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.  

WRITING A POEM IS DISCOVERING [Robert Frost]

 

 

 

 

I find myself turning more to poetry the older I get. Maybe because I’m uncertain about the process of aging. I thought I’d have more answers, but I get more uncertain with each passing day. It seems I can come to grips with that uncertainty, and, by the way, with insomnia, by indulging myself.

Here is a line 

Here is a line,

A place, a space,

Where she is and she is not.

Containing finite territory and infinite ether.

Side by side. Both parts are her. Seen and unseen.

How can this be? Yet it is.

 

“Metastatic breast cancer.”

She speaks with practiced ease from saying the words a thousand times,

Thinking them a million times.

Where she is now will become the reverse,

an absence.

Where she is now will transmute into a void.

How will I know her shape when she is gone?

Both halves exist now. Her and not-her.

Both halves will continue afterwards. Her and not her.

She walks, a shape, a shade, at the same time,

Her presence, gradually losing substance until she becomes her own counterpart.

 

I wait day by day.

Grasp the wisps of her

Flowing through my fingers like fog.

Hardly satisfactory, now or then,

Until she is missing.

Only a hollow,

Nothing to be done

Except fill the outlines of both sides of her with my pain

(©) 2019.

SUMMER CONCERT ON THE STAPLETON GREEN 2018

 

Jump for joy.
Run and throw arms up and out,
Spin, whirl, twirl, hair trailing, blowing.
Always moving, never stopping, somersaulting, kicking, vaulting.
Leap off stairs, roll down hills.
Toss balls and handfuls of grass, even an umbrella if                                                         you have one,
Or a little brother.
Pull skirts over butts, shoulders, heads.
Break things—toys, sticks, balloons, but not bones.
Sob when mom says no.
Pick nose, scratch sting, bite sister.
Lick a Popsicle, spit a wad, chew a taffy, suck a straw, munch a cookie.
Scream, howl, whistle, sing.
Skip, race, yell, punch.
Hair and arms and legs flying.
Small last one trying, always failing
to keep up.
No matter.
Laugh, smile, cry, shout.
Turn, dance, clap in time or out
Hug, kiss, stroke, pinch, cry.
Chase, catch, push, knock down.
Dance, parade, prance.
Faces smeared with ice cream, dirt, chocolate, mustard.
Look up. Clouds, sky.
Look around. Trees, park, people.
Trip, fall, laugh, cry.
Everyone loves someone here.
Yes, even the blond toddler blasting anger.
How long will this last? How long can it?
Harvest energy and life unbound.
A new crop next year.

c. 2018

(I’ve been trying my hand at more poetry, usually grounded in the everyday)

April Is the Cruelest Month, but It Brings Lilacs

Lilac bushes present their flowers profusely in spring, most often in April. For Colorado, this means the grandiose display might fall victim to late snows and freezes. The unstated counsel from the annual spectacle of cascading buds points out that for life to continue, lilacs, as well as all living things, have to face risks. So lilacs bloom according to their nature and occasionally lose the race to obtain sufficient warmth and water to strut their stuff.

Lilacs possess a special attraction for me. I don’t know why, have tried to analyze it to see how the feeling of joy that swells in me when I spot the lilacs might be transferred to other situations. Although I’ve been unsuccessful, I think it has something to do with childhood.

My strongest memory of the flower is from about the age of six. My family was living with my grandfather in a tiny Minnesota rural town. The lilac bush grew beside his small two story frame house, which lacked an indoor toilet and potable water. It compensated by having a glorious plant, at least eight feet tall (remember, I was probably three feet tall at the time), and eight feet in circumference. If I shoved through the first layer of branches in grasping distance, I could push them aside to reach a hollowed -out interior. A secret house, a retreat, a place to hide, where the scent of the lilacs surrounded me. There I would host parties for my dolls and build creations from twigs, stones and scraps of this and that.

I wasn’t alone in this belief that lilac bushes were places of enchantment. They lent their presence to stories and poems, such as Louisa May Alcott’s novel Under the Lilacs. Because lilacs are so ubiquitous, growing in nearly every area of the US except the South and places that lack a cold winter, readers immediately recognize their beauty and familiar comfort. They’re a common symbol for spring, for rebirth, for determination.

Somehow, over the years, it seems to me lilacs have toned down their persistent awesome fragrance. Decades ago one early morning while taking a walk, I was struck by their delicate scent wafting at least a block in all directions. Since then I’ve wondered if I’d been up especially early when the cool air was friendlier to the perfume or had there been less traffic exhaust than usual through some fluke? Ever since then I’ve had to step close, to bury my nose in the blooms in order to catch the bouquet. Another victim of ever-increasing population growth and traffic.

Lilacs are glorious. When I see them, I want to embrace them, bury my body in them. I wonder what passersby in the local park think when they see me standing motionless deep within a bush, clinging to an armful of branches. Talk about tree-huggers! No other plant inspires in me such intensity. I’m a victim, just like the Greek who created the story about lilacs.

According to Greek mythology, the enchantment of lilacs began when Pan, god of forests and fields, spotted a gorgeous nymph named Syringa (lilac’s botanical name). Captivated by her beauty, he chased her through the forest. Frightened by Pan’s affections, Syringa used her powers to turn herself into an aromatic bush, thus escaping him. The plant, which we refer to as lilacs, symbolize in the language of flowers, the first emotions of love (purple), while white lilacs represent youthful innocence.

Enhancing and enlarging upon the varied emotions I associate with lilacs is an unforgettable statement by T.S. Eliot from his masterpiece The Wasteland. He magically combines thoughts of beauty, life, death, and pain into one soul-shaking phrase. “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”Bring ‘em on. I welcome lilacs.

Remembering Mrs. Binkleman: the lasting, glorious, indelible impact of a great teacher

teacherSuffering the blues lately, I was wishing either I was luckier or more talented in my writing or willing to work harder. Typical “feel sorry for yourself” fugue state. As I moped and moaned to myself (my partner won’t tolerate my whining to him), various words came automatically to my mind. Something about beweeping my outcast state and troubling deaf heaven with my cries. Where did that come from, I wondered.

I spared a few minutes to think, and I dredged up out of my memory an old poem that I’d been forced to memorize in school. Shakespeare.* Which led me to remember other things I’d learned by rote in the senior year of high school. Lady MacBeth’s “is this a dagger”. . . Chaucer’s “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote”. . .Burns’ “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us to see oursels as ithers see us!” English teacher Mrs. Binkleman ruled with a firm hand but the soul of a poet.

Unlike some students, who complained and bitched and moaned about the assignments from white-haired, long-skirted Mrs. Binkleman, I kind of enjoyed them, although I never admitted the fact. The language, the history, the door to great minds impressed me. What I didn’t expect was any kind of payback. Memorization was rote, mechanical work, no creativity and little challenge. I never imagined I’d benefit from the tasks. (An aside, she also coached us in thousands of spelling words and other strategies to help us score high on college entrance exams.)

I now seen I’ve gotten lots of rewards from my conscientiousness. The first was in college when I won two tickets to the movies on a radio show for quoting the Burns poem. Less tangible but longer-lasting are the effects when the selections come to me during interesting points in my life. I can quote them to my grandchildren as ready-made homilies. Impress acquaintances. Use them as references in my writing.

The least-anticipated has been the emotional solace they provide. The Shakespearean sonnet that I remembered continues with a comparison to what’s really important—the person the poet loves, who makes him richer than a king, something I needed to recall in the welter of my depression. Others hold equal consolation. “To be” reminds me even the mighty can be confused about the purpose of life. I even have upon occasion memorized additional short pieces I discovered on my own that hold promise of insight. Dickenson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers” and Rosetti’s “Who has seen the wind?” Memorized selections come to me when I need them.

So here’s to Mrs. Binkleman and all the teachers like her. They’ve given their students so much more than the ability to regurgitate phrases, Thank your lucky stars you had them for guidance in life and comfort for the soul. Don’t wait, like I’ve unfortunately done, until fifty years after the fact to thank them, too. Let them know now.

* Sonnet 29 (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174357)
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
       For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
       That then I scorn to change my state with kings.