Friday, May 1, 2015

The Power of Words: Our Poets Laureate
My friend Jane Hood, beloved Nebraskan, mentioned poet Ted Kooser in a facebook post, so I went online and looked him up. He was born in Iowa in 1939 and spent most of his life in Nebraska, immersed in the Great Plains. He was in the insurance business when he started writing poetry. James Billington, the eminent long-tme head of the Library of Congress, selected him as the "Poet Laureate of the United States" in 2004. That distinction has been going on for some time; every year the LOC director gets to pick a poet of, by and for the people. Yes, we have a Poet Laureate.

Favorite independent bookstore
still thriving in NW Washington.
Below, poetry books on display.

I paid more attention to this special position when I lived in Washington. Gwendolen Brooks and Rita Dove were poets laureate, and Mark Strand, Joseph Brodsky and Robert Haas.  They gave readings, sat with us in bookstores (many independents in those days),went out into our community, in schools and public forums, to share their poetry. How fortunate we were.  

I'm glad Jane reminded me of this glorious tradition.  When I have to turn away from the tragic news of the day, because it winds me up, I seek refuge in poetry.  "Stop watching the news," my sister Andy advises from time to time. In these days of terror and violence, at home and abroad, the poets bring us down to earth, teach us about life's complexities and pleasures, about nature and authentic spirituality that comes from the soul, not from on high, not from extremists.  

These days, I'm drawn to poems about aging, about how life takes us to unexpected places, changes the way we look at the world and at ourselves, inspires faith in a power higher than ourselves. Faith in the power of words. "What once was meant to be a now just a bruise on a bony old shoulder," Ted Kooser confesses in stunning self-awareness.     

What once was meant to be a statement—
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise
on a bony old shoulder, the spot
where vanity once punched him hard
and the ache lingered on. He looks like
someone you had to reckon with,
strong as a stallion, fast and ornery,
but on this chilly morning, as he walks
between the tables at a yard sale

with the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt
rolled up to show us who he was,
he is only another old man, picking up
broken tools and putting them back,
his heart gone soft and blue with stories.

(from Delights & Shadows, Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA 2004) 

One thing leads to another.  Who's our current Poet Laureate? I went back online. Turns out he is another voice from my generation:  Charles Wright, born in 1935 in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee.  He began writing poetry while serving in the US Army in Italy. Wright is a retired professor at the University of Virginia.  While Kooser has a Great Plains sensibility, Wright's is southern. Their poetry is infused with regionalism but universal in spirit. It resonates. 
I think this so because, inspite of our differences, we share a generation, time and space, an era that is changing faster than the speed of light. We have seen many of the same things, grew up in the 1950s and '60s, encountered similar world experiences, events and traumas, share spiritual and geographic travels, hold the same years in the palms of our hands.  Might this also in part explain James BiIlington's selections? 

As I read the poems of Kooser and Wright, browsing in this gem and that, I'm struck by the fact that I am more in tune with the power of the past than the culture of the present.  In fact, I have to admit that I'm pretty out of touch with our pop culture. For example, I'm totally clueless about the current music scene, the names, the songs, the content, out of touch with the things my grandkids listen to and watch online, noses in their smart phones and ipads.  As much as I want to stay engaged in the present, and I try, I have all these added decades on my bones, all these memories, some I created myself, that make me who I am, an old lady hugging the present for dear life as time slips away. "Spring in its starched bib."  as Wright so beautifully honors it. 

Here are two poems by Charles Wright.   

Last Supper
I seem to have come to the end of something, but don’t know what, 
Full moon blood orange just over the top of the redbud tree.
Maundy Thursday tomorrow, 
then Good Friday, then Easter in full drag, 
Dogwood blossoms like little crosses
All down the street, 
lilies and jonquils bowing their mitred heads.

Perhaps it’s a sentimentality about such fey things, 

But I don’t think so. One knows
There is no end to the other world, 
no matter where it is.
In the event, a reliquary evening for sure, 
The bones in their tiny boxes, rosettes under glass.

Or maybe it’s just the way the snow fell 

a couple of days ago, 
So white on the white snowdrops.
As our fathers were bold to tell us, 
it’s either eat or be eaten.
Spring in its starched bib, 
Winter’s cutlery in its hands. Cold grace. Slice and fork.

 Excerpt from BODY AND SOUL (for Coleman Hawkins)

I used to think the power of words was inexhaustible,
That how we said the world
            was how it was, and how it would be.
I used to imagine that word-sway and word-thunder
Would silence the Silence and all that,
That worlds were the Word,
That language could lead us inexplicably to grace,
As though it were geographical.
I used to think these things when I was young.
            I still do.

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