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Archive for July, 2017

poem is leaning against bread case on top of counter

 

To Luck

by W.S. Merwin

In the cards and at the bend in the road
we never saw you
in the womb and in the crossfire
in the numbers
whatever you had your hand in
which was everything
we were told never to put
our faith in you
to bow to you humbly after all
because in the end there was nothing
else we could do
but not to believe in you

still we might coax you with pebbles
kept warm in the hand
or coins or the relics
of vanished animals
observances rituals
not binding upon you
who make no promises
we might do such things only
not to neglect you
and risk your disfavor
oh you who are never the same
who are secret as the day when it comes
you whom we explain
as often as we can
without understanding

 

 

Maryland is one of the best places to get a really good steak-and-cheese (that’s a sub sandwich, for those who haven’t had the pleasure), so when I was back in my old digs last week I decided to chow down at a local deli. Turns out the deli didn’t offer the best version of that delicacy, which should be greasy and mayonnaise-y and held together in a crusty roll, but I couldn’t be disappointed because it was good enough, and just eating it brought back a nice memory of passing a foot-long steak-and-cheese around the table with my sisters, each having a bite till hardly anything was left for my husband who bought the sub in the first place.

 

Just so, reading this ode to luck—-more of a hymn actually—brings to mind the luck that has shaped my life, the good luck which is so often just the absence of bad luck.

 

The poem feels ancient and dark, the second half in particular. It frightens me a little. Bad luck lurks around the poem’s edges, and I wonder if the person who found “To Luck” pocketed it as a talisman or tossed it over her shoulder like salt.

in his younger days–very handsome!

W.S. Merwin was born in New York City in 1927. His father was a Presbyterian minister. He graduated from Princeton, and after a year of graduate study in Romance languages, traveled through Europe working as a translator and tutor to children from wealthy families. In 1976 he moved to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism, eventually settling on an old pineapple plantation in Maui, where he still lives today with his third wife.

 

Merwin’s circle has included many luminaries of the poetry world—he was classmates with Galwell Kinell, pupil to John Berryman, and friend of James Wright, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.

 

 

He was an anti-war activist during the Vietnam War and donated the prize money from the Pulitzer he won to a draft resistance movement. He continues to work as an activist, these days focusing on saving the rainforests of Hawaii.

 

He’s won too many awards and honors to list. I’ll just mention he’s a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the 2010 Poet Laureate of the United States, and leave it at that.

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poem is resting atop an upright rug

A Jacquard Shawl
by Ted Kooser
A pattern of curly acanthus leaves,
and woven into one corner
in blue block letters half an inch tall:
MADE FROM WOOL FROM SHEEP
KILLED BY DOGS. 1778.
As it is with jacquards,
the design reverses to gray on blue
when you turn it over,
and the words run backward
into the past. The rest of the story
lies somewhere between one side
and the other, woven into
the plane where the colors reverse:
the circling dogs, the terrified sheep,
the meadow stippled with blood,
and the weaver by lamplight
feeding what wool she was able to save
into the faintly bleating, barking loom.
These rugs aren’t shawls and they sure aren’t jacquard, but they are blue and they are woven (though surely not by hand), so here landed Ted Kooser’s poem.
When I read this poem I find myself rubbing my fingers together as if a shawl were between them, as if by feeling the shawl I connect myself with a history, as if by connecting myself with a history I connect myself to other living beings, the sheep, the dogs, the weaver. I love this poem, I’ve loved it for a long time, and I hope the rug shopper who finds it loves it too.
Ted Kooser is a favorite here at Poem Elf. Here’s a short bio from a previous post:

Kooser is something of an ambassador for getting poetry in the hands of “regular” readers.  He writes a free column for newspapers (American Life in Poetry), and started a publishing company, Wildflower Press (no longer operating) to circulate contemporary poets.  He strikes me as a lovely man whose ambition is not to enrich his life with literary success but for literature to enrich other people:  “I write for other people,” Kooser says, “with the hope that I can help them to see the wonderful things within their everyday experiences. In short, I want to show people how interesting the ordinary world can be if you pay attention.”

 

 

Ted Kooser comes from and lives in the ordinary, un-rarified world of the Great Plains.  He was born in 1939 in Iowa and has lived most of his life in Nebraska.  He began his career as a high school teacher but worked most of his career as a vice president at a life insurance company.  Here’s a wonderful fact about Kooser:  he flunked out of a graduate writing program (I’m not sure how you do that) which didn’t prevent him from becoming the Poet Laureate from 2004-06.  His work is deemed “accessible,” and therefore has received less critical attention than it deserves.

 

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