On the Occasion of Poetry

I’ve done a tremendous amount of writing in the past four months, much more than in the previous few years combined. I often go through spurts, starts and stops, devoting time to writing lyrics for a song or turning my attention to a poem or two. Sometimes I’ll give an assignment to my students, and because I like to model the work, I’ll find myself suddenly transported, deep in thought, churning out a little rhyming poem or a series of haiku.

Over the years, I’ve come to love the poetry units I teach, maybe more than anything else during the school year, and I often culminate them with assignments to write similar poetry. In a world where analytical writing is so privileged, I also want my students to do something more creative, more expressive, more emotional. And with regard to my own writing, I’ve found myself working more and more in the world of poetry, alongside these blog posts, of course.

Certainly, circumstance plays a role, providing the occasion for poetry. For example, just before Christmas, I made a connection with a colleague, someone I’d seen off and on in my building, who I was obliged to speak to now and then, and really nothing more. But by chance, we struck up a conversation about books and discovered a mutual fondness for Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. I have long loved this book, and of the many novels written by Kingsolver, including The Poisonwood Bible, it’s Prodigal Summer that moved me the most. That served as an appropriate introduction, and I’m happy to call Tracey a friend now.

More importantly, however, is Tracey’s love of poetry. She’s been writing for a long time, working seriously as a poet. Having quickly developed some trust, I sent her a collection of poems I’ve been working up to get her opinion, and likewise, she shared her published book of poetry, Storm Farmer, with me. Soon we were in business. She came as a guest to my creative writing class to lead a lesson on mimicking the work of other poets. My students, who recently collected some of their work in a little chapbook, many of them selected the poem written from that class activity. Of course, I wrote a poem, too, and the occasion, her presence and interaction with my students, fueled my writing.

Poetry is often about timing. We wait around for the right inspiration, something that moves us so that we can’t help but try to capture it on the white whale in front of us, whether it be the computer screen or the blank pages of a notebook, but poetry is as much about inspiration as the circumstances that arise, or that we make, in our daily lives. Perhaps, that’s why I admire those writers who show such discipline by writing day after day, good or bad. They approach writing like a day job, rather than the stereotypical artist, moved by the moment or the muse.

John Grisham, author of so many novels, is famous for this kind of resolve. While writing his first novel, A Time to Kill, he committed himself to writing every morning for three years, day after day, as he continued to work as a lawyer. It’s a habit he’s continued, even after becoming a bestselling writer, which allows him to publish a novel almost every year.

Likewise, Jason Isbell, recent Grammy winning songwriter and guitarist, has spoken about approaching his craft in a similar fashion. After being tossed out of the Drive-By Truckers and finally getting sober, he worried about ability, about inspiration. Did he have what it takes to make music while clean? However, he found that alcohol and excess was only an excuse, and that his best writing has come from the discipline of sitting with a guitar, working with lyrics and melodies, in a more disciplined way. Like Grisham, he also sets aside time to write, and in interviews, he often states that he doesn’t believe in writer’s block.

Nevertheless, circumstances, whether manufactured or random, have helped renew my poetry habit. At the grocery store, a few weeks ago, I happened upon my artist friend and gallery owner. Betty told me that her new gallery was set to open the following weekend with a space dedicated to a local artist, Joe Welden. As it turns out, I’d already written a poem about Joe, having been a fan of his art and purchasing a painting by him several years ago. At her invitation then, I read my poem at the dedication ceremony. In my opening remarks, I said, “This is the right place and the right audience for this poem, ” and truly, I couldn’t have found a better time to read the poem in all my life, surrounded by Joe’s artwork, in a space named for him, in the company of his family and friends. I couldn’t have asked for a better reception, a better place to release the poem into the world.

That moment, nevertheless, was relatively short—the event lasting a few hours, the reading only a few minutes. But the event provided good motivation, reminding me that poetry is a worthwhile pursuit. That those countless hours revising a single line again and again until it sounds just right, and then doing it again the next day, the same line, returning to the former phrasing because, after twenty-four hours, it was a mistake after all. That time, that mental energy—that’s worth something. It’s easy sometimes to say it’s pointless or selfish, that I’m wasting my time and energy. It’s easy to judge ourselves not worthy of the pursuit. But that’s the triumph of any artistic endeavor, and especially creative writing, that someone makes the occasion for poetry. We say, yes, this deserves my attention, and then we write, whether it’s a novel, a song, or a poem.

Painting by Joe Welden
Joe Welden

Jazz Artist
by Aaron Sinkovich

Like any ordinary cup of coffee, our Joe Welden
could easily be passed over for something more robust,
but there’s a world teeming inside him, a fresh, rich pot
brewed with jazz and full of folks always giving him the slip—
musicians, saxophones blowing notes and singers singing songs,
a rhythm running through his figures like his fingers over a keyboard.

Almost anything can serve as Joe’s canvas—
napkins, crumpled newspaper, salvaged windows and ceiling tiles,
something with texture, an up and down, a rhythm or chord progression,
laying down a beat like the rat-tat-tat of a snare, the ting-tinging of a cymbal
until you feel it under your feet, the people moving with Geppetto’s music,
at block parties, city bars, along hot streets lined with tall buildings—
drinking in life with secret arrangements to run away before daylight.

Instead of three musicians, he painted four for me—
I swear it’s The Bird, Benny, Miles, and Ella
who slipped away this time, —Could you really blame them?
refusing to lay down their instruments,
racing away to another gig, another stage, another audience
to play notes, like Joe’s brush strokes, that can never be pinned down.

And don’t bother these folks with “professional framing”—
exact measurements, perfect right angles, smooth polished finishes,
that’s too square, like playing the notes straight time;
much better to improvise, to use what’s at hand, let the beats swing
so the song is never played the same way twice—
that’s Joe’s signature, Joe’s art, Joe’s jazz.

The Things We Carry

I had just enrolled in the graduate program at The Ohio State University when I read “How to Tell a True War Story” for the first time. The author, Tim O’Brien, was unknown to me, but I found the story, included in the book I’d be using to teach freshman composition, both fascinating and challenging. O’Brien tells the story of Curt Lemon, a Vietnam soldier who steps on a landmine, exploding high into the trees of the jungle. But the story isn’t really about Curt, but rather how the remaining soldiers cope with his death. And the narrator readily admits, the details of the story, well, they aren’t necessarily true, but stretched and edited and even changed to better get at the real truth, which is the feelings these soldiers carried through Vietnam.

Soon I encountered another story also by Tim O’Brien, “On the Rainy River,” anthologized in a book I was hoping to give my students as a supplement to the required reading. Here, O’Brien tells the story of a young man, barely out of high school, who drives to the edge of Canada hoping to dodge the Vietnam draft. It’s a surreal story that gave me chills. By the time I had read The Things They Carried, the novel comprised of woven short stories about Vietnam and the proper place where these two stories reside, I had fallen hard for O’Brien. My final semester teaching freshman composition, I taught the entire novel for the first time.

The Things They Carried Book Cover

Fast forward, almost twenty years. Eventually I knew The Things They Carried would end up in my high school curriculum. When I ordered brand new textbooks a few years back, I was also offered copies of O’Brien’s novel. I jumped at the chance, eager to dive right in, but wary, too, knowing that the subject matter is sometimes graphic and provocative. The stories cover, among many other things, witnessing death for the first time, not living up to your parents’ expectations, and facing the despair that comes with failure. Tough stuff, not only for high school students, but adults, too. O’Brien has said in interviews that he wrote this novel for adults, and he’s surprised so many young people are reading it in their English classes. I’d say, however, that’s where the book belongs. Like the characters in the novel, my students carry so many things, often traumatic and disturbing, that I can’t see.

Reactions to the book have been positive. Having carried this book for a long time now, I’m still intrigued. I’m still trying to make sense of it, noticing again and again its beauty, complexity, and pattern. It has had such an effect on me, so much so that for the past two weeks, I’ve been listening to the book on Audible, mostly while driving back and forth to work. It’s only deepened my love. Last Thursday, while driving the dozen or so miles to soccer practice, I said to my son, who’s a Breaking Bad fan, that’s Bryan Cranston reading the novel. I can’t think of anyone else I would rather hear deliver the novel, and before we had parked the car, Nate had already asked if there was a copy of the book at home.

Next week, my students begin new material, moving on from their study of the novel, but I hope some of them carry it with them longer. Not long ago, I felt fortunate to hear Tim O’Brien give a reading in Binghamton on a rainy Saturday night in March. My wife, who came along with me, found herself captivated by his sincerity. In his remarks about The Things They Carried, he said, “A story helps us to feel and not just to think. It appeals to our whole being, our emotions and our intellect.” With that in mind, as a culminating activity, I assigned my classes the task of writing about something they have carried. It didn’t need to be a physical object, necessarily, but I told them it couldn’t be their phone. In the past, students have written about so many interesting things—a long held depression, the suicide of a close relative, and objects, too, such as a wallet passed down from father to son or a simple smooth stone that touching lightly provides comfort. I’m always surprised by what they share with me, and I’d like to think that reading the novel inspires the courage for students to tell their own stories. It’s my hope, at least, that as O’Brien said, students will see that telling stories helps us feel with a deeper understanding.

Since I always show my students a model essay, here’s mine. Those who have been reading my posts for the past few months will probably recognize some common themes.

The Pen I’ve Carried for Over One Hundred Days

It doesn’t seem like much, but for me it’s a big deal.  I’ve been carrying the same pen around with me for over two marking periods.  Over one hundred days. And no, the pen is nothing special. On the first day of school, before all the students—all of you—arrived, I went to a meeting empty handed, and someone lent me a black plastic pen, which I promptly bogarted upon leaving the meeting.  It was shiny. It had black ink. It had a push-button tip. It felt comfortable. Most importantly, I later realized, it had a clip where I could attach it to my shirt. I think it was a promotional giveaway, too, because it also sports a little PSEA logo, which is the teacher’s state union organization to which almost all teachers belong.

 
Somehow, the pen has stayed with me.  That’s unusual. And we’ve grown quite close.  It may be in my school bag with all the papers I need to grade.  Ugh. Other times it’s in my pants pocket, safely out of sight but right where I need it.  Usually, I clip it to my shirt, and I’ve found I like it there. It’s handy. It makes me feel prepared.  I’m ready to sign my name to that all important pink pass, to write one hundred at the top of a perfect paper, or to copy that ten word vocabulary bellringer assignment. And the clip, the ALMIGHTY CLIP atop the black plastic pen, has made it possible, at least it feels that way. It is the scabbard to my pen sword. When I have that pen clipped to my shirt, I am prepared for battle.


But all joking aside, though, there is an important lesson I’ve taken away from carrying that pen. I’ve always been a teacher that burns through boxes of pens like a wildfire. I typically lose them left and right, hand them out like candy at a parade, and generally buy them in bulk at the beginning of each school year.  But this year, something clicked, and I’ve used almost one pen exclusively; and although I’ve almost lost it a few times, it’s still with me. For me, I guess, it proves that I’m capable of changing something about myself, getting better at something that I failed at, miserably.  It reminds me of that line we read from Thoreau’s Walden, that this may be the year that drowns all your muskrats. Those lost pens, year after year, in a way were some of my muskrats. And yes, there are still other muskrats to be drowned but carrying the pen—weirdly enough—makes me feel better about it all.