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Archive for April, 2013

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I was stepping out the door into a thunderstorm with a shoebox of poems when my husband asked where I was going.

 

“An errand for my blog,” I said.

 

He looked at the weather and looked at the poems bundled in a protective garbage bag and said, “Sometimes I think you’re a little crazy.”

 

Usually I don’t mind being called a little crazy.  It puts me in the good company of all the kooks and eccentrics I admire and enjoy.  Years ago I heard Irish writer Edna O’Brien explain herself this way:  “I’m not what you would call the sanest woman in the universe.  In fact I might have a little extra insanity.”  She wasn’t joking in the least.

 

But this time, “a little crazy” sounded less like “charming and creative” and more like “pointless and irrelevant.”

 

IMG_2283Sometimes I wonder why I do what I do. Why do I go out in the rain to a coffee shop to set up a display of give-away poems that will be moved by the management to a back corner where hardly anyone sees it?  Why do I slink around public parks or libraries waiting for people to leave so I can tape a poem to a bike rack or bench and take a picture?  Why do I go back to check if the poem is still there?  Why am I writing this post when I could draw in hundreds more viewers with pictures of my dog?

 

Maybe National Poetry Month has brought on this crisis of confidence.  With the National Poetry Foundation, teachers and bloggers all cheering Yes, poetry matters! so insistently that everyone suspects it doesn’t, a person several rungs down the poetry ladder, a person who doesn’t write poetry but writes about poetry, and not even writing about poetry for an academic audience who might possibly care but for a general audience who doesn’t, that person might feel a little sorry for herself.

 

after the snow

after the snow

It’s been a rotten April in Michigan, wet, cold and today actually snowing on the just-blossoming forsythia.  The month began badly with a gratuitously cruel op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the irrelevance of contemporary poetry.  Essayist Joseph Epstein, perhaps trying to reprise the uproar he caused twenty-five years ago with his essay “Who Killed Poetry,” wrote a follow-up piece on April Fool’s Day called “The Poetic Justice of April 1.”  Epstein writes that although he loves poetry, old poetry that is, poetry that’s already in the canon, poetry that’s been blessed by Harold Bloom I suppose, he finds more recent poetry worthy only of his considered contempt.  He writes,  “the biggest fools of all may well be those who believe that contemporary poetry matters in the least except to those who, against a high barbed-wire wall of national indifference, continue solemnly to churn it out.” Judging from the meager number of comments the essay generated, folks were just as indifferent to his rant.

 

Epstein is a great writer and he’s funny and smart, but here he underestimates the general public.   The searches on my blog offer a counter argument to his assertion of national indifference to contemporary poetry. Nearly every day someone is looking for a wedding poem or a children-leaving-home poem or a poem by Billy Collins.  Sometimes the search terms include a phrase from a poem and often those poems are contemporary.  Not everyone is looking for Yeats and Keats.  As poet Jane Hirshfield says (and I’ve quoted this in a past post, so forgive me for repeating it),

 

I think that in good times or bad times for poetry as a whole, people will always have periods in their lives when they turn to poetry. Dealing with grief or falling in love, people will look for a poem or perhaps write one in the attempt to sort through and understand their most powerful experiences. Or, for the occasions of large transition — a marriage or a funeral — they will ask someone to read a poem that marks and holds the feeling. One of the jobs of poets is to keep making those holding words available, so that when other people need them they will be there.”

 

And here’s another thing, Joseph Epstein.  This month my daughter sent me two poems given to her by two different young men, both graduating college seniors.  Granted the poems don’t exactly disprove Epstein’s thesis—one poem is actually a lyric and the other is by Emily Dickinson—but the fact that two guys cared enough about a poem to share it suggests that our yearning for meaning will always keep poetry, old or new, relevant.

 

The first friend, an engineering student, forwarded Lizzie part of a song by Rage Against the Machine called “Snakecharmer.”  I’m treating it as a poem because that’s the form he sent it in.  If he intended it to be experienced as a song, he would have sent a youtube video.  Here it is:

 

Father’s expectations,

soul soaked in, spit and urine

And you gotta make it where?

To a sanctuary that’s a fragile American hell

An empty dream

A selfish, horrific vision

Passed on like the deadliest of viruses

Crushing you and your naive profession

Have no illusions boy

Vomit all ideals and serve

Sleep and wake and serve

And don’t just think just wake and serve

 

I don’t understand the comma after soul soaked in but I love the incredulity of the question that follows:  And you gotta make it where?  The idea that the American dream is a deadly virus passed from father to son is a powerful one. For a college kid who doesn’t want to spend life in a cubicle, this poem is a rallying cry.

 

Her other friend had talked to her about trying to decide whether or not to become a priest. Perhaps by way of an answer, he sent her this:

 

Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church

by Emily Dickinson

 

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –

I keep it, staying at Home –

With a Bobolink for a Chorister –

And an Orchard, for a Dome –

 

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –

I, just wear my Wings –

And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,

Our little Sexton – sings.

 

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –

And the sermon is never long,

So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –

I’m going, all along.

 

Here are two guys, neither one an English major or aspiring writer, finding solace and satisfaction in poetry. Both found poems that speak directly to their life decisions, their philosophies, and their dreams.  How do you get more relevant than that?

 

All of which is a timely reminder of why I keep writing this blog.  This is my fantasy:  waiting at the train station or rushing through the grocery store, someone chances upon a poem I’ve left behind, reads it, thinks about it, and steps back from the frantic surface of life long enough to discover the poem’s relevance, which was there all along, hidden among all the irrelevant things we call important.

 

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from Kenneth Patchen's book of picture-poems, The Walking Away World

from Kenneth Patchen’s book of picture-poems, The Walking Away World

 

This morning I was taking a break from news of the Boston Marathon manhunt and was thumbing through the strangest bathroom book I own (because the bathroom is an excellent place to get away from the radio), and I happened to open to this page.  It was as if poet Kenneth Patchen’s book was a tarot deck, and this is the card he flipped over for me, the card he flipped over for everyone whose heads and hearts are overwhelmed by the tragedies in Boston.

 

A few pages later was this:

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“Caring is the only daring oh you know it.”  How brave are the first responders at the marathon, the SWAT teams on the manhunt, the sub shop owner who opened today and fed Boston police officers for free, how much braver are all these people than the two men who dropped their backpacks and ran away.

 

One more picture to share.  I took a few lines from W.H. Davies’ poem “Come Let Us Find,” and paired it with an illustration by Victorian artist Arthur Rackham.

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An idea I’ll be going back to as details of the terrorists emerge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Matt the barista and the Poem Elf display

 

National Poem in Your Pocket Day is a good day to be a poem elf.  So many pockets to fill, so many poems to share.

Why is everything I do slightly askew?

Why is everything I do slightly askew?

 

Last year I set up my very first take-a-poem box at the post office.  I saved the box to use again, but when I pulled it out of the basement, I understood why a certain person who lives with me often complains I hoard junk.  The display was sad:  lopsided, stained with copper-colored splotches of unknown origin, and housing a few dead potato bugs. So I made a new one and placed it in my new favorite writing spot, Great Lakes Coffee.  Great Lakes Coffee is a Michigan chain that lives up to its name.  Everything about this place is indeed great—the teas, the service, the staff, the atmosphere, the décor, and from what I hear from other customers, the coffee.

 

I didn’t take pictures of all the poems I put in the box.  There were too many, including poems by James Tate, Robert Frost, Ruth Stone, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, W.S. Merwin, Yusef Komunyakaa, Eavan Boland, and my Scottish friend Angus Martin, among others. If you live in the area, stop by Great Lakes Coffee today and pick up a poem.  Or link here to find poems, suggestions, videos, and for those anxious souls who really need it, detailed instructions on how to put a Poem in Your Pocket.

12 by Eat It Detroit

 

Many thanks to the folks at GLC for displaying my box.

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poem is on twiggy branch

poem is on twiggy branch

 

This Morning

by Javier Galvez

 

This morning

The sun broke

my window

and came in laughing

 

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Along the same path:

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Poem is in center-right of photo. Poem Elf is in black.

 

Gift

by Czeslaw Milosz

 

A day so happy.

Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.

Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.

There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.

I knew no one worth my envying him.

Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.

To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.

In my body I felt no pain.

When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.

 

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I just returned from beautiful New Jersey (yes, beautiful: it’s much more a garden state than an armpit) visiting my sister Wizzie.  All weekend I was charmed watching her children play outside.  A slight chill kept me indoors, observing them through the glass, but spring sunshine made the front yard irresistible to them.  My four-year old niece Emily has a presence somewhere between a fairy and an imp, both creatures most comfortable in open air. I could have watched her play for days on end.  She’d ride her scooter back and forth on the driveway, singing, laughing, sometimes frowning.  Then she’d hop off to examine the dirt or to sit talking to herself.  At one point she knelt on the front stoop, hands folded, eyes closed, praying to the “Mother of God,” as she later admitted, for favors unknown.

 

Watching her made me think about how little time I spend outdoors and how disengaged I can be when I am.  Sometimes when I’m outside it’s as if I’m checking off a list: soak up Vitamin D, check; feel gratitude for cumulus clouds, check; raise heart rate hiking up hill, check; detox lungs with cold winter air, check; and so on.  It’s a far more detached experience of nature than I had as a little girl, playing with bugs and shouting in the wind.

 

That’s why I’m so drawn to  “This Morning” and “Gift.”  Both poems describe a communion with the natural world I miss.

 

ImageThe first poem, even though the setting is indoors, captures that childlike delight in the aliveness of everything out of doors.  One of my favorite chapters in the wonderful P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins series covers a similar theme.  Seven-month old twins John and Barbara Banks, the younger siblings of Jane and Michael, lie in their cribs talking to a starling, the wind, the sun, and of course, to Mary Poppins.  The conversation is not a back-and-forth of baby babble and bird warbling, but a fully grammatical and meaningful communication.

 

“How soft, how sweet you are! I love you,” said Barbara, holding out her hands to its shining warmth.

 

“Good girl,” said the sunlight approvingly, and moved up over her cheeks and into her hair with a light caressing movement.  “Do you like the feel of me?” it said, as though it loved being praised.

 

“Dee-licious!” said Barbara, with a happy sigh.

 

Later, the twins are devastated to hear that in just a few months, when they turn one, these conversations will end.  Barbara asks Mary Poppins if she won’t be able to hear the wind anymore once her teeth come in. Mary Poppins answers with what could be a battle cry for poets everywhere:

 

“You’ll hear all right,” said Mary Poppins, “but you won’t understand.’

 

The idea that some joyful knowledge was forgotten in growing up was an entrancing idea for a girl like me who didn’t want to give up fairy tales, who looked at adolescence as loss and adulthood as the end of fun.

 

The poet’s relationship with nature in the second poem, “Gift,” is less one of giddy happiness than equanimity.  The poet works in his garden by the sea with great contentment.  Maybe it’s my age, but I’m beginning to value contentment over happiness.   It’s is the more reliable sister, the one who stays after the party to help with the dishes when happiness has flown out the door for the next gig.

 

Milosz’s contentment has a Buddhist flavor.  He’s content because he’s detached from those things that cause suffering: in order, greed, envy, bitterness, and regret. With the lifting of the fog, his vision is clear.  He’s focused on the present, not on the past or the future. It’s a cliché these days to say every day’s a gift but it probably wasn’t in 1971 when Milosz wrote the poem, and somehow even today he makes that idea as fresh as the New Jersey spring I wish would come to Michigan.

 

I left the poems on a nature trail a block from my sister’s house.  After sticking the poems on tree branches, I sat down to tea and scones with three of my sisters and my mother while my brother-in-law prepared bacon and eggs in the kitchen. I knew how lucky I was.  Like Milosz, I had no desire to be anywhere else or be anybody else.  Our time together was brief and all the more valuable for that.  A day so happy.

 

I found “This Morning” in an old college anthology of my sister’s, but I can’t find out much about poet Javier Galvez. I can only tell you he was born in 1947 and is probably a Mexican poet and wrote a book called Encanto Chicano.  Anyone know anything more?

 

Czeslaw Milosz by Faber BooksI wrote about Czeslaw Milosz in an earlier post.  If you don’t mind, I’ll just copy the biographical sketch I wrote previously:

 

Although Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) was born in Lithuania, he considered himself a Polish writer, Polish being the language his family spoke for centuries.  He grew up under Csarist rule, and later lived under Nazi occupation, during which time he worked for the resistance, and finally survived Stalinist rule before becoming an American citizen.  Fellow Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney described Milosz as “among those members of humankind who have had the ambiguous privilege of knowing and standing more reality than the rest of us.”

Milosz is considered one of the great minds and poets of the 20th century.  Fluent in five languages, he translated the Old Testament, Shakespeare and Whitman into Polish, taught Slavic languages at Berkley, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. His face has been put on a Polish postage stamp.  He’s honored in a Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and has a poem inscribed on a memorial to shipyard workers killed by Communists in Gdansk.

 

Because the poem has Buddhist overtones to me, I was interested (as I always am) in the poet’s spiritual side.  He was Catholic, but did not want to be considered a Catholic poet.  For those interested in his Catholicism, you can read his discussion of belief here.  The essay is from 1982, long before the abuse scandals, so when he writes of the “remarkable successes of American Catholicism,” he’s not being sarcastic.

 

 

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Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s the first day of National Poetry Month, a celebration most people observe by deleting Poem-a-Day emails.

 

Today is also the most important secular holiday of the year: April Fool’s Day.

 

And I am Marie of Romania, as Dorothy Parker would say.

 

Actually I’m as serious as a person who hides poems in the grocery store can be.

 

Bright among all the other days of the year is this one day when we take ourselves less seriously, laugh at our own expense, shake up routine and defy expectations.  The fact that April Fool’s Day has been celebrated since ancient Roman times and today is celebrated all over the world should give the holiday a little respect.

 

I’m celebrating April Fool’s Day with light verse, another underappreciated cultural artifact.  Light verse is the adult version of nonsense rhyme, which is usually a child’s first introduction to poetry.  Gene Kelly couldn’t leap onto the lamppost if he hadn’t learned to walk first, and so the value of Mother Goose, riddle poems and jump rope rhymes.  I was lucky to have a mother well-versed in silliness, so I grew up with limericks about Paul who went to the Halloween ball, ditties at bedtime like good night sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite, and the gruesome and delightful Little Willie poems.

 

I left a few samples of light verse and nonsense rhymes around town.  (The Billy Collins’ poem is not light verse, but I thought it was funny so I included it.)

 

At the Costco gas station I left a poem called “Three Riddled Rhymes.”

poem is on pump above Wrong Way sign

poem is on pump above Wrong Way sign

 

I collect stamps/and coconuts is going to be my answer the next time someone asks me what I do.

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I taped a set of Little Willie poems outside an Irish bar.  My mother is Irish and she learned the poems from her Irish father.

poems are on post below Brady's sign

poems are on post below Brady’s sign

 

I’m just noticing that I duplicated the first poem.  Oh well, much worse things happen in these poems.  You can read more here and also the history of these great little poems.

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I went to the wake of the father of a friend and left “The Optimist” in the funeral home bathroom.  He was Irish too, so I figured he’d enjoy a little humor.

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poem is hidden in candy bowl below mirror

 

I’m not sure if this is meant to be a poem or would be a better New Yorker cartoon:

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A guest Poem Elf-er, my daughter Lizzie, left an epitaph poem on a city sidewalk.

poem is on planter

poem is on planter

 

I used to love these epitaph poems.  Remember Lesley Moore, no less, no more?

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I swim a few times a week at a high school just after the swim team finishes using the pool.  Entering the locker room full of teenage girls is like entering a birdcage.  Just the place for Billy Collins’ “Oh, My God!”

second top locker from the right. . . poem is peeking through the grate

second top locker from the right. . . poem is peeking through the grate

 

Having this line, outbursts of praise/spring unbidden from their glossy lips, in my head makes the girls high-pitched chatter less irritating.

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Enjoy the foolery today.  Any good jokes or tricks?

 

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