Monday, April 7, 2014

Don't be afraid: it's just poetry


     The great Gene Weingarten, the Washington Post's two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, called me out over this column in a Twitter exchange (from Aussie hookers to the best columnist working—I piss off 'em all). Actually, he wasn't mad, just questioned whether something could be poetry if it doesn't rhyme. I answered an emphatic "YES!" but he held his ground. There is no accounting for taste, and I'm trying to forget that he finds "Death of the Hired Man" by Robert Frost to be tripe. To me this is all a quibble over semantics: poems are what people call poems.
     Friday was cold and windy. Getting dressed for the Cubs home opener, I thought: better put on my Under Armour. Which is usually reserved for skiing or when it’s 15 below zero. But I worried that high-tech long johns were overkill, so I fired off an email to a Cub fan buddy, who would be at the game. Is wearing long underwear to the ballpark in April, I asked, a “prudent precaution” or a “shameful stratagem?”
     You’ll notice the alliteration in that question. Not an accident. “Prudent precaution” came naturally, then I paused, searching for the right “s” word to put after “shameful.”
     Not poetic, of course, but a reminder that we can all use language to decorate and enhance the most ordinary moments of our lives, like checking with a pal to see if wearing long underwear to Wrigley Field will mark a guy as a weakling. (“I will be wearing mine,” he answered, a reply I was grateful for when the wind picked up and the temperature dropped after the sixth).
     Cut to the next day, around Sheffield and Fullerton, I noticed the sleek Pegasus logo of the Poetry Foundation on a placard atop a taxi cab. Oh right. April is National Poetry Month, and while the commencement of baseball is marked in Chicago with pomp, solemnity and mass ritual, events like Poetry Month are shrugged off by the vast majority, which is just plain wrong. 
     First, poetry is important. Yes, as with long underwear, there is a whiff of effeminacy to it that many guys find off-putting. A cultural slur you’d think we would have abandoned long ago. Soldiers write poetry, not only a century ago, such as  Wilfred Owen’s classic “Dulce et Decorum Est,” about a World War I gas attack (Go online and read it right now, “As under a green sea, I saw him drowning/In all my dreams, before my helpless sight/He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”
     But also soldiers fighting today. Brian Turner, in his collection “Here, Bullet” sees a sergeant shoot a crane in Iraq. "It pauses, as if amazed death has found it/here, at 7 a.m. on such a beautiful morning, before pitching over the side and falling/in a slow unraveling of feathers and wings."
     Second, poetry is useful. It's a tool, like a screwdriver or a hammer. Though I suppose that depends on who you are. If you are Mr. Equanimity, smiling at the clouds as you stroll happily along, your neighbors setting their watches as you pass by, well, maybe the stuff has not much use for you.
     Even then, there are always lighter poets, like Billy Collins, who runs up to the reader waving his poem like a 6-year-old showing off a new toy. "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."
     Me, being a dark sort, I've been revelling in the poems of Louise Gl├╝ck, such as "Stars." She inventories her scant world. "I have a bed, a vase/of flowers beside it,/ and a nightlight, a book." Life itself questions her: "Do you dare/send me away as though/you were waiting for something better?/There is no better/Only (for a short space)/the night sky . . ." To which she hisses back: " I was brave, I resisted,/I set myself on fire."
     And third, Chicago is a poetry town. Do you think Wrigley Field, built in 1914, is old? Poetry Magazine was founded here in 1912 by Harriet Monroe, and has fielded better players and enjoyed a better past century.
     Chicago is a city not only with statues to poets such as Goethe, but with an apartment building and a parking garage named for poets. There is the Uptown Poetry Slam at the Green Mill on Sundays, now in its 27th year, and why that isn't a standard Chicago tourist stop along with Wrigley and the Art Institute is an utter mystery. There is the Poetry Foundation itself, which put up its airy and attractive building on West Superior to help sop up the Lilly $100 million fortune that drenched it, a dubious boon they've coped with better than expected.
     There is nothing superfluous about good poetry. It guides and instructs. I picked up "Leaves of Grass" a 150-year-old poem, and read one sentence that resonates today.
     "And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy," Walt Whitman writes, "walks to his own funeral, dressed in his shroud."
     That's it, I thought. That's what our political problem is right now. Not enough sympathy —for other people, that is. We overflow with sympathy for ourselves and puzzle that others don't share it, when we are so stingy doling it out. Maybe we should take our cue from Whitman and pause from marching graveward to cast off our blinding burial cloth, force ourselves to feel compassion for the other guy, even if we don't like him. Here poetry helps, or could help, if only we let it.

14 comments:

  1. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/06/poems-make-grown-men-cry-extract

    Just read a book review Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, published by Simon & Schuster

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    1. It must have been difficult to have your dad not speak to you for 6 mos. Hard for your mom too. Had a rough dad myself.

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  2. I always keep a copy of Louise Gluck's "The House on Marshland" nearby, in case things get a little "lite."

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  3. Don't forget the Chicago poets like Carl Sandburg, Gwendolyn Brooks, Marc Smith (of Uptown Poetry Slam), and Li-Young Lee.

    And for poetry happening now, there's this: http://chicagopoetrycalendar.blogspot.com/

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  4. I like what Keats, an eminent practitioner, said in trying to distiguish between poetry and prose: "A sentence can be infinitely varied for good or ill, but a line of poetry sometimes comes right with an audible click." Much modern poetry strikes me as "clickless," but I'll have to look into Louise Gluck.

    WWI was the last real "literary war." It was said that most British soldiers carried with them a bible and a copy of "The Shropshire Lad." Wilfred Owen was only one of many, although among the best. Paul Fussell's "The Great War and Modern Memory" is a fine treatment of the circumstances that created and inspired them.

    It used to be that you could read popular song lyrics as light poetry -- Ira, Cole, Lorenz etc. No more, alas!

    I agree that poetry can be useful to those who invest themselves in it, but probably not in a more general sense. As Auden put it:

    "For poetry makes nothing happen, it survives
    In the valley of its saying where executives
    would never want to tamper."

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  5. Stratagem is usually defined as a way to deceive or outwit your opponent, so I don't think it is the right word here. Would shameful sissification work? Woeful weakness?

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  6. Poetry is kind of at a dead end.Many more people want to write it than read it, and discerning the good from the bad is kind of an arbitrary thing.

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  7. Neil,

    FYI, as far as I can tell, the "continue reading" link for this post now links to the Robert Frost poem at the Poetry Foundation website rather than the rest of the column.

    "while the commencement of baseball is marked in Chicago with pomp, solemnity and mass ritual, events like Poetry Month are shrugged off by the vast majority, which is just plain wrong."

    Well, there's no denying that. However, in March, the Newberry Library hosted a standing-room-only crowd for a charming celebration of the 100th anniversary of Carl Sandburg's "Chicago." Your buddy Bill Savage, Robert Polito of the Poetry Foundation, and Marc Smith of the Uptown Poetry Slam, along with a number of others, participated. Perhaps if you weren't so busy bundling up for baseball games and watching the Bulls on TV, you could've attended! ; )

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  8. Thanks Jakash -- fixed now. You are right about that event. I fully meant to go. Bill edited my Chicago book, and I've had lunch with Robert -- a charming man. Marc is a hoot too -- he invited me to be the featured reader at the Poetry Slam, which was scary fun. But I bobbled the date. Were you there? Was it wonderful?

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    1. Neil,

      Yeah, my wife and I attended the Sandburg celebration, and really enjoyed it. There were many interesting presentations. We got there a little late, which is why I remarked upon the standing-room-only crowd, as we were among those standing, which was no problem. In addition to allowing for different vantage points, it made it easier to avail oneself of the complimentary Haymarket beer... ; )

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  9. This is wonderful; I believe there's nothing quite like good poetry. It's true, there's no accounting for taste, and that's a good thing. There is so much reward to be gained when a poem speaks to you in just the right way, at just the right time.

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  10. If you pay, you decide to some extent.

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  11. Be careful with you and yours in Paris, if still there. This just in-

    IS group claims Champs-Elysees attack on police officers

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