what he meant. In this poem we believe he is trying to tell the reader to not to take everything so out of context. Sometimes people mean exactly what they mean but their words can be twisted to have an entirely different meaning. The fact that there were birds there is what he was “trying to say/when they said those birds were metaphors/for what is trapped/between buildings/and buildings. No.” His simple observation was turned into a whole other topic of discussion and over analysis. He is trying to show that sometimes this overthinking can lead to some outrageous comparisons that were not implied in the first place. We believe he is trying to convey this but there is also the fact that he is mentioning the comparisons in the first place. We think that May is also trying to show the complexity of thought and how sometimes thinking can get you to conclusions that were never implied hence the metaphors throughout the poem.

Thinking is very complex yet we all do it without much trouble at all and it is ever present how much we let our minds wander so we feel this poem is a reminder to think calmly instead of letting all the over analysis to get to you. We feel our generation is more prone to overthinking which causes many unnecessary thoughts which are negative a lot of the time, like in the poem. This overthinking can even lead to anxieties that occur sometimes in mundane tasks or topics.

   Donna Masini graduated from Hunter College and New York University as she focused on writing poetry and novels. She taught at Columbia University and New York University after graduating. Her first piece of writing, That Kind of Danger, received the Barnard Women Poets Prize. Her other pieces of writings won her  National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. Masini teaches poetry as a part of CUNY Hunter College’s MFA Program in Creative Writing. She appeared in The Best American Poetry 2015 with her poem “Anxieties.”  

Structurally, similar to our first poem, “Anxieties” is uniform from top to bottom with 12 two line stanzas. We believe Masini did this to emphasize every word and line because given the short poem, every word matters. We also believe the words were chosen meticulously and the only way to emphasize these words is to make the stanzas short regarding number of words and lines. Masini uses dissonance as many of the phrases and words are interrupted by stanzas. This adds to the voice of the poem giving it more of a casual and accessible read. We noticed enjambment as we saw that stanzas continued throughout stanzas so there would be a common topic. This makes the poem more fluid and gives it the chance to read quicker.

Donna Maisni’s “Anxieties” is about an orderly chaos. Anxieties are a common part of everyday life. For some people they are minor and only happen in moments of stress but for others it could be something they combat at any given moment. The poem talks about being “…ill at ease,/at sea,/almost in-/sane,” which is a reference to the orderly chaos that is an anxiety because it is always present. People still go on even if they have anxieties and it becomes a part of daily routine. Everyone has some type of worries and, for that, this poem is applicable to anyone. No matter how much someone tries to escape these anxieties there “is no exit” which means that “you exist.” We believe Masini is trying to convey that anxieties are just a part of being alive, that they remain with all us no matter what but we learn to accept them. This applies to anyone, a high schooler worried about college to an adult looking for work, we all experience it and that just means we exist just as Masini said.  

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