Archive for May, 2011

poem is on one of the center columns

La Vita Nuova


by Dante Alighieri


In that book which is

my memory . . .

On the first page

that is the chapter when

I first met you

appear the words . . .

Here begins a new life



Until I read this poem I never considered what moment in my life I might mark with the plaque Here Begins a New Life.  As it happens today is a good day to consider the question because today is my husband’s and my 24th anniversary.


I taped Dante’s little poem to a column on the campus of the Jesuit all-boys’ high school my husband attended and where we first met at his school’s low-budget and lumbering production of Damn Yankees. Thirty-one years ago I stepped through this portico into the gym it once housed, and there my life took the tiniest of turns that in retrospect mapped out the rest of my life.


I sat in the bleachers, waiting for play practice to start.  This was in the days before the old gym was turned into a state-of-the-art library, before the school had an 480-seat theater, back in the days when an English teacher with extra time directed the play, when students built sets from plywood and two by fours, and we all learned to project because no one had body mikes.


A boy I had recently become friends with, perhaps the first boy I was ever comfortable enough with to befriend, walked in the gym after spring break.  I hadn’t seen him in over a week, and when he appeared, tall and lanky, with flaming red hair, granny glasses and a face swollen from sun poisoning, I realized I had been waiting for him without knowing it.  I felt a rush of happiness, a happiness I still associate with the heady smell of sawdust and boys’ body odor.  We walked down the length of the gym, side by side, and something wonderful and quiet happened.  I felt I had come home.  Walking side by side with him felt like home.


And that was the beginning of everything.


Since I’m keen on symmetry, I’ll mention that as I write this, I’m waiting to see him after a week’s time and my own face is swollen and red from a bite or allergic reaction.

Beatrice says hello to Dante


The poem is from Dante’s La Vita Nuova, an autobiographical book of poems and prose about his love for the immortal Beatrice.  When he first saw her, he was nine and she was eight.  From that moment he never stopped loving her, even though both married other people. The day she first said hello to him, he was so overwhelmed he had to go home and pull himself together.  He fell asleep and had a dream that became the volume from which this poem is taken.  (Apologies are in order:  my knowledge of Dante is about as deep as this poem is long, and so the presentation is on the shallow side.   Plus it’s Memorial Day and I want to weed the garden before my husband arrives home.)


I will say that I like how the poem takes its time to get to the point. Dante leads his audience down and around a spiral of book, chapter, page, and finally a few words to get to the precious center:   Here begins a new life.


Happy Anniversary, dearest heart.



A Jesuit stops to read Dante's poem

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may 21

poem is taped to small post in front of truck


by Grace Paley

Some people set themselves tasks

other people say      do anything       only live

still others say

oh  oh     I will never forget you     event of my first life

I taped Paley’s poem to a post in front of a doomsday truck down on the national mall about a month ago.  Swarms of cheerful folks with matching black end-of-days t-shirts were handing out flyers on the cataclysm they expected on May 21.  Like everyone else, I avoided them as if their flyers were chocolate-coated doggie turds.

It’s a busy high school graduation weekend here in the Poem Elf household so I’m not going to spend much time teasing apart Grace Paley’s poem.   I’ll let the pictures do most of the work as I enjoy all over again the juxtaposition of poem and location:  Paley’s tiny breezy poem and the heavy-handed proclamation on the truck; Paley herself, Jewish and liberal, and those who would consign someone with her beliefs to the fires of hell.  On the other hand, both Paley and these rapturous conservative Christians could be described as activists and radicals.

What makes people drawn to these movements?  Maybe someone who doesn’t fit into any of the three categories Paley lists in her little poem.  Someone like Henry James’ character John Marcher in the short story “The Beast in the Jungle.”  Marcher believes so fervently that he’s destined for some great and spectacular fate that he spends his life waiting for it.  He misses out on the love that sits adoring before him in the person of his friend May.  His life, he realizes at the end of it, has been a waste.

Which translates neatly to the brethren waiting today for The Rapture.  Unless of course you’re unable to read this because your computer and yourself have been consumed in an earthquake.

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poem is inside magazine in hotel bathroom


Baby Listening

by Billy Collins

According to the guest information directory,

baby listening is a service offered by this seaside hotel.


Baby listening—not a baby who happens to be listening,

as I thought when I first checked in.


Leave the receiver off the hook

the directory advises,

and your infant can be monitored by the staff,


though the staff, the entry continues,

cannot be held responsible for the well-being

of the baby in question.


Fair enough, someone to listen to the baby.


But the phrase did suggest a baby who is listening,

lying there in the room next to mine

listening to my pen scratching against the page,


or a more advanced baby who has crawled

down the hallway of the hotel

and is pressing its tiny, curious ear against my door.


Lucky for some of us,

poetry is a place where both are true at once,

where meaning only one thing at a time spells malfunction.


Poetry want to have the baby who is listening at my door

as well as the baby who is being listened to,

quietly breathing by the nearby telephone.


And it also wants the baby

who is making sounds of distress

into the curved receiver lying in the crib


while the girl at reception has just stepped out

to have a smoke with her boyfriend

in the dark by the great sway and wash of the North Sea.



Recently I googled I hate poetry and poetry sucks. (Professional curiosity or laundry avoidance? I leave it to you.)  While not as many people seem to hate poetry as hate Barry Manilow (let’s hope the poor fellow stays clear of internet searches), there’s still a sizable population who loathe and detest la poésie, a French word for poetry that I include to further annoy poetry-haters Merely hating poetry is not enough for these folks.  They seem to feel it’s necessary to create t-shirts, bumper stickers, websites, comedy routines and yes, even poems, to announce their feelings.


Online I found three objections to poets and poetry:

  1. Poets take themselves too seriously 
  2. Poetry is hard to understand
  3. Poetry is depressing


Shirley Temple by moviemag47Into this discussion let me introduce poet Billy Collins.  Collins is the Shirley Temple of the poetry world, impish, charming, irresistible, a goodwill ambassador come from a misunderstood country, winning over friends and allies with every production.


“Baby Listening” can serve as a response to the three objections outlined above.  To the charge that poets are pretentious and poems impenetrable, I say look how reader-friendly Collins is.  His language is clear, his tone conversational.  Collins has said that poems should “begin in clarity and end in mystery.”  The fact that this poem begins with the poet’s own confusion over the term “baby listening” does not contradict his modus operandi.  From the beginning the reader knows exactly what’s going on:  Collins is reading the directory of a seaside hotel off the coast of England or Scotland.


Collins has also spoken of the need to “establish hospitality” at a poem’s beginning to invite the reader in.  Let me help you into this poem, his tone seems to say, like a friendly stranger saying to an old lady, Let me help you into this taxi.  Then he buckles his reader in and the taxi takes off for a crazy ride.


But even with a writer as considerate and dedicated to clarity as Collins, reading poetry requires effort. Poetry haters are right that poetry isn’t always easy to understand.  We’re used to language that only means one thing at a time, and poetry feeds on ambiguity:

poetry is a  place . . .

where meaning only one thing at a time spells malfunction.

In the worlds of law, science, math, and cooking, each word’s referent must be crystal clear and singular, else a lawsuit, explosion or failed exam may result.  Collins italicizes the legalistic wording of the hotel’s directory to highlight the difference between poetic and prosaic language.


Poetry’s magic, Collins says, is that all the babies in the poem can exist at once.  The  babies can be associations, connotations, images, meanings, or anything else that flashes in our brains when we read a line.


For example, notice how evocative the poem’s language becomes as we move from the clarity of the beginning to the mysteries of the end.  The baby cries into a “curved receiver.”  The curve suggests a mother, but the “mother” in this case is a girl earning an hourly wage who doesn’t take her responsibilities seriously.  She slips out, also unwatched by a mother (who probably would not approve of smoking and canoodling), to meet her boyfriend, and sex is in the air—

in the dark by the great sway and wash of the North Sea.

The image sets a scene—something out of Local Hero, a favorite movie of mine—but also works to insert danger under the surface of the poem.  The dark ocean is so much bigger and more powerful than the helpless baby and the unhelpful girl that their safety is uncertain.


So why the danger and the darkness?  The poem began with such lightness and comedy, with sweet babies crawling down hotel hallways and pressing little ears to the wall.  Why does the poet have to put one of the babies in mortal danger?  Why, the haters ask, does poetry insist on being depressing?


Collins provides a good answer in an interview he gave to The Cortland Review.  In response to a comment that in a post 9/11 world, people were trying to live life more fully, he said:

Poetry has been saying that for a few thousand years. Seize the day. Do it now. The sense behind that imperative is that we don’t have an unlimited number of days. Television says the same thing all the time—’Everything’s going to be OK.’ Contemporary novels are saying, ‘Things are not OK.’ What poetry is saying is ‘Life is beautiful but you’re going to die.’ So much of poetry asks us to look at life from the perspective that death enhances life.


Which explains why after reading this poem I really wanted to hold a baby again, to kiss its little ears and feet; and why I remembered so sharply what it was like to be a young girl kissing a boy on the beach at night.  It all passes so quickly and then it’s gone forever.


The Chicago hotel I left “Baby Listening” in did not offer baby listening, but they did offer wake-up calls, a service Collins performs in every poem.

Billy Collins is considered the most popular poet in America.  His readings have been called “the literary equivalent of Beatlemania” and he once commanded a six figure advance for book, almost unheard of for a poet.  He served 2 years as the poet laureate of the United States, and has taught and published in the most desirable of places.  You can hear him read a few poems here, and read a previous Collins’ poem-elfing here.

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by Rick Cannon

For a long time

with the heavy, dreamy struggle upward,

the natural cupping of the hands,

the lengthy earning of a stroke,

a man does not know fire.

It’s not until he sees how easily things melt

and slide away,

how his father went,

his mother fails,

the skin over his wife’s cheekbones

suddenly softens, is looser,

not until then does he walk on flaming grass

into the furnace of the trees

and wonder that he’s not consumed.

Finding a suitable location for this poem stumped me for a while.  If the poem were written for women, I’d have a much easier time of it.  There are, after all, many more public spaces devoted to women than to men—more clothing stores, more facilities devoted to our personal upkeep, more aisle space for our drugstore needs.  How to reach the male audience for whom “Water and Fire” is intended?  In the men’s department, a sports bar, a stack of Esquire magazines at the bookstore?  Most of those places draw young men, and most young men wouldn’t think this poem could ever apply to them.  To borrow the metaphors of the poem, young men are too busy swimming along in their dreamy waterworld to imagine the trial by fire ahead.

So my question was, where do men of late-middle age go when they’re not at work?  Or when they’re not at home, collapsing on couches and muting sorrow with a click of the remote?  A few appropriate spots came to mind: a  urologist’s office, a golf course, a barber shop or, if I had an accomplice, the men’s bathroom.

But in the end, I decided to leave this beautiful poem in a beautiful location, on a Tidal Basin cherry tree.  Conveniently this was also a good way to celebrate my first year of blogging.  One of my first posts last year was on these same cherry blossoms, just after they had bloomed.  (This year the trees were only a smidge past peak, still faintly pink, which I took as an auspicious sign for my second year of blogging.)

If I needed a third reason to tape a poem to a cherry tree (and the more reasons I can accumulate, the more taping poems to trees seems like a reasonable project), Rick Cannon is from Washington, D.C., and teaches at Gonzaga High School just a few miles from where I left his poem.

Onto the poem itself.  The Everyman of “Water and Fire” moves through the two titular environments.  In water he’s protected from fire and doesn’t even know fire exists.  All his energy is focused on moving forward.  And then Everyman’s perspective shifts.  Whatever his efforts have earned him counts for nothing once life starts taking away what could never be earned in the first place:  his parents, his wife’s beauty and all those things unmentioned but somehow present in the poem—health, carefree children, marital harmony, bodies and homes untouched by bad accidents.  Life will be grueling at some point, there’s no escaping it.  But to walk through fire and not be burned to ash is to be triumphant and sorrowful both at once.

I’m reminded of the brutal coming-of-age rituals I read about in Miss Parr’s Social Studies class, rituals in which boys become men by leaping from great heights with vines tied to their ankles.  But in this poem, it is the older man who must endure trials.  And what does he become?  A man burned and scarred but stronger than the young fellow in the water.

I’m fascinated by glimpses like this of the male experience—and I must admit men are stranger to me sometimes than birds and not at all as simple as my husband claims them to be.  But it’s as a woman that I was initially drawn to this poem.  Specifically, the lines

the skin over his wife’s cheekbones

suddenly softens, is looser.

Ouch.  Thank goodness Cannon doesn’t mention vaginal atrophy, graying pubic hair, thinning eyebrows, the occasional whisker and other disheartening signs of physical decline in the female body.

(Which reminds me of a line from Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water, a play set in the U.S. Embassy in the Soviet Union.  Suspected of espionage, the bumbling Walter Hollander responds to his wife’s bragging about being the former Miss Wisconsin of 1938 with this lovely zinger about her legs:  “One look at those varicose veins and they’ll think I’m smuggling road maps.”)

Interesting that the man in the poem doesn’t notice his own decay, only that of the people around him.  God love all these men who can look in the mirror with such blindness and bliss!  Most women I know (including myself) obsess over aging faces.  We cling to what’s left of our beauty like lovers at a train station.  But not most men.  Either they’ve bought into the idea that they get better looking with age, or seconds after noticing their paunch, they pat it and put it out of their minds.

Of course the arc of life described in the poem is universal, and just as easily applied to women; and there’s no reason, I can hear my husband say, to fashion the poem into a dart to throw at men.  But it’s my blog and what’s done is done.

Rick Cannon graduated from Georgetown University and Iowa Writers Workshop.  In addition to teaching at Gonzaga for over 30 years, he’s an adjunct professor at Trinity University and has published three chapbooks.  He and his wife, poet Lori Shpunt, have five children.  You can read more of his wonderful poems here.

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