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A two-poem salute to fathers on this Father’s Day 2019. With poems as wonderful as these, that’s as good as twenty-one guns.

 

This excerpt from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” belongs in the wild, in air cleaned fresh by summer rain. But with no countryside excursion possible, I taped the poem to the edge of a fountain called “Orpheus” on the campus of a private school, Cranbrook.

 

The father in the poem is nearly as mythic a figure as Orpheus, the god of music. Tall, tan, handsome, wise, father of sons and grandfather of sons (and only incidentally, in Whitman’s view, father of daughters), vigorous, kind, a non-drinker—here is an iconic American man, his virility expressed as much in his calm presence as in his progeny.

 

As more of a fault-finder than halo-maker, I have never met such a man, but I sure would like to—

You would wish long and long to be with him, you would wish to sit by him in the boat that you and he might touch each other.

 

[A word about the statues in the fountain:  the figures depict ordinary people (except for one representing Beethoven) listening to music. All were originally from Sweden and part of a set that included a 38-foot Orpheus playing music in the center. The founder of Cranbrook School, newspaperman George Booth, didn’t include the center god figure because he wanted the fountain to be “democratic, equal, and American.” Very Whitman-esque!]

You can read the complete poem here. See section 3.

 

 

 

The second poem features a grandfather too, but this granddad is the proud forefather of a female. I set Miller Williams’ “A Poem for Emily” outside a barbershop. (Link here for a version easier to read than my photograph.)

poem is under barbershop pole, in front of magazine

 

The creepiness of the picture below was not intentional. I was aware it might seem creepy to photograph strangers getting their hair cut, so I left the poem where I would not be noticed which happened to be under the gaze of this creepy fellow:

 

Because there is nothing creepy and everything beautiful about a grandfather seeing his baby granddaughter for the first time. He thinks forward to the years ahead, imagines her growing up and growing apart from him. He leaves her two gifts, this poem and his love which, in the great tradition of poems and in the sacred nature of love, live on forever.

I wrote this down, a thing that might be kept

awhile, to tell you what I would have said

. . . which is I stood and loved you while you slept.

 

Oh my heart! Is there anything more comforting than that? To be looked upon and loved while you sleep? I think of my husband standing in the children’s doorways . . . I think of my father checking on us in our beds nearly every night . . . I think of how many fathers have done, do now, and will do. . . bless them all!

 

Bless especially those fathers who have lost children. They are on my mind today.

 

Happy Fathers Day all!

 

 

 

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poem is on bus shelter window

poem is on bus shelter window between my daughter’s hand and raised foot

 

 

For My Daughter

by Grace Paley

I wanted to bring her a chalice
or maybe a cup of love
or cool water      I wanted to sit
beside her as she rested
after the long day     I wanted to adjure
commend   admonish      saying don’t
do that   of course     wonderful   try
I wanted to help her grow old      I wanted
to say last words the words     famous
for final enlightenment      I wanted
to say them now     in case I am in
calm sleep when the last sleep strikes
or aged into disorder      I wanted to
bring her a cup of cool water

I wanted to explain     tiredness is
expected     it is even appropriate
at the end of the day

 

 

IMG_3443

 

What changes a year brings. Last year when I dropped my youngest off for her freshman year of college, I unpacked the car all the while packing in as much advice as I could. Eat healthy. Join clubs. Keep your room clean. Blah Blah blah. This year on drop-off day I almost forgot to tell her anything at all until I heard her roommate’s father tell his daughter to study hard. Oh yeah, that.

 

When I finally got around to it, my advice was much less inspiring:

Don’t sped all your money on coffees.

Get a job.

Don’t be the drunkest girl at the party.

 

What can I say, she’s got good sense, this one. Or maybe I’ve learned something.

 

Maybe I’ve learned that even if I could open up my children’s heads and pour in my life experience and wisdom like cake batter, they’d still have to figure things out themselves. They have to learn–or not learn–from their own mistakes.

 

I say maybe I’ve learned because the urge to throw advice at my kids and hope it sticks never goes away, and sometimes (often times, if I’m truthful) so overwhelming I give in.

 

This is why I love Grace Paley’s “For My Daughter.” The speaker wants to tell her daughter so many things. She wants to tell these things right now, before she dies or loses her mind. She wants to correct, praise, encourage. Control.

 

But she keeps her mouth shut.

 

The un-acted upon urge animates the poem. “But I didn’t” is the unspoken coda. The poem reminds me that however much we want to shelter our kids from hardship and steer them towards happiness, in the end we can’t.

 

Paley is master of white space and here she uses it as punctuation and almost as stage directions. (You have to look at the photograph to get an idea of the spacing. It’s hard to recreate blank spaces on WordPress.) The break before the final two lines suggest that the speaker has to slow down, sit down, catch her breath after spilling out all her urgent worries. Her mothering has exhausted her. She too is tired.

 

Paley is better known for her short stories than her poems, but I’ve always loved her poems best. They’re short stories in themselves, little snippets of real life, spoken by a person who jumps off the page with her humanity. How Paley manages to use so many Latinate words–admonish, commend, appropriate, adjure –and still make the poem sound like words caught on tape and transcribed directly amazes me. Those Latinate words play off her plain-speaking voice and echo the push-pull of the urge to say and the wisdom of not saying.

 

IMG_3436I left the poem in a bus shelter close to my daughter’s dorm. Under a nearby tree (another sheltering structure) I left an illustration by the late great Maurice Sendak of a mother transforming herself to protect her little one from the rain.

 

 

 

 

IMG_3435

 

If my last-minute words of wisdom went in one of my daughter’s ears and out the other, I hope these two postings will linger. What they both say, what I want to say to her, is this:

–I’ve got your back, always–

Or to use a few of Paley’s words,

–A cup of love/or cool water, here for you when you most need it–

 

Image 2Grace Paley was born in the Bronx in 1922 to Ukrainian Jewish parents who had been exiled by the Czar for their socialist politics. The family spoke Russian, Yiddish and English at home. She was the youngest of three, but so much younger that she was practically an only child.

 

She went to Hunter College for a year college and studied briefly with W.H. Auden at New School. At 19 she married filmmaker Jess Paley. They had two children, Nora and Danny, and later divorced.

 

She started her career as a poet, writing in the style of Auden, but in her thirties she began writing short stories about working class New Yorkers, particularly about women and mothers. She published several collections of stories, poems and essays.

 

Image 1She was a lifelong political activist, protesting the Vietnam War, nuclear proliferation, apartheid, the war in Iraq, and advocating for women’s issues. She taught at Sarah Lawrence, Columbia University and City College. She was the founder of the Greenwich Village Peace Center.

 

Her second husband, Robert Nichols, was a landscape architect and writer. The couple eventually moved to Vermont where she died in 2007 at age 84 of breast cancer.

 

You can read an interview she gave at the very end of her life here.

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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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waiting in line by shinigamitonioRarely does my neighborhood offer peculiar sights.   There’s a walker who charges down the street with ski poles in the middle of summer and a very tall cross-dresser I haven’t seen in years.  During swim team season toilet paper hangs gracefully from trees, and in the spring girls in prom dresses duck into limousines.  That’s about all that’s worth rubber-necking except for a family of deer and the occasional dog in the middle of the road who’s jumped the electric fence.

FDR Memorial by brooksba

 

But this morning I drove past a scene that caused me to double-take.  Children waiting for the schoolbus stood in a single file line.  No parent was near.  Silent, unsmiling, hunchbacked with heavy backpacks, the kids stared straight ahead or down at the ground.  The tableau was so strange and depressing that I was instantly reminded of the statue at the FDR memorial in Washington, D.C. of grim-faced men waiting in a bread line.

 

No doubt the children’s well-intentioned mothers instituted the single-file line to prevent them from knocking each other into the street and getting hit by a car.  But this sleepy suburban corner is hardly a high-speed highway.

waiting in line by Walls Wear Art

 

I resisted the impulse to jump out of the car and stir up movement as I would a flock of pigeons on a sidewalk.  I wanted to yell, Hey kids, use your last few minutes of freedom and get your ya-ya’s out!  Here they were, about to go off to school where they would stand in line to go to the bathroom, to the lunchroom, to music class, to recess, and from where they will graduate to go to more school and wait in more lines until they are out in the world with the rest of us, waiting in lines at the bank, the post office, at Starbucks and amusement parks, waiting their turn to vote, to renew a driver’s license, to order fast food, to turn left, to buy the newest Apple product.

 

I’m not against lines or orderly conduct.  But as we tell our children, there’s a time and a place for everything.

 

The rest of the story is that when I came home I found out that Maurice Sendak died.

 

I may be stretching the connection here, but if there ever was one not to stand in line, it was Sendak.  If ever books encouraged nonconformity, they were his.  Reading the many tributes to Sendak, I learned that his art was inspired and haunted by relatives killed in the Holocaust.  Relatives who no doubt stood in lines to be exterminated like cattle.

Maurice Sendak by Panorama Mercantil

 

I’m fond of Sendak—you can link here to Stephen Colbert’s funny interview with Sendak to get an idea of what a cranky genius he was—and his death makes me wistful for many a bedtime when I read his books to my children and many a trip to the library when I was a girl myself and attracted to his illustrations of sturdy, confident and often indignant children.

 

I felt not an ounce of nostalgia when the other popular figure of children’s literature, Jan Berenstain, died this past February.  I hated her books refused to read them to my children.  The illustrations were overly cartoonish, the message-driven plot unbearable.  Show me a child who cleaned her room, told the truth, ate less junk food, or watched less TV because she read a Berenstain Bear book, and I’ll show you a specter of your own wishful thinking.

 

By contrast, Sendak’s books were unpredictable and wildly imaginative.  The plot and illustrations could go off in any direction, often in dark directions.  You don’t have to have read Bruno Bettelheim to know that children naturally experience dark thoughts and emotions, and fairy tales and literature like Sendak’s offer safe avenues for dealing with such.  As a firm believer in the uses of enchantment, I’ve always avoided picture books that read like Hallmark cards.  Love You Forever and that incredibly boring book with elongated rabbits about how much the mother rabbit loves her baby rabbit always seemed too trite and desperately earnest to force upon children.  Put the bunny book up against Margaret Wise Brown’s brilliant Runaway Bunny and you see how insipid and unimaginative the imitation is.  Better to just tell Junior in your own words that you love him and always will.  And then read him good books like Sendak’s and Brown’s.

RIP Maurice Sendak by themookscomic

 

And for pete’s sake don’t force him to stand in line when he doesn’t have to.  Let him and his schoolmates examine the grass, sit on the curb, chase each other, chatter, grunt, shout, cackle, draw their names in the cement with rocks, blow dandelion seeds into the air, kick acorns.  No one will get killed doing that. Or even remotely ruined.  Let the wild rumpus begin, folks.  It ends all too soon.

 

But how sad if the rumpus never begins all.

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Now We Are Six by Bloomsbury AuctionsMy mother used to have us children memorize poems in the summers.  I don’t remember if we got a reward or not (learning to dive merited a candy bar, so I suspect the same for poem-memorization), but we didn’t resist.

The easiest poems to memorize were A.A. Milne’s from the wonderful When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six.  Funny and sing-songy, his poems practically demanded memorization, like this, from “Disobedience”:

 

 

 

James James

Morrison Morrison

Weatherby George Dupree

Took great

Care of his Mother

Though he was only three.

James James

Said to his Mother,

“Mother,” he said, said he;

“You must never go down to the end of the town, if

you don’t go down with me.”

 

 

Child's Garden of Verses (Russel) cover by katinthecupboardFustier and less fun were Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems from Child’s Garden of Verses, but for some reason I still remember the first two lines of one of the poems.  And I never even understood it.  Maybe I just liked the imperative.

 

Fairy Bread

COME up here, O dusty feet!

Here is fairy bread to eat.

Here in my retiring room,

Children, you may dine

On the golden smell of broom

And the shade of pine;

And when you have eaten well,

Fairy stories hear and tell.

 

This is all by way of introducing the most adorable youtube video I have ever seen.  Here is a little boy—a three-year old little boy!—-reciting Billy Collin’s “Litany.”  What marvelous parents, to feed their son’s delight in the sounds and flow of language.

 

If you want to follow along the lengthy poem he’s memorized, click on the “add to” button.

 

Go ahead and listen—it could be the happiest 2 minutes of your day.  Here’s the link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uVu4Me_n91Y

 

 

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