American Life in Poetry: Column 338


We all hope our children’s lives will be better than our own, and invest in that hope in a variety of ways. Here Michael Ryan of California compares what we can provide for them with what we can’t.

Girls’ Middle School Orchestra

They’re all dressed up in carmine
floor-length velvet gowns, their upswirled hair
festooned with matching ribbons:
their fresh hopes and our fond hopes for them
infuse this sort-of-music as if happiness could actually be
Their hearts unscarred under quartz lights
beam through the darkness in which we sit
to show us why we endured at home
the squeaking and squawking and botched notes
that now in concert are almost beautiful,
almost rendering this heartrending music
composed for an archduke who loved it so much
he spent his fortune for the musicians
who could bring it brilliantly to life.

We do not accept unsolicited submissions. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Michael Ryan, whose most recent book of poetry is New and Selected Poems, Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Reprinted from The American Poetry Review, Vol. 39, no. 5, Sept./Oct. 2010, by permission of Michael Ryan and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2019 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.