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poem is on iron gate below the handicapped entrance sign

poem is on iron gate below the handicapped entrance sign

 

Expect Nothing

by Alice Walker

 

Expect nothing. Live frugally

On surprise.

become a stranger

To need of pity

Or, if compassion be freely

Given out

Take only enough

Stop short of urge to plead

Then purge away the need.

 

Wish for nothing larger

Than your own small heart

Or greater than a star;

Tame wild disappointment

With caress unmoved and cold

Make of it a parka

For your soul.

 

Discover the reason why

So tiny human midget

Exists at all

So scared unwise

But expect nothing. Live frugally

On surprise.

 

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bon voyage!

bon voyage!

 

I was planning to write this post about graduation speeches, and I’m still planning to get to that, but right now I’m thinking about my daughter Lizzie, whose graduation was the occasion for this poem-elfing, and whose present whereabouts have me thinking about the poem entirely differently.  Lizzie is in Cameroon, Africa for a month.  I hear from her every couple of days, a few texted phrases about the heat, the rains, the mud, the lush green hills, the beauty of the children she meets, the likelihood of getting diarrhea. She’s tagging along with a crew that includes a dentist and an ophthalmologist, visiting villages to distribute the luxuries of toothbrushes, reading glasses and dental exams.  Later, in a Cameroonian version of Call the Midwife, that wonderful BBC television series, Lizzie will be shadowing midwives who are also nuns, and living in a convent with them.  Like the nuns in the BBC show, these nuns attend to the poor, to mothers who could not imagine creating a birth plan or getting to make the choice between a water delivery in a plastic baby pool and an epidural in a hospital bed.

 

If I had originally intended “Expect Nothing” to be a counterpoint to the world-is-your-oyster stuff of graduation speeches (you can see where I’m going with this), now I see how the poem operates on the assumption that oysters are readily available for consumption.  Two weeks ago Lizzie filed into a graduation arena among peers for who take only enough is one of many lifestyle choices, and now she’s living among people who truly expect nothing.

 

So this poem becomes a luxury too. Because being able to make choices about how to live is a luxury of first world countries.

 

Speaking of choices, and getting back to graduation, a short film about David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College was going viral on blogs and Facebook until it was recently removed by the David Foster Wallace Trust.  Too bad because it was a well-done excerpt from a great speech about the work of choosing.  Post-college life, Wallace says, is full of “boredom, routine, and petty frustration.”  The measure of education is how we choose to look at those tedious moments, how we can transcend frustration if we become more aware and less automatic in our responses, perhaps turning our eye to our “mystical oneness” with people who annoy us. It’s an inspiring speech for graduates (read the full text here, please, it’s great), but it’s heartbreaking too.  As I read along, I kept wishing his own words had inspired him in his darkest hour. The popularity of the speech three years after his death brings me to another poem, his ex-lover Mary Karr’s “Suicide’s Note: An Annual” which has these lines:

 

I just wanted to say ha-ha, despite

           your best efforts you are every second

alive in a hard-gnawing way for all who breathed you deeply in

20130504_UMCommencement_JX056

The speaker at my daughter’s graduation, Twitter CEO and former comedian Dick Costolo, gave a more conventional speech, and that’s not a criticism. Most graduation speeches satisfy audiences in the same way Thanksgiving dinners do:  by giving a good-enough version of what’s expected.  We expect to hear, and if the speaker is charming and brief, we’re delighted to hear, a few nuggets of our collective cultural wisdom:  follow your dreams, make your own path, give back, be grateful, the future is yours, live in the present, say yes, make mistakes, do work you love, do good work, thank your parents, eat whole foods.

 

Costolo was better than good enough, he was excellent, really funny with a compelling personal narrative and a solid message about making courageous choices and staying in the moment.

 

I put Alice Walkers’ “Expect Nothing” on the entrance to the stadium where graduation was held.  Like any good graduation speech (not that Walker intended the poem to be one) the poem opens with an attention grabber.  Expect nothing. If you skim the poem and separate the directives from the modifying phrases, it becomes a depressing if realistic guide for graduates burdened by debt and shrinking job prospects.  Expect nothing, live frugally, take only enough, stop short.  You can almost hear a mother of a certain generation or a certain personality type saying similar things to her children—be tough, don’t get your hopes up—all the while hoping silently in her heart that her children have the best of everything.

 

Which is the hope offered in the poem.  Through a series of wonderful aphorisms (my favorite:  Wish for nothing/larger than your own small heart), Walker suggests that anyone asking the big question—why are we here?—can have a big, big life, as big as a star.

Alice Walker

Poet Alice Walker was born in 1944 in Georgia, the youngest of eight children.  Her father was a sharecropper, her mother a maid.  When she was eight, her brother accidentally shot her in the eye with a BB gun.  Because the family didn’t own a car, it was a week before she got to the doctor, and she became blind in one eye.  She went to Spelman College on a full scholarship, then transferred to Sarah Lawrence.  She met Martin Luther King, Jr. as a student and was inspired to join the civil rights movement.  She and her ex-husband, civil rights lawyer Melvyn Rosenthal, became the first legally married inter-racial couple in Mississippi.  The harassment they faced makes it easy to understand why she advises, Stop short of the urge to plead.

 

Her 1982 bestseller The Color Purple was made into a movie and a musical.  She’s written seven novels, several collections of short stories, essays, children’s books, and poetry.  She’s won the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and a Guggenheim fellowship.  She continues her work as a political activist.

 

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First poem is on second shelf next to blue and white box; second is on third shelf towards the back, sticking out next to smaller green boxes

First poem is on second shelf next to blue and white box; second is on third shelf towards the back, sticking out next to smaller green boxes

 

So We’ll Go No More a Roving

By Lord Byron (George Gordon)

 

So, we’ll go no more a roving

So late into the night,

Though the heart be still as loving,

And the moon be still as bright.

 

For the sword outwears its sheath,

And the soul wears out the breast,

And the heart must pause to breathe,

And love itself have rest.

 

Though the night was made for loving,

And the day returns too soon,

Yet we’ll go no more a roving

By the light of the moon.

 

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With Rue My Heart is Laden

By A.E. Housman

 

WITH rue my heart is laden

For golden friends I had,

For many a rose-lipt maiden

And many a lightfoot lad.

 

By brooks too broad for leaping

The lightfoot boys are laid;

The rose-lipt girls are sleeping

In fields where roses fade.

 

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A few days after the Boston bombing, the line With rue my heart is laden climbed out of my mental attic and presented itself in the living room.  The phrase needed no introduction—I had memorized it years earlier—but I did question its judgment in showing up at that moment.  With rue my heart is laden is much too sentimental and wistful to address the maiming and killing of innocent people.  Then it occurred to me that the reason I associated this poem with the bombing was not the opening line but the image of lightfoot lads leaping across a brook.  Or rather, not leaping over the brook.

 

It was the loss of limbs, you see, that brought the poem to mind.

 

As soon as I made that connection, another line presented itself:  So no more we’ll go a roving. I should explain that for a long time (maybe even right up to the minute I copied the poem to use for this post) I thought Byron’s poem was “So No More We’ll Go a Rowing.”  I pictured the long-armed rowers sitting morose by the banks of a brook that the lightfoot lads couldn’t leap across. In my age-addled brain, I wondered if the two lines were, if not in the same poem, at least written by the same poet.

 

Easy to see why I conflated the two poems.  Even though they were written eighty years apart, the poems share a diction, structure and tone.  Both are brief, musical, have the same rhyme scheme and a similar meter, or close enough, anyway.

 

But more to the point, both poems express a longing for a golden past full of  beautiful young people and lighthearted spirits.  Boys rove and leap in a place no longer accessible.  Byron’s randy paradise is lost to age or exhaustion, and even though the words “rest” and “pause” allow for an eventual revival of roving, yet no more we’ll go sounds like Byron’s permanently traded in the Axe for Bengay.  Death has taken Housman’s pastoral dream, and so for both poets, carefree youthful days are irrevocable.

 

For that reason I couldn’t leave the poems in places frequented by teenagers, not during this season of proms and graduations.  It’s enough that kids have to see the smashed cars displayed on high school lawns, that they have to listen to the valedictorian get all carpe diem because my fellow classmates, it’s all gone in a flash, enough that they have to comfort parents snorfling about what happened to my baby girl.  They don’t need more reminders of lost youth and death that these two elegies would bring. Neither poem, I realized as I was thinking about where to poem-elf them, is a young person’s poem.

 

So I abandoned my first associations with the poems and decided to lighten the tone. I left the poems on a shelf at T.J. Maxx among the anti-aging products.  Because when it comes to the face, Faulkner’s wrong:  the past is definitely past, despite an 80 billion dollar skincare industry, despite the exclamations of old friends who insist you look as young as ever.  You don’t.  Your youthful skin is across brooks too broad for leaping and it’s decaying by the second in a field where roses fade. And while yoga, Kegel exercises or a salsa dancing class may give you back some of your youthful ju-ju, it’s just not the same ju-ju that sent you out on a Thursday night a-roving till the sun returned too soon.  I sound unsympathetic but I struggle with aging as much as anyone, and I’ll probably head back to T.J. Maxx to buy one of those wrinkle creams.

 

It all reminds me of a comment an acquaintance made years ago in a do-it-yourself yoga class in a friend’s basement.  We were inverted in downward-facing dog, and after a few minutes, this woman sighed and said, “I used to have the cutest heart-shaped ass.”  With a twist of my head I could see that she employed the past tense appropriately.

 

Lord Byron (1788-1824) and his longer poems made my life miserable in a college Romantic poetry class.  His life is bigger than I can cover in a paragraph, and anyway nearly everyone knows about his club foot, his sexual exploits, his death from fever in the war for Greek independence.  He wrote “So No More We’ll Go A Roving” when he was 29 in a letter written from Italy where he had gone to escape his scandals in England. Described by one of his former lovers as “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” I don’t think he ever stopped roving in his brief time on earth.

 

By contrast A.E. Housman (1859-1936) lived a quiet life.  He was born the oldest of seven children in rural England.  He went to Oxford but failed his final exams because he was distracted by his unrequited love for his classmate.  Still he earned  renown as a classics scholar, and after ten years spent in the patent office in London, he became a Latin professor at Cambridge.  He only published two volumes of poetry in his life.  The first, A Shropshire Lad, from which this poem is taken, was a series of 63 poems written after the death of his friend.  The book became popular during WWI.

 

Both poems found popularity with musicians.  Here’s Joan Baez’s version of Byron’s poem, and here’s one of the many versions of With Rue My Heart is Laden.

 

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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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