Remembering James White and his lesson about the subject of poetry

A recent article by John Townsend in Lavender Magazine, (June 11-24, 2015), Remembering James L. White, brought to mind that period in the 1980s when I was a young poet hungry for recognition and casting about for what would ease me over that obstacle of earnest writing but no audience.

I was fortunate enough to be associated with the COPMAS Poets in the Schools then, and one day Molly (LaBerge) Taylor asked me to meet a new poet who was coming to town, Jim White. I drove out to the airport to pick him up and we hit it off right away, primarily because Jim was so open, so gentle and so generous. Soon he was coming over regularly to our house for meals and companionship, quickly becoming a great friend of our children and, more than a guest, becoming a member of our family.

From the outset, Jim brought something new and surprising to our writing community. Each time he gave a reading of his poetry, he read new work! That may not sound so unusual now, but back then there were about seven recognized poets in our city and they would read the same work over and over again whenever they appeared at a reading, as if those well-rehearsed poems were their identity card and they did not want to change what they had already invented heavily in.

Jim, on the other hand, was writing on an entirely different plane. He had little or no sense of a fixed identity and went looking for himself in each new poem he wrote. Another way to say this is he wrote about his life, that day, that moment, as he made each new poem. All this was big news to me, as I had been trying to write poetry about what I thought I knew, rather than about what I didn’t know.

That was thirty or more years ago and I am still learning his lesson. Jim left us several guide books for the journey to learning…and accepting…who we are, most notably The Salt Ecstasies, his final book of poetry, published by Graywolf Press in 1982 just a few months after his untimely death from heart disease.

So…what is poetry for? In the light of what Jim’s work teaches us, poetry is a way to learn about honesty, personal honesty. It is a way to draw back the arras of “I don’t want to go there” and to look deeply into our own lives. Said another way, poetry lifts us from the mental formulations Buddhist teaching suggest keep us imprisoned in fear or anger or uncertainty and allows us to embrace our fear, or shame, or joy.

By making this claim for poetry I am not suggesting there are no other avenues to self knowledge, or to engaging in honesty at the deepest level, or even to overcomi.ng our demons.   I am offering, in defense of poetry in an age which seems hell-bent on avoiding any mentions of struggle or hard work, the rewards for spending time finding just the right word, the best turn of phrase, the most precise and apt image – instead of settling for the first thought that comes along – are legion.

For me, at this point in my life of writing, it means I am learning to pause and invoke an awareness of the precious gift of living. To find the latitude for savoring the inherent colors and fragrances of each moment instead of thinking up some supposed truth about life is finally, liberating. It means I have long abandoned the notion of having others evaluate and judge and praise or criticize my work. Something else entirely is occurring now when I write a poem. I exist…in the most vibrant and present way possible. And this tingling awareness of what it means to be alive spills over into all those moments of the day when I am not at my desk writing poetry.

Once, in a younger and more romantic fit, I allowed it might be more difficult for me to stop writing poetry than to stop breathing. Now I am growing in the understanding the two are the same. And I wish the same realizations to shower down on anyone else committed to the path of learning to write a poem.

 

Overweight

Cooking for someone can be loaded with danger.
He’ll get here at six and I’m filled with a small fear
of conversation at the table.
I always toy with the edge across my throat,
between the cabbage, the duck and coffee we stare into.

There are many ways to scream.
I’ve chosen the silent one
because I’m afraid of being discovered as I am, not
who he remembers 20 years ago.

I want to say things have changed since then.
I’ve smoked my lungs black and eaten my heart out.
Lost each leaf of hair and seen friends to their graves.

So the real talk is never said.
After a polite time he leaves a bit early.
I want to re-run dinner again
with simpler food, the apartment a little messy.
I’d like to walk right over the edge and say,
‘Who we were then is fable.’
But that takes believing we’re someone right now.

Instead I sit down to a second meal.
I’m famished from things left unsaid,
go to bed too early, and wake totally
at the national anthem, before the TV hisses
into blue snow.

I get up. I eat again.

© Estate of James L. White. The Salt Ecstasies published by Graywolf Press, printed with permission.

For Whom The Poet Speaks

From time to time we host book publication events in our gallery at Homewood Studios. Fellow writers, family and family friends, even some writers unknown to us who have heard about our place and our loyal audience graciously come by to share their work – poetry or prose, memoir or essay – with us.

One such event – Tad Simon reading selections from his recently published short story collection, The Bleeder – took place recently on a perfect summer evening. Tad was in good voice and in good humor, the audience was appreciative and energetic… but that is not what I want to write about.

Just before Tad began, a petite woman made her way into the gallery, slowly finding one of the few empty chairs. She was familiar to me – Elissa Cottle, a poet from Stillwater. I wondered at her connection to Tad, or to his new book, and remembered Elissa earned her master;\’s degree in writing at Hamline University, where Tad’s wife, Gabrielle teaches. It turned out Elissa and Gabrielle knew each other when they were both in the aster’s program at Hamline. And Elissa knew Tad when they worked together at The Reader.

So the reading continued, eventually ending with loud cheers for Tad. Everyone headed for the food and drinks, breaking into small groups to continue the splendid energy of the evening, Tad in one corner signing books.

Elissa sat down next to my wife, Beverly, asking, “Are you Bev?”

“Yes, I am.”

“I’m Elissa. George was my first poetry teacher, when I was fifteen, at Twin City Institute for Talented Youth in the summer. It gave me the direction for my life.”

All these forty years later, Elissa still writes poetry, and directs literary readings in Stillwater and Minneapolis, making use of independent galleries and coffee houses to present the work of local poets and writers. Some of Ellissa’s poems were recently published in the Nodin Poetry Anthology.

Elissa went on to tell Beverly, “Sometimes George would read a poem he had written about you or your children. My parents went through a terrible divorce when I was a young girl. Hearing those poems helped me hope for a better future.”

We are all Elissa. At some time or another, we ache for something brighter, clearer, more balanced to enter our lives. This is what poetry is for…to transport us into the enfolding arms of that possibility.

Whether a poetry of deep gratitude or deep sorrow, memory of a bruised childhood, worry about the manic poison of reason, or celebrating the enthralling incandescence of a quarter moon shining down on white anemone flowers in a summer night, the poet brings us to a moment in our own lives where we want to stop, to dawdle, to pay attention.

Poetry moves us, sometimes gently, sometimes harshly, out of our habits of living in the past and in the future, neither of which can we exercise any control over. Poetry pulls us, urges us, sometimes drags us into the present. And the present is where we all live, whether we know it or not…and where poetry lives as well.

 

For Whom the Poet Speaks


1)
A mother told her son last night she loves quickly. A bridge is small. Watch

Monet step over floating leaves. How quickly
it goes, as leaves watch the stars in daylight.

2)
The poet speaks for the province of the world that believes in the true trick
of art, which fills and drinks the glass cup of milk

at the same time.

 3)
For the one to whom she sings a lullaby

about this morning when he inchwormed his little fingers
under her sheet to wake her up. Tonight

she loves making him laugh knowing he will sleep so very soon. (Lying on the table
as a girl, she remembers the one-man warm-up show, the doctor standing over her,

a patient covered in a chilly sheet. He says, grinning, you will
sleep so fast. Try counting backwards. Start at 10. You won’t get

 to 9.) And the left arm under the sheet becomes cool, then quiet,
and the body receives a dream because

we want our voice in sleep’s ear.

 4)
For every patient life, telling us
wait to conceive me. Because it’s easier

than would be believed. The milk is cold and delicious.
Their sleep is dreamless but they know how quickly

that will change once days are lived. They wait,
unhurried to begin. When their water lilies

 will float undisturbed at the sight
above their face.

 © Elissa Cottle from an unpublished manuscript, printed with permission.

National Poetry Month…is over

For the handful of you who read these entries and perhaps wondered why nothing appeared last month…

It’s not that I didn’t think about what poetry is for during April. I did. But April is National Poetry Month and something in me resists limiting our attention (to both important and frivolous issues*) by calendar dates.

The question of addressing April – National Poetry Month – seems daunting. Inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, it is the largest literary celebration in the world with schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets celebrating poetry’s vital place in our culture.

Is there something to celebrate? Vital place? On the Academy of American Poets website we see, prominently displayed, an invitation to visit their gift shop:

  •       Emily Dickinson Tarot Deck I have an errand imminent To an adjoining Zone…  $25.00
  •       Sylvia Plath Necklace “I am I am I am” Inspired by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar   $30.00
  •       Wallace Stevens Paperweight I wish that I might be a thinking stone.            Ea. $8.00

The impulse to give a gift, a kind of celebration, subverted by commercialism, or, to use a truly ugly word – monetized.

Okay, so…am I ranting. What, instead, should we be considering?

The tools of poetry – rhythm, the managed intervals of line and stanza, the play of language against silence, transformations enacted by metaphor – are certainly enlisted in what we are talking about here…but as any good writing teacher can tell you, it is easy to get children (or adults for that matter) to write something that looks and sounds (and sometimes even smells) like poetry – but is it?

What is it we are lobbying for in the month of national awareness and national celebration? What is poetry and what is it for? Could it be something we have available to us to measure and to come to (our) terms with the complexity and sprawling upheavals of our daily lives? When we pace ourselves by our heart’s breath, consciously, are we making poetry? When we pause, the ready word on our lips but a longing for a more precise, a more sensual, a more… accurate… word, are we being poets? Dw, in fact, commit poetry more often than we know?  Since everyone in the nation spent the last month offering an answer, I’ll toss mine into the bowl as well…Yes!

Poetry – making it, reading it, listening to it, breathing it – requires we privilege heart over mind, intuition over logic, questions over answers. Not easy for any of us given the vast array of encouragements (think wealth, position, respect, comfort, or conversely, avoiding embarrassment, pain, grief or shame) aligned against the workings of poetry in our culture.

Perhaps the need for a national month of awareness is the strongest indication we are not doing this work. Do we hold a National Bank Account Week or Stock Market Day? a Hurrah for Everyone who Won the Election Month? a Let’s Give Respect to Those Who Have Most Earned It awareness campaign?

Instead of holding poetry insulates us from the pressures of the real world, instead of giving poetry some elevated place on a distant pedestal, why not invite her to help us confront the world by showing how language frays under culturally and historically adverse conditions. How we could respond to events – pollution, ecological demise, enslavement, intolerance – with imagery and metaphor where common words fail? How true language, not corporatized words – through the envoy of the senses – takes us into intimate knowledge of the real world, our real world – the only one there is.

Perhaps by inviting poetry, fresh language, to pause and look carefully, without bombast or judgment, without promise of a sale or a life-changing drug, without corralling our thoughts and feelings into a calendar-appropriate week or month, we will begin to know things a little better, a little more clearly, and can make a soul-ful decision about how to act. Now THAT would be worth celebrating.

 

*  I’m so incensed, wrought up, and piqued

that I can hardly speak.

To Mothers we give a single day,

to pickles we give a week.

 

You poets!

In an essay entitled Twenty Poems That Could Save America, Tony Hoagland bemoans “we never quite got poetry inside the American school system,” although not for lack of trying. It’s just, he suggests, those efforts were wide of the mark, and as a result poetry –reading it, loving it, being nurtured by it – never made its way into our culture as it has in many places throughout the world.

Instead there exists, in America, a kind of schizophrenia about poets and poetry. Poets are regarded as unusual, perhaps special or somehow enlightened; poetry as an elevated, and mostly incomprehensible, form of language. Both well-respected, but to be given a wide berth at all costs.

Which leads to a moment which occurred recently in our Tai Chi class.

Thanks to a neighbor who asked, one day late in 2000, if we could hold Tai Chi in the gallery of Homewood Studios, a small group of neighbors and friends have been meeting every Saturday morning since to learn this art of moving meditation. Phrases like find your center or let everything go, take inventory and be mindful pepper our conversations as we stand in a circle at the opening of each lesson to tell how our week has gone. Many of us in the group are current and retired teachers. In Buddhist terms, we are a sangha.

Any group of individuals, sangha or not, who spend time together develops language patterns, learned shorthand for shared ideas and experiences. In one of these conversations recently, I allowed lightning rarely strikes in a classroom, but lighting a candle each day for one hundred eighty days produces the same effect. One of the others in the group turned to me and said, “You poets!”

What did he mean? What was he saying to me and to the group? Was there a shorthand at work?

We live in a visual era. Those who investigate these things suggest more than eighty percent of what we experience comes through our eyes. We also live in an increasingly digital era. Everything we once did for ourselves, from remembering someone’s name to memorizing a poem, is now done for us on our devices. One result of this shift is we forget how to do these things ourselves. Much earlier in our history as language-making beings, poems were used as memory devices, recorders.

Even before writing was invented, there was poetry. Metaphor. Early societies frequently employed poetry to provide a structure upon which oral history was built. Storytelling (epic poetry), family stories (genealogy), even laws were often expressed in poetic form, making the task of remembering easier. Today, most of this work is turned over to “the media” and to our electronic devices, though not all. Vestiges of those earlier habits linger in bits of poetry we, almost without thinking, use to remember things. Many English speaking–Americans know that “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” A rhyming song teaches the names and order of the letters of the alphabet; another jingle states the lengths and names of the months in the Gregorian calendar. Preliterate societies, lacking the means to write down important cultural information, use similar methods to preserve it. Just think of The Odyssey or The Ramayana or The Epic of Gilgamesh.

The shift away from depending upon our own memories, on poetry, has occasioned an avalanche of clichés, visual as well as spoken, written and read. Attend to the news. Fires are always devastating. Tornados invariably rip through communities. Rescues are predictably daring. Any report on medical research includes either a close-up of pills being counted by a pharmacist or a researcher using a multiple pipette to transfer liquid from one vial to another. Economic news is regularly accompanied by a clip of sheets of dollar bills rolling off the presses by the thousands.

But sometimes that group shorthand I spoke of overrides our dependence on electronics and evokes a moment of real communication. The handy cliché, the antithesis of poetry, which stifles true communication, is defeated as a flutter of fresh language lights us up.

So what did Maury intend when he said, “You poets”?

I choose to believe he was valuing the fresh, the unusual, the unexpected turn of phrase – perhaps longing for it. We all recognize a metaphor when we hear one. Some of us are pleased and some confused, but original language, poetry, invariably captures us. If we pause at that moment, to savor what words are doing to us, a love of poetry is born.

 WHAT ARE WORDS FOR?

Pretending we know more than we do?
Excusing our faults by noting others’?

What does forgiveness weigh? More
than remember?

Take a word in your hand. If fire,
does it burn? If bird, does it sing?

Or release… A word worth its weight.

Open your hand, let the bird go
and the brief spark where its talons
push off.

 

Poem by George Roberts published in 12 Poems of Love & Longing © 2014.
Printed at DownSairs Press and reprinted with permission.

Twenty Poems That Could Save America and other essays by Tony Hoagland.
Graywolf Press 2014

Science or Humanities? Science and Humanities

My son, Andrew, is forty-six years old. Trained as a biologist with special emphasis on sustainable agriculture, he lives in the Virgin Islands where he divides his time between writing, (his passion), and working on a sail boat as first mate, (his current livelihood and his current curiosity). We often talk about poetry and science as different paths to the same discoveries.

Andrew has given me biology and science books to read since he was in college. I have become acquainted with a small pantheon of scientists whose work I sort of understand, at least in a beginning way.   So whenever I am in a bookstore, whenever the occasion for a gift rolls around, I scan the science shelves for Murray Gell-Mann, Matt Ridley, or Edward O. Wilson.

And recently it was Wilson, well-known for his decades-long study of ants, whose new book, The Meaning of Human Existence, beckoned to me from the plethora of new titles. Wilson is an elegant writer – clear, concise, unambiguous, and brilliant – a formidable apologist for the advance of basic science knowledge in our world. This book contains, unexpectedly, something altogether new, and surprising. This oft-awarded scientist makes the case for the humanities as the reason we human beings are what we are.

In outlining how the scientist works – using few loaded words, but adhering to restrained and logical language based on demonstrable fact – he suggests the exact opposite is the case with regard to poetry and the other creative arts. “The metaphor is everything,” he writes. The creative writer, composer or visual artist, conveys obliquely by abstraction or deliberate distortion, his own perceptions and the feelings he hopes to invoke – about something, about anything, real or imagined. He seeks to bring forth in an original way some truth or other about the human experience. Unlike the scientist, the artist tries to pass what he creates “directly along the channel of human experience” without the intercession of verifying data. The success of this attempt is judged by the power and beauty of the metaphor she employs. The artist, not the scientist, embodies the notion once ascribed to Picasso: art is the lie that shows us the truth.

Wilson, the consummate scientist, then suggests if well-disposed aliens were to visit our fragile blue planet, what would most interest them is not our science, which would be old hat to them, but our music, our art, our poetry – in short, our metaphor. Not the shortest route to the truth, but the most inviting, the most consistent with our complex and unruly nature.

“After we have made all of [our] knowledge available with a few keystrokes, and after we have built robots that can outthink and outperform us, both of which initiatives are well under way, what will be left to humanity? There is only one answer: we will choose to retain the uniquely messy. self-contradictory, internally conflicted, endlessly creative human mind that exists today.”

What poet might the alien visitors Wilson posits find most attuned to their own experience? Sappho or Adrienne Rich? Alexander Pope or Michael S. Harper? Billy Collins of Mary Oliver? What would they be looking for except what we, were the tables turned, would seek as visitors to their planet? Complexity rather than certainty. The freedom of holding two truths simultaneously rather than the prison of single truth dogma. We would hope to be surprised, to look at what we think we know from a heretofore unconsidered angle. Poetry, metaphor, offers us, and our visitors, just this entry into the braided secrets of the universe…and ourselves.

 

ALL THINGS POINT                                            

All things point to the mute, white moon. Leafless
trees, vacant stairways, flagpoles, the upraised
arms of children.

Like all creatures, we aspire to rise,
unbuckle from gravity, lift free.

Silent, serene, changing moon. Each night querying
another part of the dark sky. Each night a restless
but familiar shape.

One day you will receive each of us into your
orbit as we dissolve into that bright question
we drape over your silent stones.

 

Unpublished poem by George Roberts. © 2014. Printed with permission.
Quotations from The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson
Liverwrignt Publishing Corp. / W. W. Dutton & Co. 2014

Diplomat Poets

I hold out an assumption – that appointing a poet to serve as an ambassador, as an emissary of a country’s good will and good intentions, suggests a level of understanding about the affect of poetry on the sensitivity and wisdom of the individual, as well as on a nation’s sense of itself.

Can writing or reading a few lines of imagery, whether about the goings on in the natural world or in the private world of the poet, make a difference in how an individual might represent the interests of everyone living in her country? Apparently some places in the world have thought so. Notably, there was Moto Owanto, one of the few female Japanese diplomats of the previous century.

In her company, and possibly more well known – Ivo Andrić, (Yugoslavian novelist and poet. Winner of Nobel Prize for Literature. Served as ambassador to Germany), Pablo Neruda, (Chilean poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Served as ambassador to France), Octavio Paz, (Mexican writer and winner of Nobel Prize for Literature. Served as ambassador to India), Giorgos Seferis, (Greek poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Served as ambassador to the United Nations and the United Kingdom), and my personal favorite, Gabriela Mistral, (Chilean poet, educator and feminist who was the first, and so far only, Latin American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, which she did in 1945 for her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world).

Not to mention perhaps the best known – Geoffrey Chaucer, as well as, Saint-John Perse, Miguel Ángel Asturias, and Czesław Miłosz.

Each of these poets did what that made them well suited to serve as political emissaries to the world? Lent eloquence to our daily fumblings? Assemble a few well-selected words into something original, musical, insightful, surprising? Whatever it is we do in our wanderings over the vast curve of our fragile blue planet, our home, poets slow us down, give grace to our movements, and ask us to pause and to notice. Wouldn’t the best hopes for what might go on between countries be the same? Could that be why some nations evince the wisdom to send their poets out as ambassadors, diplomats, spokespersons and interpreters?

What surprised me most about being in Moscow, St. Petersburg (still called Stalingrad while I was there), and Tblisi in Georgia, was but for the language, I could imagine I was strolling down Nicolette Mall in Minneapolis on a sunny July afternoon. Body shapes were more varied than the stereotype I brought with me about “the Russians.” Clothing looked pretty much like what one sees on a warm day in America. Plenty of automobile traffic. In short, if I was going to look for differences, I needed to find a way to go deeper. The seemingly national love of poetry I discovered all around me while in Russia and Georgia was one avenue I thought to explore.

Poetry speaks about what is common to all of us, about what it means to be human. Each of us could do well by being reminded of our humanness, and what we hold in common with every other living person. Perhaps poets, and their poetry, help us toward that end. What remains to be seen, then, is whether enough nations, aware of our common humanity, decide to send in the poets.

 

JOURNALS

You don’t make art, you find it.
                                                                                           Charles Simic, Dime-Store Alchemy

No matter the class, no matter the grade, the weather or the time of year – we begin each day by writing.  Lights low, silence except for the ticking of the clock and the soft rasping of pen and pencils.  Ten minutes, at least, of this exercise each day.  As the my students accept this routine, as they learn the ropes of this new skill, you can see them grow hungry for it.  After a while, I no longer need to ask them to take out their journals and copy down the day’s title.  They do this by habit and begin to stir in their seats if the directions are too lengthy.  Their lovely bodies bend closer and closer to the page as they write, connecting with a part of themselves they knew nothing about before snowflake sized spallings from a cave painting in central Africa, like the petrified wings of a dazzling prehistoric insect, begin fluttering down from the ceiling.

John, nearly blinded in fifth grade by a virus, writes about the day his Korean mother, tearfully putting him on a plane for America and for what she hoped would be a better life, sewed her picture into the lining of his trousers.  “I haven’t thought about this much since then, since I was four,” he confides in the class before he reads.  Somewhere in the middle of his reading, holding the journal page close to his eyes, he stumbles across the words – “I never cried about this” – and surrenders to those long held tears.  We are all stunned, paralyzed by what we are witnessing.  Then Keisha, who just a few days ago risked reading about wishing she had known what it was like to have a father, hands John a kleenex, rests her hand on his shoulder and with the unschooled instinct of a Maria Cure’ or a Gabriela Mistral, reads her own day’s entry.

The turning of the earth and of the seasons, the drawing in of the breath and the exhaling again out into the universe, the longing for crocuses at the end of winter…  We all live by rhythms, by cycles and by the expectations these natural events create in us.  The classroom is no different than the rest of the world.  It is the place we learn to be human.

The prose poem, “Journals” is by George Roberts, from Elfriede’s Cat, Notes of a High School Literature Teacher, published by The Scarecrow Press, (c) 2003.  Reprinted by permission.

Tag Lines and Search Engines

Search engines don’t like poetry.

My brother Tony, our Homewood Studios and DownStairs Press website manager, asked if I wanted a tagline under the title (What Is Poetry For?) of this blog. After some help with what a tag line does – optimizes search engine results – I determined to use some variation of the phrase “holding language like fine crystal.” Regarding language, esteeming language, viewing language, valuing language….poetry does all of these things.   But does a search engine do these things? and if so, does it do them in the same way a human brain does?

I opted for the first impulse – holding language – because I thought it the broadest word and it might be closer to what a search engine does. Optimizing results…

Poetry opens up, by the use of imagery and metaphor, to multiple levels of meaning and interpretation. But interpretation, understanding, is secondary to the essential goal of poetry – to offer an emotional experience, to allow the reader to have the same experience as the poet, without prodding or direction. Poetry allows us to hold two (or more) thoughts as possible at the same moment.

It seems to me, a search engine wants to do the opposite – to refine all possibilities into one, the one you are looking for. Either/or. Zero/one.

I wonder if we could build a computer, like Watson who learned to play (and win!) at Jeopardy, that could read and understand poetry. Some rudimentary attempts have been made, but these accomplish little more than create a formula – adjective + noun + adverb + verb – and do nothing to offer an immediate experience of the felt world. They simply create chunks of language with smell like poetry but aren’t.

JanusNode, for example, which lets you make any style of poetry you desire – without having to write a single stanza. (And does it read the poem for you as well?) Poetry generators, per se, are common, but what sets JanusNode apart is it is programmable by the user. And still the question, Why would you want to automate the writing of or the reading of poetry? To me it makes about as much sense as creating a program to generate a reasonable facsimile of love-making.

A poem – a combination of words never so assembled before – opens us to immense, if not infinite, possibilities.

Tony continues: “Google doesn’t dislike poetry, but it probably doesn’t understand it. Google is a brute force word amalgamator. It counts and catalogs words and phrases, but it doesn’t necessarily make sense of the meanings. Insofar as you are being crystal clear in your usage of words, Google can feign a reasonable understanding of your words, but when your poetry takes language off the beaten path, Google gets lost.”

And if it is poetry we are after, off the beaten path is exactly where we want to be.

Tony again: “This is not necessarily a bad thing.” (Google getting lost, I assume.) “You’re not selling left-handed popcorn poppers. If you were, you’d use those words exactly and Google would help you. You’re doing something different. In the case of your Remembering Galway Kinnell piece, however, the words Galway Kinnell are quite catalogable and searchable. If people search for that name, they may well be directed to your site.”

But will they have experienced poetry?

rise early, if you wish. wander outside,
breathing in the stillness, the layers of silence.

watch the sky as darkness begins to fall
away. you can almost heard it sighing.

first, the deep gray of worn steel. then, the softer gray
of your grandmother’s pearl earring. you remember gazing
at its mysterious surface while she read fairyt ales before nap.
the odor of her face powder wafts across the yard.

then the transparent gray of daybreak. trees emerge from the shadowy
looming, take on green colors, leaves, rough skins of bark. rooftops
and phone lines appear, reflecting light.

and it is day.

 

The short poem, rise early, by George Roberts, is from an unpublished manuscript, Noticing, composed during the four seasons of 2014. Printed with permission.

Chaucer and the Plumber

I began teaching Literature and Writing at North Community High School in the fall of 1974. We had purchased a home in the neighborhood four years earlier with a mind to living where my students lived.

One of our early home rehab projects was to upgrade the washtub sink in the basement. The plumber who came to do the work was talkative, friendly. When I mentioned I was teaching English at North High, he, without ado or fanfare, recited of the opening lines of The Prologue to the Canterbutry Tales. In Old English!


Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

Pipe wrench in hand, his other hand resting on the washing machine, he offered the passage with great pride and bearing. As he finished, he added, “Learned it in 11th grade at North. Mrs. Jefferson. That was thirteen years ago. Never forgot it.”

And I have not forgotten that moment. I was a young teacher then, still learning what mattered in a classroom. Only a couple of years earlier I had studied Chaucer in a University of Minnesota summer school class, reading The Pardoner’s Tale aloud while dandling my son Andrew, then a year old, on my knee at the coin laundry.

What did it matter, our reading of Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem? What did it matter both the plumber and I responded in a visceral way to what our nascent language sounded like in the 14th century? Something passed between us, the plumber and me, there in our humble basement. An acknowledgement, wholly unspoken, that our everyday speech came from this odd-sounding earlier version of English, and that being aware of that lineage honored something deeply important in each of us.

And further, I suspect, being introduced to those characters from six hundred years ago who behaved like any of us does today also mattered. Poetry gives us the best of what our language can be, shows us where to find the best (and worst) of what we can be.

To honor Geoffrey Chaucer, Mrs. Jefferson, and that graceful plumber whose name, sadly, I do not recall, I asked my students, each year, to memorize poetry, including those funny-sounding lines from The Canterbury Tales. Perhaps some of those students are out there in the world now, reciting, at odd moments, lines of poetry to their clients, their patrons, their friends or their children. Does it matter?

 

Remembering Galway Kinnell

“To me,” he said, “poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.”

By a singular concatenation of events I found myself, in my freshman year of college, in a room with Galway Kinnell. Not alone, of course, but with several others curious about poetry. He read The Bear, for which he is justly loved and respected as a poet, swaying like a great lumbering bear side to side to the rhythms of his haunting lines.

Can you do this with language? How is it possible? I wondered, and set out to look for an answer to this question, vowing some day to write poetry Galway would approve of.

Fast forward ahead twenty years. I again found myself in a room with Galway Kinnell…this time by myself. The Loft Literary Center had launched its Mentor Program and I was one of the first group of eight young poets selected to work with Galway, (and with Phillip Levine, Marge Piercy, Mona Van Duyn). At that point my writing was pretty much imitative of his and he was willing to say so, to suggest as gently as he could I might want to look for my own voice instead of taking cues from his.  When I drove him to the airport at the end of the weekend, he thanked me for my poetry and allowed we’d meet again some day.

Jump ahead another thirty years. To celebrate half a century of looking for the answer I began asking in college, I decided to print and publish an anthology of poetry by those mentors, teachers, poet-friends and poet-students who all helped me continue looking for an answer, in believing this search was a noble one. I exchanged letters with Galway. He was kind enough to say he remembered me, but the language in his letters was uncharacteristically vague, without its usual edge. He was eighty-three at the time and I sensed he was experiencing decline.

Now that decline is accomplished. We have only memory…and the poetry – one long, dark, aching and truthful meditation opening up to the single notion that pervaded his poems throughout.  We begin to die the moment we are born, and our life’s work is to come to terms with, to embrace, that truth.

Like most of us, he made a mess of his life at times. As he wrote in “Avenue C Bearing the Initial of Christ into the World”, he was “…one of those who took it easy when they should have been out failing at something.” Other times he seemed to grasp the light and hold it above his head for a moment, his eyes agleam with a sense things were going to be fine.

Galway was devoted to the power of language, to the never-ending attempt to grasp its truth for just a moment, to let it go, and then to go looking for it again. In the end what did I learn from him? Probably not to want to write a poem like him, but to want, like him, to write poetry that states with unfailing honesty, I am here, now.

The Desire for Something Not Nameable

I believe I have known what poetry is for a long time.  At first nursery rhymes; then playground doggerel and girls singing skiprope songs.  Oddly spaced writing at the end of a story in my fifth grade reader.  Language that confused me.  “Why devote so much time to nearly incomprehensible writing?” I finally asked my eleventh grade English teacher, Sister M. Shawneen.  She fished three or four copies of Poetry Magazine from a drawer in her desk.  “Read.”  I did, dutifully.  Something took root, but I did not know what and felt not much the wiser.

A couple of years later, as a freshman in college, by chance I attended a poetry reading by Brother Antoninus (William Everson) who had just published The Crooked Lines of God.  On the stage walked a man in a white monk’s robe and sandals, reciting lines like, The blood red gull / dives screaming into the surf / and giant snakes of kelp / wash up on shore at night /  to feed on the fruits of our wartime dreaming.

Whatever had taken root back in high school, bloomed that evening.  His language was the language of that something unknown and indefinable inside me.  The direction of my life, on that evening more than fifty years ago, took a sharp and unexpected turn whose direction I have been following ever since.

In my dorm room, then, I thought I knew was poetry was.  And tried writing it.  I even sent that first attempt to Brother Antoninus, who encouraged me to keep at it.  I did, dutifully.  And I have, not dutifully but increasingly happily, kept at it ever since.  Today, I believe I am nearer to knowing what poetry is.

But I still question what is it for?  What is poetry for?

There were no newspapers, television reports, videotapes or blogs relating how the ordinary citizens of Greece responded to a recitation from The Odyessy in Homer’s day.   Word has it everyone was moved, but that is mostly speculation.

Yet it is fashionable today to suggest no audience for poetry exists and no reason for poetry to be written continues from those antecedents of many centuries ago.  We agree to the need for mathematics, philosophy, and law, each of which, (along with poetry), was developed in the minds of those heady Greeks, yet we dismiss poetry as irrelevant.  Is it?

Or why is it everyone seems to know what William Carlos Williams said in that short poem about getting, or not getting the news, from poetry?  Why is there a longing in us for something ineffable?

And does poetry fill that longing?