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Archive for June, 2012

poem is on lefthand base of statue

 

Peoples Drug

by Sean Enright

 

 

Now it’s the Oracle skyscraper

but it was Peoples Drugstore
back when I bought Raisinets,

lighter fluid and label-makers,

just a low building next to

the pioneer-woman statue,

silent stone town founder,

a child gathered in her skirt folds,

bonnet cinched tight,

her birdlike chin, her stovepipe throat.

 

Across the street, my father

thrusts out his glazed

blackthorn walking-stick,

rooting out hornets nesting

in the loosed mortar

of Pumphrey’s Funeral Home,

he’s slipped out of there, unorganized,

for one more smoke,

one more poke at the living.

 

The pioneer woman in the poem and photograph is the first of twelve identical statues placed along National Trail Roads from Maryland to California.  The Madonna of the Trail monuments honor the mothers who journeyed west, mothers who, as Harry Truman said, “were just as brave or braver than their men because, in many cases, they went with sad hearts and trembling bodies.”

 

This statue frightened me as a child.  Growing up in a D.C. suburb, I was accustomed to statues of men on horseback or seated king-like in traffic circles and parks.  Madonna statues were even more familiar—gentle, delicate-featured Mary’s wreathed in fresh flowers or surrounded by candles.  But this 10-foot big-boned gal was both a warrior and a mother, fierce with her rifle and urgent stride, almost unaware of the frightened child clutching her skirts.  Her sidewalk home seemed chosen at random, and her relevance to our community a mystery.

 

For the speaker in the poem, however, the Madonna of the Trail is a more comforting presence—at least compared to the wily specter across the street.

 

The poem is structured to mirror the landmarks it describes: two stanzas, two sides of the street.  The street in question is Wisconsin Avenue where it meets Old Georgetown Road, a busy intersection at the heart of tony Bethesda, Maryland.  But it wasn’t always so.   Bethesda used to be sleepier, with smaller buildings, less traffic, and decidedly less glitz.

 

In the poem, that sleepy past is crumbling or erased altogether.  Pioneer days are so long gone the representation of them seems incongruous.  The speaker’s teenage years and the lives of the folks in the funeral home rest in the same past.  People’s Drug, the Everyman of small town shopping, has been replaced by a pretentious skyscraper whose very name calls to the future.

 

The poem’s first stanza is devoted to the speaker’s youth and to the mother figure who shelters a child. The mother is solid and strong, but frozen in time, inactive.  Perhaps I’m projecting too much of my own experience of mothers I have known, but that stovepipe neck and her stony silence suggest repressed feeling and squashed outrage:  fire, smoke, and bilge to be swallowed or expelled so as not to un-cinch a bonnet or ruffle a feminine, birdlike demeanor.

 

The second stanza moves across the street to the speaker’s paternal side.  Here is a past that forces its way into the present, a past that hasn’t been erased, a past that unnerves rather than comforts.  The ghostly father smokes and pokes at hornets’ nests, no doubt activities he enjoyed while living.  I love the surprise of the adjective “unorganized.”  It softens and humanizes the menace evoked by all that thrusting and poking.

 

Physically and emotionally, the speaker seems to stand on the mother’s side of the street.  And yet in the very act of writing the poem, the speaker aligns himself with the father.  Rooting out nests, poking at the living, slipping out from where one is supposed to be contained:  what an apt and arresting metaphor for the work of writing.  Like the ghostly father, writers go where they aren’t supposed to, they stir things up, they poke at the living and the dead.  Without such poking, stories would be dull as greeting cards, sans conflict, sans insight, sans specificity.

 

Sean Enright is a Maryland novelist, poet, and playwright.  His novel Goof was the Baltimore Sun’s Editor’s Choice in 2001.  Link here for more of Enright’s poems and here for some of his videos to hear English spoken properly.  I’ve long forsaken my Maryland accent for a Michigan one, but it’s still music to my ears.

 

Disclaimer:  I read this poem a priori, at least I tried to, but I grew up down the street from the poet.  His family, the Enrights, were one of the many medium to large-sized Catholic clans from our parish, St. Jane deChantal.  I don’t remember Sean specifically, but I did know his sisters, all very funny people, and his mother, our music teacher and church organist who could deliver a side-mouth quip with the finesse of Groucho Marx.

 

Finally, a question:  Why would kids in the 70’s buy lighter fluid?  I get the label maker—useful and coveted in a time where people owned less and had to share more—but I’m stumped by the lighter fluid.

 

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WILL_RECITE_POETRY_DUBLIN by Richard Abrams, M.D.After my last post about the value of memorizing poetry, a reader requested a list of great poems to memorize for the summer.

 

 

 

 

My list is short:  the greatest poem to memorize for the summer is a poem you love.

Runcible by ART NAHPRO

a runcible spoon

 

Love is why children memorize Mother Goose rhymes.  Love is why poetry critic David Orr’s father wanted to hear Edward Lear’s “Owl and the Pussycat” over and over as he lay dying of cancer.  (That poem tops my list of poems to memorize, by the way.  It fairly trips off the tongue.  And as Orr’s father put it, “I really like the runcible spoon.”)

 

Most of us have memorized more poems than we imagine, if you include limericks and jump rope rhymes, and in my household, the Little Willie poems (children love these gruesome poems).  If you want to stick with nonsense and rhyme, try Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.”   It’s plain old fun to say out loud:

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

  The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

  The frumious Bandersnatch!”

(In a poetry-recitation contest I once held, a student recited all of “Jabberwocky” with a growly Scottish accent.  He won, hands down.)

The Golden Books Family Treasury Of Poetry $48 by jasperjade

 

The best resource for kids or adults memorizing poetry is The Golden Books Family Treasury of Poetry.  I grew up with that book, spent hours flipping through the 400 poems and looking at the illustrations.  You can still order it from Barnes and NobleTreasury, and indeed it is, has such gems as Ogden Nash’s “Introduction to Dogs” (still funny), classics for memorizing like Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” (Listen my children and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere), lots of Lear, some Dickinson, Whitman, Bishop, and plenty of silly poems children love.

 

On the web there’s an enormous list of poems to memorize at Poetry Out Loud.  Poetry Out Loud is a national recitation contest for high school students.

 

That should be all you need for the summer, but still, I’ll make you a list.

 

Poem Elf’s List of Poems for Memorizing

 

1.  For a first-time ever memorizing experience:  “New Every Morning” by Susan Coolidge.   This little poem is a cinch to memorize and exceedingly useful, like a breath mint or Kleenex, for times you need to start afresh.  I’ll reprint it rather than link it to encourage memorization:

Every day is a fresh beginning,

Listen my soul to the glad refrain.

And, spite of old sorrows

And older sinning,

Troubles forecasted

And possible pain,

Take heart with the new day and begin again.

(FYI, I wrote that from memory.  Just needed to check on the punctuation.)

 

2.  For summer:  Yeats’ “The Isle of Lake Innisfree.”   It’s fairly short, it’s broken up into stanzas, it rhymes and the sounds are so pleasurable they’re like caramels in your mouth.

 

3.  For fall:  “Spring and Fall to a Young Child” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Another poem that trips off the tongue.

 

4.  In preparation for Dec. 21, 2012 (the Mayan calendar end-of-the-world date): Yeats’ “Second Coming.”  Worth memorizing for its many unforgettable lines:  “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

 

5.  For when you’ve got a Burt Bacharach “I just don’t know what to do with myself” kind of moment:  Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Wild Swans.”  You’ll settle down when you can say to yourself, “Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,/House without air, I leave you and lock your door.”

 

6.  For a middle-aged crisis and for a quick feeling of accomplishment:  A.E. Housman’s “With Rue My Heart is Laden.”  Effortlessly memorized and timeless.

 

7.  For a challenge:  T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It’s long, but it’s musical.  (Since my last my last post, I’ve memorized the first part.)   Or Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.”  And Anthony Hecht’s parody of that poem, “Dover Bitch.”

 

8.  To impress:  any of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  Imagine being called on for a toast at a friend’s birthday party and being able to pull out these lines from Sonnet 104:

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,


For as you were when first your eye I ey’d,


Such seems your beauty still.

 

This list could be endless, but I’ll stop myself here.

 

Anyone have some favorites they’ve memorized?  How have they come in handy?

 

 

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IProud to be British by gracust’m an Anglophile.  I like repression, I suppose, depth under calm facades.  My favorite writers—Austen, Dickens, Penelope Fitzgerald, Jane Gardam, David Mitchell, Barbara Pym, Andrea Levy to name a few—have always been Brits, and now my favorite education secretary—if one can admit to such pedantic tastes—is English as well.

Michael Gove visits Wellsway School in Keynsham by educationgovuk

 

British education secretary Michael Gove has announced an overhaul of his country’s primary school education that includes the memorization of poems by children starting at age five.  (You can read the rest of his plan here.)  How marvelous, and how much more useful and important than learning techniques to pass standardized tests.  Salon writer Laura Miller writes an excellent essay calling on the U.S. to follow suit.

 

I’ve gone through periods of memorizing poems myself, regretfully none of them as a student, and after reading the benefits listed in Miller’s article and being inspired by Jeffrey of my last post, I’m going to start again.  I usually turn to Yeats for memorizing, but maybe I’ll try Keats for the summer.  Or maybe something long by Wordsworth.

 

 

In an interview many years back the brilliant literary critic Helen Vendler spoke about the importance of memorizing poetry.  And not just the kind of bland, crappy poetry about snowmen and falling leaves that shows up on classroom bulletin boards, but really good poetry.  Preach it, Helen, preach it:

 

2. Czesław Miłosz Festival by Krakow Festival OfficeCole (former National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Bruce Cole): You talked about memorizing poetry. People in the past memorized long patches of poetry, right? This is not happening anymore, is it?

Vendler: There are many things that aren’t happening that would make the study of poetry natural to children. First of all, poetry should be taught from the beginning with good poems, not bad poems, and it should be surrounded by a lot of related language arts—-memorizing and reciting and choral recitation and choral singing and all those things that feed into the appreciation of poetry.

Right now what teachers mostly do is have the children write poems. This is distressing to me, because they don’t write good poems.

Cole: They don’t have many examples, right?

Vendler: No. My colleague, Jorie Graham, insists that her writing class memorize every week. She has added an extra hour for memory and recitation, because, as she tells them, would-be poets can’t possibly write out what they haven’t taken in.

Cole: I wonder if the skills of memorization have slackened. Since that is not a part of most people’s mental furnishings, it’s just much harder.

Vendler: It all depends on cultural values. If you can make schoolchildren in China memorize four thousand characters, you can make schoolchildren memorize anything. Indeed, they memorize on their own all kinds of baseball statistics or popular songs. It’s not as though they don’t have memories and that the memories can’t be activated. It’s just a question of will, whether we want to include that as an important part of the curriculum.

Cole: Right. And value.

Vendler: I’ve been told that in Japan everybody, before leaving high school, memorizes the hundred great poems in the canon. So of course it can be done. Children’s minds are enormously active and retentive.

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If you think, as I sometimes do when a particularly arcane poem shows up in my inbox courtesy of the Academy of American Poets’ poem-a-day feature, that poetry is written by and for the same kind of people who prefer wasabi truffles to straightforward chocolate caramels; or if you think that classic poetry has as much relevance to your life as the owners’ manual to a steam-powered lawnmower, it’s time to meet Jeffrey, poetry declaimer extraordinaire.

 

IDSC_0005 by bethaleh first heard about Jeffrey from a newsletter put out by Detroit’s Capuchin Soup Kitchen.  In CSK’s lunch and dinner line, Jeffrey recites poetry from memory for the other guests.  I watched a video of his performance and I was enchanted.  So I tracked him down to speak with him over the phone.

 

Jeffrey’s poetry passion was born out of tragedy and boredom.  In 1988 he was hit by a moving car.  He was in a coma for ten days with a traumatic brain injury.  He recovered but in the years that followed he was homeless.  With little to do on the streets all day, Jeffrey went to the library.  He happened upon a book with Langston Hughes’ poem “Gods.”

 

Jeffrey never liked poetry when he was young.  He didn’t even like English class.  He left school after tenth grade.  But Hughes’ poem he liked.  He liked it so much, he wrote it down.  Then he read it over and over till he memorized it.  He recited the poem as he walked down the street or rode the bus.   “It was something to do,” he explained.

 

Here’s the poem that first inspired him:

Langston Hughes 6 by Ohio Center for the BookGods

by Langston Hughes

The ivory gods,

And the ebony gods,

And the gods of diamond and jade,

Sit silently on their temple shelves

While the people

Are afraid.

Yet the ivory gods,

And the ebony gods,

And the gods of diamond-jade,

Are only silly puppet gods

That the people themselves

Have made.

 

That was in 2000.  Since then Jeffrey is no longer homeless and has added to his poetry repertoire.  I asked him how he selects the poems he memorizes.  It turns out his criteria is the same criteria I use in selecting which poems to poem-elf, that is:

  1. How much sense does the poem make?
  2. Does it tell the truth?

The difference in our selection process is that length doesn’t matter to Jeffrey and I always choose the shortest poems I can find.

 

By way of demonstrating the kind of poem he’s drawn to, Jeffrey recited “Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall (1914-2000).  Here’s the first two verses:

 

“Mother dear, may I go downtown

Instead of out to play,

And march the streets of Birmingham

In a Freedom March today?”

 

“No, baby, no, you may not go,

For the dogs are fierce and wild,

And clubs and hoses, guns and jails

Aren’t good for a little child.”

 

His delivery, even over the phone, was powerful.  When he finished, the hairs on my arm stood on end.  You can read the poem in its entirety (and surprise ending) here.

 

Watch Jeffrey’s performance yourself on youtube.  Please do.  This man deserves an audience.  Wouldn’t it be great if the number of views on these videos jumped out of the teens into the hundreds?

 

Here’s Jeffrey reciting Edgar Allan Poe’s “El Dorado” and Maya Angelou’s “Preacher, Don’t Send Me.”  Link here to hear “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  And here for another Longfellow poem, “I Shot an Arrow into the Air.”

 

I confess that before I heard Jeffrey recite these poems, I didn’t like any of them.  The dramatic poems of Longfellow and Poe were too much trouble to plow through, and the non-prose writings of Maya Angelou sometimes bored me.  But Jeffrey has won me over. He brings the poems alive in a way I never would have experienced just by reading.  With his inflections and gestures he inhabits each poem and makes even the oldest verses sound contemporary and relevant.

 

Jeffrey has a gift to share.  Click and you’ll not only enjoy his gifts, you’ll give a gift back to him.

 

Kudos, Jeffrey!

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