This thought of doing something over, again, better — we all surrender to it. It is a bittersweet human condition. On the one hand, it shields us from disappointment in the circumstance and, possibly, ourselves, while, on the other, it allows us to avoid accepting that a moment passed will never truly repeat itself ever again (as last week’s poem selection showed).
A bit about the poet, Joyce Sutphen. Following the famous Robert Bly, she was named the Minnesota Poet Laureate in 2011. A lot of her poems have been about her childhood growing up on a farm in Minnesota. She also teaches at the University of Minnesota. This particular poem is from her volume called ‘After Words‘.
The litany of things this poem’s narrator wishes to get right the next time does not signify any great ambition. The narrator is not suggesting she is going to save lives or do something similarly heroic. These are simple, everyday, even universal, things. Passing fancies, too, in some cases.
She starts with the desire for the seemingly mundane knowledge of the names of birds and flowers and the name of the musician who’s playing the piano on the radio. Little things that don’t really trouble us except when, in the odd moment of whimsy, we might muse how nice it would be to know these things.
From there, the narrator goes on to say how, the next time, when she does know all of the above things, she’ll actually be somewhere more exciting than in her kitchen. Perhaps a large city like New York or London. Meeting friendly people in coffee shops. It’s the perennial thought we all have from time to time about being in places that are just that little bit more exciting than wherever we are right now. Again, our narrator is not ambitious at all in wanting to be somewhere more exotic than an ordinary old coffee shop.
But, from the third verse on, the poem takes a higher leap. Now, having warmed up, our narrator goes on to describe other, more intimate hopes. So there’s the hope that, next time, she won’t let anger consume her for too long and won’t stick stubbornly to her need to be right in an argument or discussion. In fact, she hopes that next time, she will happily concede to being wrong in every instance and be more open and giving. So much so that, next time, she will remember to tell the favorite people in her life that she loves them and not hold back from showing her affection through kisses or beautiful poems written just for them.
And finally, the most tricky one of all of these everyday regrets: staying in touch with friends, writing them long letters, and promising to meet up with them finally.
It’s a simple poem and a hopeful one. But, even as we read it, realizing that it echoes several of our own desires for our futures, we know that, sadly, this narrator will continue in this loop of “next time”, just as we do daily. And we know that, just as it is not possible to get everything exactly as we’d like with everything we do, it is also not possible to relive and put those things to right in the future. But these hopes keep us going. They drive us on to the next day as we say to ourselves, “Next time, I will do X or Y.” Simply being able to re-imagine the imperfect past makes it seem less imperfect and gives us some solace, complacent as that may sound. And yet, it is a necessary comfort. During the darkest times, it is often this kind of comfort that helps us get through — these earnest promises we make to ourselves of making our own dreams come true.
I’ll know the names of all of the birds
and flowers, and not only that, I’ll
tell you the name of the piano player
I’m hearing right now on the kitchen
radio, but I won’t be in the kitchen,
I’ll be walking a street in
New York or London, about
to enter a coffee shop where people
are reading or working on their
laptops. They’ll look up and smile.
Next time I won’t waste my heart
on anger; I won’t care about
being right. I’ll be willing to be
wrong about everything and to
concentrate on giving myself away.
Next time, I’ll rush up to people I love,
look into their eyes, and kiss them, quick.
I’ll give everyone a poem I didn’t write,
one specially chosen for that person.
They’ll hold it up and see a new
world. We’ll sing the morning in,
and I will keep in touch with friends,
writing long letters when I wake from
a dream where they appear on the
Orient Express. “Meet me in Istanbul,”
I’ll say, and they will.
~ Joyce Sutphen, from the poetry collection, ‘After Words‘.