We had a pretty good row this morning about…well, many things I suppose. It was about socially acceptable behavior and who defines what’s right and wrong; it was about judgment of others and ourselves; it was about boundaries, and it was about taking a stand for what you believe in. That’s a lot of big stuff to cover in just a few minutes at a fairly heated level of exchange, and I hope we can revisit all of it in a more leisurely peaceful fashion in the near future.
But for now, my darling, I want to talk to you about what started the argument: poetry.
I offered you an e e cummings poem to take into English class, where you are currently studying poetry and cummings, and you blanched about taking the poem to your teacher. I then, got more than a little upset with you and the rest is – as they say – history. In fact though, the rest is the story about a lifetime love affair with poetry and how pursuing what you love, will change you forever.
I first declared that I wanted to be a poet “someday” in the fourth grade. A local poet by the name of David Zaslow, came to Lincoln Elementary School to teach us how to “be a poet.” His opening reading was the William Carlos Williams’ piece –
“This Is Just To Say”
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold.
I was mesmerized. David went on to teach us about metaphor and simile, about onomatopoeia and alliteration. He coaxed haiku and small rhyming bits from us, and read aloud from a collection entitled “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle” that held 114 treasures about topics ranging from hunting to loneliness, old dogs sunning themselves to biscuits, arithmetic to baseball games. In short, wonderful snippets and stories bound into a few graceful lines – about anything and everything in life. I learned that no topic was off-limits, a few key words could speak volumes, and a truly good poem would reach into your gut and momentarily take your breath away.
Mr. Cummings (or shall I say “mister cummings”) showed up in my life a couple of years later, when I was given a wonderful introduction at about aged twelve by Joe Dubay, a dear family friend. Joe pulled a volume off a shelf in my parent’s house, and asked me if I ever read poetry? I said yes, but confessed that “that guy’s stuff was hard for me to figure out.” Four readings later – together and out loud – and I was hooked. The poem was –
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
whistles far and wee
and eddieandbill come
running from marble and
piracies and it’s
when the world is puddle-wondeful
old balloonman whistles
far and wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing
from hopscotch and jump-rope and
We also had a long discussion about the license that cummings took with his punctuation and suddenly, everything I knew about conventionality and creativity changed. I began to surmise that to be completely daring – one must be comfortable with putting down the manuals and rule books, step off the edge of the writer’s cliff and never look back. (This, dear Sarah, also applies to Life.)
At fourteen, with the help of my very hip ninth grade English teacher, Terry Wells, I fell in love with the lyrics of Paul Simon:
“Time it was and what a time it was,
A time of innocence,
A time of confidences,
Long ago it must be,
I have a photograph,
Preserve your memories,
There all that’s left you…” (from Old Friends)
and Mr. Wells declared that despite that fact that Simon was disguised as a musician, he was actually one of the greatest poets ever to be encountered.
As I merged into the fast lane of adolescence, I began regularly writing my own poems which were, by the way — very bad. They were full of teen angst and sorrow and filled with yearnings for true love and devotion; in a nutshell, they were schlock.
It was in high school that things turned a little sour. For the first time, I encountered teachers teaching poetry who didn’t understand it, didn’t like it and definitely didn’t want to teach it.
You see, Americans, in general, are uncomfortable with poetry. Because of the poetry education that adults once had, or lack thereof, they’ve been left with the sense that poetry is a subject rather than an art, an experience, or a source of pleasure. However, since I hadn’t drunk the Kool Aid, I was unlike my teachers and classmates who abhorred the required annual poetry unit. My writing continued, and I learned to quietly curb my enthusiasm until my senior year.
That year, named one of the Oregon’s top young poets through a state contest, I was awarded the honor of spending a full week studying with three very distinguished Northwest writers. More importantly though, I was offered the perspective-changing experience of sharing time with a dozen other kids from around the state who loved writing as much as me. And trust me when I assure you, we weren’t a bunch of horn-rimmed, pocket protector geeks. Writers are crazy, imaginative, spontaneous people – at any age, they are passionate about life, know how to have fun and are fairly fearless when it comes to expressing themselves!
The poet and essayist among those writers, was Kim Stafford (son of poet laureate, the late William Stafford) who further nurtured in me the idea that poems could be found everywhere and in any topic. Whole themes could arise from a single phrase or word overheard on a city bus, read on a billboard or awakening one in the middle of the night. Kim advocated for carrying a notebook to jot ideas, and whether he learned it from his father I don’t know, but like Stafford senior, he was adamant that writing daily was as essential as breathing for a poet. Then, and now, his convictions about writers are strong, “Writers have a place in this essential work — to question, listen, and tell the connecting stories of human experience, the quiet voices of local life everywhere.”
Soon after, I started university and turned eighteen. If it hadn’t happened significantly enough by then, that was the year my dear Sarah, that the work and words of one poet in particular changed my life.
(End of Part I)