Poetry

Myra Viola Wilds: “Thoughts”

[From the WVFC Poetry Archive. First Published December 20, 2020]

 

Thoughts

What kind of thoughts now, do you carry
In your travels day by day
Are they bright and lofty visions,
Or neglected, gone astray?
Matters not how great in fancy,
Or what deeds of skill you’ve wrought;
Man, though high may be his station,
Is no better than his thoughts.
Catch your thoughts and hold them tightly,
Let each one an honor be;
Purge them, scourge them, burnish brightly,
Then in love set each one free.

 

This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on January 18, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets. Listen to a staff member from the Academy of American Poets read “Thoughts” here.

 

Myra Viola Wilds was born in Kentucky. She authored the poetry collection Thoughts of Idle Hours (National Baptist Publishing Board 1915) in her own hand after losing her eyesight due to overwork as a dressmaker (source: poets.org). You can read her book in its entirety on the Internet Archive.

 

Poet’s Note

From the preface to the collection:

I send out my first little book, “Thoughts of Idle Hours,” trusting it may find kind, considerate friends. Should I live to finish the second edition, I hope it will be a great improvement over this my first. I was born at Mount Ollie, Ky., a little country place. I lost my eyesight from overwork and eye strain at my occupation, dressmaking, in the year 1911. For three years afterward, I went through a very severe illness. On March 10th, 1914, at 3 a. m. I awoke out of a sound sleep and wrote my first poem, “Sunshine.” In eleven months and seventeen days afterward, I had written the contents of this book. The question has often been asked, who writes your thoughts for you since you are blind? I will answer here. Every line and verse in this little volume has been composed and written with my own hand notwithstanding the loss of my eyesight.

A copy of each verse I retain in my own handwriting, after this, they are copied in a book by my husband. I beg your kind consideration of the plain, simple verses herein:

I do not seek Wealth, Fame or Place,
Among the great ones of my race,
But, I would pen in letters bold!
Some thoughts! perhaps to cheer the soul.

 

Commentary by Amanda Moore

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to attend a craft seminar called “Gimme the Loot!: How to Steal Like a Poet,” presented by John Murillo, whose tremendous new collection, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry, was released by Four Way Books this year. While I won’t give away any of his “heist” tips, Murillo’s general wisdom on the relationship between reading and writing poems is what led me to seek out today’s featured poem by Myra Viola Wilds. In encouraging poets to read widely and deeply for inspiration, Murillo advised us to “read against your tastes. If you read a lot of dead white male poets, you should start reading some living Black and brown female poets.” He even drew an axis to chart the poles of certain tastes and influences, considering not just the poet’s background but also the formal and lyrical elements of the work in contrast to the free verse and narrative elements. While this gem of a poem by Myra Viola Wilds isn’t against my tastes, it is a poem my current reading habits might have overlooked, and so I’m glad to have been challenged by Murillo to mix things up.

My schooling and teaching grounded me strongly in the work of so-called “canonical” poets, from the ancients through the early 20th century, but these days, I mostly read modern and contemporary work outside the classroom. The Rumpus Poetry Book Club and the Graywolf Galley Club give me an early crack at unreleased titles, and I fill my shelves and library requests with all the new voices I can. This is an exciting moment in poetry, driven in large part by BIPOC poets who have made poetry more relevant, exciting, and inclusive than it has been in decades. I’m also a religious consumer of the Poem-a-Day emails from the Academy of American Poets, a series that features work by contemporary voices each weekday. And while I thrill to discover a voice I haven’t heard before, I confess I sometimes skim or even skip the weekends when Poem-a-Day reprises older work. Murillo’s adage “you don’t know what you like, you like what you know” reminds me that by not sampling more widely from poets across time, I’m narrowing my vision and the scope of what I understand to be possible in a poem.

That thought sent me back to my Yeats and Longfellow, and my Millay and Stein, and then ultimately to the “public domain,” where I hoped to encounter poets who had escaped my notice. Consulting Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive, which have thousands of titles available to read online or in e-book formats, I was quickly overwhelmed with possibilities. The poetry landscape of the early 20th century, much of it released from copyright and widely available, is a wilderness with only a few of the tallest trees claiming the most sun. Cutting through to the undergrowth of overlooked, underappreciated work takes persistence and effort, and happily, there are more than a few guides who have gone before. After browsing the online offerings, I made a list of names to research and works to read, including Myra Viola Wilds. Not surprisingly, when I found some of her poems on the Academy of American Poets website, I saw that Poem-a-Day had featured this very poem back in January.

“Thoughts” strikes me as a perfect poem to consider around the end of one year or the beginning of another as we take stock of what has come to pass, and make plans and resolutions for the future. The year 2020 has been challenging on many fronts, and most of us have experienced fear, grief, anger, and a host of competing emotions as we have endured the COVID-19 pandemic, a divisive presidential election, and personal crises. Fittingly, Wilds opens her poem with a question that asks us to reflect on the kinds of thoughts we carry through our days, adding a weighty “now” in the opening line that cuts through our intentions and desires.

Wilds isn’t asking what thoughts we ought to have or want to have, but what we are thinking in this moment. Are they “bright and lofty visions,” or have they been “neglected, gone astray?” The airiness of a question about what one is thinking is solidified by that quietly assertive “now,” and the verb “carry” is a reminder of the persistence of what we choose to think about, and how. Because we haul the implications and associations of our thoughts around with us, it behooves us to be particular about what we allow into our minds. I find this a helpful reminder as I consider what from 2020 I want to carry in my mind as I turn the calendar page to a fresh new year.

As the poem continues, Wilds turns from her question to the aphoristic observation that “Man…is no better than his thoughts,” no matter his intellect, deeds, or position in life. This may be a familiar bit of wisdom, but it echoes her work in the first lines of the poem that urge us to look beyond the images of ourselves that we project to the world. The line encourages an internal reckoning, a realization of the actual instead of the ideal. Combined with the opening rhetorical questions, the statements of wisdom in the middle of the poem lend the speaker real authority—she can provoke us to think, and she can comfort us with knowledge.

Wilds capitalizes on this authority by moving into the imperative mode, instructing us to “catch” and “hold” our thoughts, to “purge,” “scour,” and “burnish” them. What I appreciate in these imperatives is that we are not being told to dramatically change or shift our thoughts to something the poet or someone else prescribes. Instead, we are left to sort them on our own—the bad ones to be purged, the others to be improved by cleaning to reveal what’s beneath the grime and tarnish. Once we’ve allowed the best versions of our thoughts to shine, the poem’s final assertion is that we “in love set each one free,” unburdening ourselves of the loads we have been carrying around.

The message of the poem is straightforward, though what it prescribes may be easier said than done, especially in this moment. Anyone who has been up late at night wrestling with a thorny thought knows that setting it free “in love” isn’t as easy as snapping fingers. The poem’s comforting sounds, however, point the way. Guided by the regularity and tempo of the meter, each line’s steady four beats include a pause at the end, a moment for contemplation before plunging ahead. The shifts in rhyme scheme from a two-rhyme ABCB pattern (in the first eight lines) to a more concentrated four-rhyme ABAB (in the final four) mark the shifts from questions and observations to the imperatives that close the poem.

The contemporary poems I favor are full of musicality, but they resist this sort of regular rhythm and rhyme, and they frequently present first-person voices and reject definitive statements of wisdom for a more provisional stance. This is where the magic of Murillo’s advice to read against one’s tastes come in—Wilds’ poem brings me joy and gives me much to consider about the thoughts I will carry, burnish, and set free as 2020 wanes and 2021 looms. In “looting” this short poem per Murillo’s instructions, I have learned how shifts between rhetorical modes and sound schemes can help a poem sing. Moreover, that I can find much to savor in a poem I might otherwise overlook underlines the need to keep my reading aperture wide.

I’ve learned that my voracious consumption of what is new and exciting in poetry is best supported by keeping an eye trained on the past for access to its gems and truths. This is a germane lesson outside of poems and poetry as well, as the past has much to teach us about endurance and survival, and how to weather periods of darkness. As we approach a new year full of potential—the inauguration of a new president, COVID vaccines, a possible return to a more recognizable way of life—I plan to keep Myra Viola Wilds’ poem close at hand as a reminder to carefully choose what thoughts and ideas I carry forward, insisting that “each one an honor be.”

 

Amanda Moore‘s debut collection of poems, Requeening, was selected for the National Poetry Series and will be published with HarperCollins/Ecco in October 2021. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies including ZYZZYVA, Cream City Review, and Best New Poets. She lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter. Author photo credit: Clementine Nelson.

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