Celebrate Poetry Month and Drive Away the Blues

Poet Mary Oliver

April 3, 2020

April is Poetry Month. What better time to dip into the wealth of thoughts told well? I know a number of people claim they don’t like poetry, but I think perhaps they simply haven’t sampled enough, for it comes in every shape and style. On the other hand, I claim I don’t like football. Maybe I simply haven’t watched enough.

In any case, I admit there are many poems I don’t care for, but I’ve learned to simply turn a page and try another. Raised in times when most poetry rhymed and had formal structures, I’m relieved so much of it now is free-flowing and organic. The change makes it easier for me to write. I’m just beginning to learn that even free verse, which lacks both rhyme and a regular rhythm (meter), does have commonly accepted standards to help evaluate if a poem is any good.

But mostly I just try to decide what I like and what I don’t. One quality that always gets to me might be called “heart” or “insight.” The ones I treasure are those describing the human condition and emotion, not in a beat-you-over-the-head way, but in a subtle, hey-notice-this manner. I believe that’s what any art does—leads you to look at and consider something you may not have thought about. One of my current favorites is “The Summer Day by Mary Oliver. She combines an eternal question (“Who made the world?”) with an intimate and tender observation of a common insect, then ends with a challenge to the reader. Another with similar impact, by Maya Angelou, is A Brave and Startling Truth.

A friend of mine connected me to a poem chain letter online. We each send one poem to the person at the top of the list, then send the query to 20 others. Some decline to be involved, but that’s fine. I’m reading an assortment of poems I’ve never run across before.

In addition to exposing me to ideas I may not have stumbled over, poetry also helps me with what I call “middle of the night crazies.” These are the times when insomnia tracks me down and crams stupid, useless fears in my head. Why don’t my children like me? Why is the water in the toilet running and running? Is the tender spot on my foot some terrible disease, and how long will it take to manifest itself? Did I offend a person on a poetry video conference so that she’ll never talk to me again? I reach for poetry at these times because it blasts my mind out of its destructive, downhill hurtle and into something resembling human.

Lots of poetry is available free online. Not every poem, I hasten to add, because poets need to eat as much as anyone else. This website, https://poets.org/, enables you to search a number of subjects and poets and hosts the Poem-a-Day feature. Another, PoemHunter.com, has tons of poems and poets. You can bookmark your favorites so you can get to them quickly. This site, however, is cluttered with pop-up ads that make it a challenge to read the text. Then there’s Poetry 180, a project to introduce high school students to the joys, hosted by Billy Collins, a former US Poet Laureate, from the Library of Congress. If you like the oldies but goodies, try Project Gutenberg, which has notables by people like Shakespeare and Walt Whitman, and you can download ebooks of some collections.

In these slow, yet somehow tense, days of our modern plague, people seem to be allowing externals to affect them adversely and profoundly. Try checking out of the constant, hysterical barrage of “news,” and explore the world of poetry. Hey, even if you favor off-color limericks, they’re still entertaining and thought-provoking. You may find that you’re a poetry lover, too.  

AN UNEXPECTED HOLIDAY LESSON

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!” ― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

            What was true for Charles Dickens, at least in his fiction, suits me, too. However, the lessons learned about honoring the Christmas spirit aren’t always what one might expect.

            From childhood the creative me yearned to make the world sparklier, more beautiful. I was a sucker for the holiday. I even cried at certain carols. This was in the spirit of covering up the ugliness, whether it was man’s inhumanity to man, tragedies in nature and life, or litter on the streets. However, this desire wasn’t accompanied by good taste. An early example of my lack of discrimination came in the seventh grade. As second-eldest in a family of six children, I decided to show my leadership, involve the little kids, and decorate the house in one fell swoop. I searched the house for craft materials. Unfortunately, they’d all been destroyed in the constant whirlwind of little, curious fingers that probed, snatched and ruined everything they touched.

            As I toured the house’s three stories, I happened upon a bathroom. My mother, showing the same dearth of good taste as I possessed, had stocked it with green toilet tissue. Remember those days, when toilet tissue and paper hankies came in a multitude of pastels? Green was a holiday color I knew, and we possessed a multitude of rolls.

            I opened a new roll and proceeded to weave festoons of green toilet tissue around the living room walls. I was convinced I was initiating a new high in holiday atmosphere. Yes, the little kids helped me. Imagine if you can, four walls covered in pale green loops distinctly of paper that belonged by the lavatory.

            When my mother returned home, she was able to control her moans of dismay. She simply told me to remove my “decorations,” that toilet paper wasn’t appropriate for my purpose.

            This was, perhaps, my first lesson in marketing:  the concept of buyer personas. Experts advise you know your market before you jump in and design a logo, packaging or displays. I’m sure my mother envisioned her neighbors evaluating my festoons and gossiping about how our family obviously lacked home decorating sense. Or were so hard up we had to use anything to hand.

            At the time, I didn’t understand her attitude. Since then I’ve learned of an assortment of supplies I can use for decorating, and only very very rarely do I use toilet tissue. As I’ve aged, I’ve set my standards higher because it comes neither in true red and green, nor sparkles, so I use other options. However, t.p. is always handy if I get maudlin and cry.

 

Holiday Songs That Always Make Me Cry

The holidays are supposed to be a time for cheer, happiness, partying, peace, good will. While I certainly participate in striving for these, there are certain holiday songs that always make me cry. Considering these, I think it may be that they envision a better type of human, a more empathetic and caring society. Not fashionable these days, I know, but with my schizophrenic personality, half cock-eyed optimist, half gloomy cynic, I’m able to live with the contradiction.

The first isn’t traditional at all. Written by Jerry Herman in the ‘60s, “We Need a Little Christmas” is from the musical Mame. It seems to insist that we stop all this nonsense with wars and greed because “I’ve grown a little leaner, Grown a little colder, Grown a little sadder, Grown a little older.” Certainly true of both me and the world.

The next can be guessed by many, “So This Is Christmas” by John Lennon, also known as “War Is Over” (good luck with that). This song gives all of us a much-needed scolding. “What have we done, Another year over, a new one just begun?” Sad to think Lennon was unable to convey his lesson in time to change his own fate.

Although the subject of “Good King Wencelas” is a saint from about 900 a.d., lyrics were written in 1853 and paired with a 13th century tune. I love the story captured in the song, the miracle of heat in the sod, and the admonition “Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.”

The next probably won’t be familiar. I learned “Masters in this Hall” in the fifth grade from my wonderful singing teacher, who passed along so much history and appreciation of music. Another hybrid of an old French tune and lyrics by Englishman William Morris in 1860, it carries an openly revolutionary message. “Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell sing we loud! For today our poor folk raised up and cast a-down the proud.”

Even a tune so innocuous it seems simply a paean to the season can carry inspiration for humanity. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” (note the comma, thus making the statement a command to gentlemen at large, as well as gentlewomen), slips in words of encouragement and counsel. “With true love and brotherhood each other now embrace. . .oh tidings of comfort and joy.” Surely only the most radical in the 1600s as well as intervening years even dreamed of universal brotherhood, although the definitive term may be “gentlemen,” since in those days most people were excluded from the category.

Finally, “Oh, Holy Night.” In addition to its electrifying melody and soaring exhortations, its subtle message of “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn” provides an optimistic message for us to whistle or hum during the holiday season.

There you have it. My personal list of holiday favorites, always sure to tweak my emotions with thoughts of what humans are and what they could be, if only. If you see me driving along the street at this time of year, tears streaming down my face, you can be fairly sure I’m listening to one of my favorite Christmas songs.

My Neighborhood Is Obsessed with Pumpkins, and the Great Pumpkin’s Delighted

For reasons unknown, a fad in my neighborhood during fall and culminating on Halloween is pumpkins. Multiple pumpkins. Large, small, lumpy, smooth, often orange, punctuated with white, green, sage, multi-colored. On my walks I started counting numbers of pumpkins on porches. Very few have only one (I myself have two), and the winner so far is 16.

I don’t know why. Granted I’m in a family-heavy neighborhood where children are cherished and indulged as if they were tiny royals. Also an area with no poverty, whose residents can choose to dispose of their disposable income as they wish. I shouldn’t quibble, indeed, I’m not even sure what “quibbling” is, because I adore seeing the variety and the panache with which the home owners place their harvest bounty. Some stack several orbs on top of one another, some group colors and textures with care. Many set off large pumpkins with several miniature ones. Others combine real produce with the man-made variety. One home with front stairs positioned a pumpkin at the end of each step all the way up to the top. Another, with a short brick retaining wall, marched the produce all along the top, as if presenting the front entry to the world.

Squirrels treat outdoor decorative pumpkins as their personal grocery store. In my old neighborhood, which seemed to have ten squirrels for every resident, a pumpkin was fortunate if it survived overnight on the porch without a gnaw. My new neighborhood has fewer critters. Still last year only a few days passed before the golden fruit (yes, pumpkins are technically fruit) was attacked.

I’ve collected suggestions on squirrel repellents. The silliest one was to place several pumpkins together, as if propitiating the squirrel god by providing one sacrificial sphere. This only drives the critters into an eating frenzy. The defense that seems to succeed is to combine two techniques. I sprayed the pumpkins with hairspray, then sprinkled them with liberal doses of cayenne pepper.

I wonder if the proliferation of decorative pumpkins is another indication of our surfeit of consumerism. Surely no one other than pie makers NEEDS sixteen pumpkins. Still this is one glut I don’t object to. I tell myself we’re helping out the pumpkin farmers as well as delighting children and passersby, then give myself permission to simply enjoy the symbol of harvest bounty. Maybe I’ll dig out the seeds to roast and nibble on. That will justify my permissive attitude.

 

How a Social Movement Became a Norm: Colorado and woman suffrage

Twenty-five years ago in 1993, a group of Colorado women, including me, launched a commemoration of the state’s woman suffrage. Colorado was the first state to institute votes for women, and it was accomplished by a popular vote. In other words, by men voting to endorse the move!

            As I became involved with the project, I learned about the history of women’s political efforts. Seems to me in the West in general, women achieved status and power more easily than back East. Perhaps because the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed single, widowed, divorced, or deserted women to file for property. Perhaps because married women on homesteads and ranches had to assume men’s responsibilities and equal amounts of hard duties to keep the holdings afloat.

            In any case women’s rights came more quickly out here. In Colorado, the movement was helped a great deal by the silver crisis of 1893. Silver was devalued and other economic brouhaha occurred. Then it wasn’t just kindly thoughts on the part of men; it was financial desperation. So much for lofty goals like equality of the sexes.

            Regardless, the history of the women’s movement in the state is fascinating. The personalities, the strengths and weaknesses, the emotions stirred up make an exciting and educational account.

            Each iteration of feminism brings its own perspective, extremists, battles, losses, draws, and wins. Cobble together your own interpretation of what was significant, who was a heroine, who a villain.. However, it’s useful to remember any time members of a group are lumped together as identical, the more scope for errors. In the 70s, women protestors were known as “bra burners” when, in fact, this wasn’t a wide-spread phenomena. The respected rumor-debunker Snopes says, During a demonstration by feminists at the 1968 Miss America pageant, some bras — along with numerous other items — were burned when a trash receptacle was briefly set alight.” This was the only occurrence of the symbolic action.

            Another point: social change doesn’t occur overnight. Years ago, when my children were babies, my husband and I decided that family responsibilities were a benefit as well as a responsibility. We decided to alternate each of our stints at child and house care with employment to support us. This began as a one-year period but quickly extended to two, then five year rotations when we realized no one would hire us for any kind of decent wage if we constantly hopped in and out of jobs.

            The first five years were my assignment. Because a stay-at-home mom wasn’t unusual, no one blinked an eye. However when we rotated, the response changed. Upon learning my husband was trying his hand at writing, one woman congratulated me on letting him be “the creative one,” never acknowledging my struggles at scribbling. Other responses included sly comments about “an alcohol problem,” “lack of job skills,” or just general “no ambition.”

            None were true. The first step for our then-unusual transition was my husband’s. When the kids were very little, one day he offered to let me have an entire day a week to do whatever I wanted while he took care of house and children. I pulled out a piece of paper and toted up the number of hours I normally spent on my chores. When I realized the accumulative time was well over ten hours a day, seven days a week, while he was working eight hours a day, five days a week, I surrendered without a complaint.

            So just as women’s right to vote in Colorado was approved by men, my personal voyage to women’s lib was launched and sustained by a man, my husband.

            Is this often true of social change? It may be. Certainly the prohibition on slavery never would have occurred without the support of some white men. The

realization that children deserved protection from excessive labor and horrid conditions came from adults. If the #MeToo movement bears productive results, it will occur because people of all genders support it and come together in a spirit of good will.

* photo courtesy Denver Public Library Western History Dept.