Friday, April 8, 2016

April is Poetry Month

April is poetry month.  You may not have been aware of that fact, given the relatively low status of poetry these days.  Poets and books of poems are rarely published, and poetry itself seems to be at low ebb, save for the slams of energetic young poets reviving the genre as performance poets, delivering their work orally into microphones for eager crowds of listeners.

But kick back with a good book of poems?  Mention to your friends that you came upon this great book of poems by a hot new poet?  Not happening.  Can you name a poet writing today?  See what I mean?

It’s ironic I think.  Our attention spans are shrinking.  Poems are tailor made for the narrow width of a smart phone.  Poems are economical, typically short, distilled little bits of language that could fit in beautifully with the fast paced frenetic lives we live alternately on line and in the real world.  They could experience a rebirth in popularity on Twitter and on Face book, but it’s not likely.  No one seems to get poetry.  I think it’s a shame.

I get two poems a day, one from Writer’s Almanac and another from the Poetry Foundation, via e mail.  Some I simply delete.  They do nothing for me.  Others are a delight. Reading them in the morning in the shack sometimes starts my day out in a lovely way.  The good ones I copy to a Word file and save.  I have hundreds, my own little anthology.  I think of them as hidden pearls of language and meter.  Like silent songs.  Poetry is the music of written language.  It flows. It speaks to us with something besides mere words.  But sadly it gets no respect. Please read this poem to appreciate one of poetry's problems.

Introduction to Poetry
by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to water ski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Some damn English teacher assigned you a poem to read and during the next class period insisted it had deeper meaning.  He or she cut that poem up, dissected it, inserted meaning where there was none, and bored you to tears.

That’s not the way to approach poetry.  Read it like you listen to a Motown song.  Love it for what it is.  Take it as it comes.  Read it and feel it at the same time.  If you don’t like it forget it.  Look for another that means more to you, makes you smile, or cry, or pause and think.  Here’s one I like.  See what you think.  But don’t think about it too long.

I Ride Greyhound 
by Ellie Schoenfeld 

because it’s like being
in a John Steinbeck novel.
Next best thing is the laundromat.
That’s where all people
who would be on the bus if they had the money
hang out. This is my crowd.
Tonight there are cleaning people appalled
at the stupidity of anyone
who would put powder detergent
into the clearly marked LIQUID ONLY slot.
The couple by the vending machine
are fondling each other.
You’d think the orange walls
and fluorescent lights
would dampen that energy
but it doesn’t seem to.
It’s a singles scene here on Saturday nights.
I confide to the fellow next to me
that I suspect I am being taken
in by the triple loader,
maybe it doesn’t hold any more
than the regular machines
but I’m paying an extra fifty cents.
I tell him this meaningfully
holding handfuls of underwear.
He claims the triple loader
gives a better wash.
I don't ask why,
just cruise over to the pop machine,
aware that my selection
may provide a subtle clue.
I choose Wild Berry,
head back to my clothes.

See what I mean?  Poems are usually little slices of life.  They are there and then they’re gone.  It’s OK.  You don’t have to memorize them.  It doesn’t have to be deep.

It can be.  And they can rhyme also, but it's no longer required.  Time was when free verse, poems that don’t rhyme or follow a strict pattern of meter, were considered slop.  Robert Frost said that writing free verse was like “playing tennis without a net.”  That time is over.  The net is down.  Not that they weren’t good poems.  Try one of the old guys, a venerated wordsmith.  It’s short.  I promise it will be over quick.

The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls 
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 

The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveller hastens toward the town,
     And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
Efface the footprints in the sands,
     And the tide rises, the tide falls.

The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls
Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;
The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveller to the shore,
     And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Wasn't that nice?  Now try something more modern with a different tone.

The Love Cook
by Ron Padgett

Let me cook you some dinner.   
Sit down and take off your shoes   
and socks and in fact the rest   
of your clothes, have a daquiri,   
turn on some music and dance   
around the house, inside and out,   
it's night and the neighbors   
are sleeping, those dolts, and   
the stars are shining bright,   
and I've got the burners lit   
for you, you hungry thing.

I have lots of these.  I could go on and on.  Consider this lament from a veteran of the marriage wars.

Prolonged low level guerrilla warfare plagues the homeland

I rail that she moves my things
and I cannot find them.
She insists I leave things lying around
and never put them away.
The war continues unabated.
It has lasted thirty nine years.
For the first five neither she nor I took notice.
For the next thirty four we dug in solidly.
It flares occasionally into open aggression,
but mostly lies beneath the surface,
lurking under cold coffee cups, 
smoldering amidst the smelly chaos of laundry baskets.
Clenched teeth and pointed stares, often unnoticed, 
belie the conflict’s continued existence.
Until one of us dies we are doomed,
I fear,
to jagged resentment that reaches no truce.
And so we go on, our positions solidified.
We are weakened by surprise attacks which produce no victor,
exhausted by battles which know no end.

(Composed by the author during a temporary cease fire)

You’ve been missing out on poetry haven’t you?  They can be fun.  But poems can also be serious, even deadly.

I had thought the tumors... 
by Grace Paley

I had thought the tumors
on my spine would kill me but
the tumors on my head seem to be
extraordinary competitive this week.
For the past twenty or thirty years
I have eaten the freshest most
organic and colorful fruits and
vegetables I did not drink I
did drink one small glass of red
wine with dinner nearly every day
as suggested by The New York Times
I should have taken longer walks but
obviously I have done something wrong
I don’t mean morally or ethically or
geographically I did not live near
a nuclear graveyard or under a coal
stack nor did I allow my children
to do so I lived in a city no worse
than any other great and famous city I
lived one story above a street that led
cabs and ambulances to the local hospital
that didn’t seem so bad and was
often convenient
                       In any event I am
already old and therefore a little ashamed
to have written this poem full
of complaints against mortality which
biological fact I have been constructed for
to hand on to my children and grand—
children as I received it from my
dear mother and father and beloved
grandmother who all
ah if I remember it
were in great pain at leaving
and were furiously saying goodbye

So there you go.  Consider this my personal pitch to revive something in you that may have flickered out.  Or maybe your lamp was never lit.  Whatever the case, consider poetry.  You might even consider writing it.  I think poetry, writing it or reading it, is good for the soul.  I’ll end with one I wrote the other day, just to prove you can write a poem about anything. 
Enjoy your weekend.

Lazing in the shade

I felt something wet on my arm.
A bird pooped from high in a tree and it dropped, 
untouched by the thick green leaves and dark branches 
that blocked the sky above, 
onto me.
I laid face up on a bench in that tree’s shade,
arms akimbo,
reading, lolling, dozing, letting the day wrap around me.

I opened my eyes.
Beside the tree gauzy clouds
barely whitened the bright blue of the sky.
I turned my head 
Looked at the dollop of dung on my arm
and pondered my options.

I decided to lie still and let it dry.
I would wait till the manure’s moisture evaporated
into the hot dry air around me.
I listened to the birds,
watched the clouds and waited.
Perhaps I dozed again.

After some time, I don’t know how much, 
I sat up, took my knife from my pocket, 
and carefully scraped the tiny mound of manure away.
It came off cleanly with no stain,
Save for a few stubborn bits
clinging to the hairs,
bleached blonde by the sun,
on my forearm.
Those bits too soon disappeared without a trace.

I then wrote this poem.
About a lovely park on a hot spring day
in Guanajuato Mexico. 
When it was finished I lay back on the bench 
and went to sleep yet again safe in this thought:
What were the odds it could happen again?

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