Poetry readings

We got off the mountain today and spent a couple hours at the local Barnes and Noble.  We’re more profligate on vacation, so we each got a couple of books.  I bought Good Poems, Garrison Keillor’s first anthology of the poems he has read on “The Writer’s Almanac” over several years of weekday mornings.

I’ve wanted to write fewer poems that are, as Keillor in his introduction describes his own early poetry, “lacerating, opaque, complexly layered, unreadable.”  Who better to turn to than Keillor?  Because he’s on the radio, he picks poems that make a strong first impression and sound good.  He’s also a snob snob.  For instance, Keillor’s introduction lacerates a couple of my heroes, including T.S. Eliot.  Gosh, Garrison, who is more delicious to the ear than Eliot?  But I’ll absorb the blow: I’m in no position to use Eliot as a direct model for my own writing.

After dinner I propose a poetry reading.  Michael, T., S., and B. are good sports, and I assign each of them a couple of poems from Good Poems. T. has spent most of the last three months training a dog (she does this in her spare time when she’s not teaching in and running her own school), so I give her Howard Nemerov’s “Walking the Dog.”   T. is Jewish and, like the rest of the vacationing adults, has grown out of some strict, evangelical notions about life.  Her Yiddish is graphic, but she has always been more reticent about English potty-mouth words.  We all roared to hear her read “And circles thrice about, and squats, and shits.”  She then took it upon herself to read us Maxine Kumin’s “The Excrement Poem” on the facing page.

[picture]Michael got one of Wendell Berry’s more preachy, bumptious poems, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”  Perfect for Michael in style and content.  Just as good was Philip Booth’s “How to See Deer” (also available in Booth’s Lifelines: Selected Poems 1950 – 1999). Michael and T. gave up their suburban existence to live in the country, and Michael loves sitting out behind their place at night to watch the critters hunt and run and fly in the moonlight. His color-blindness allows him to see the goings-on in sharp relief. He’s also my mentor, and his insight into human nature and personal growth (one aspect of “How to See Deer”) has helped me immeasurably over the twenty years of our friendship.

He finishes Booth’s poem:

You’ve learned by now

to wait without waiting;

as if it were dusk

look into light falling:

in deep relief

things even out.  Be

careless of nothing.  See

what you see.

He admires the poem and describes to us how accurately it tracks the qualities someone who tracks animals needs to inculcate.

“Of course, we don’t have to work to see deer anymore,” I point out.  “They’re everywhere.”

“Yes, but have you seen your deer?”  Michael responds.

Hmm. With apologies to Philip Booth:

How to see a poem

Forget academics.

Stay clear of verse.

Read bedtime stories

Gran told, her eyes wide

to your wonder.  Countenance

no nightmare.  Be strong and

late for your crises.

Storm heaven and fall

Like rain.  Make storm

sewer friends.  Hear

voices above. Make out

no words.  Lose hope.

Rest.  You’ve come to

accept a sleepless nightmare.

Groan and pray in ash but

Cleanse nothing: a story

inseminated brings

its own morning sickness.

Trust the abyss.

Instructed by darkness,

wait for yourself.

You know by now not

to care for daybreak.

Take care of yourself,

rocked in your arms.

Let your tears teach you

how to read.  See strangers

come from nowhere

to watch your face as

they read to you.