I recently came across an online interview with the poet Ted Kooser from World Literature Today that shared his thoughts on the power of metaphor. In the past few months, I’ve been rereading one of his books, Splitting an Order, and sometimes I’ll select one of his poems to imitate in my own writing. So when I found this interview with some snippets about the use of metaphor, I paid close attention to his words.
Kooser claims that metaphor is central to his poetry. He says, “I have grad students who will be working on a draft of a poem, and they will say, ‘Don’t you think I ought to put a metaphor in here?’ And well, you can’t plug a metaphor in a poem. It has to be organic. You know, there are pretty successful poets who really can’t do metaphor. But for me, that’s really where the magic is.” That struck me as a writer, because sometimes I think the same way, almost as if I could insert one into a poem like a surgeon. Instead, he suggests that the metaphor must be cultivated as an essential part of the poem, which means working with metaphor earlier in the writing process. It shouldn’t be an afterthought in Kooser’s opinion.
When speaking about metaphor, Kooser also used the terms tenor and vehicle—terms that seemed foreign to me despite having a degree in English. One way to describe them is that tenor refers to the object or thing under the writer’s direct consideration and vehicle refers to the writer’s imagined relative object or thing. For instance, take Emily Dickinson’s lines, “Hope is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul.” Here, “hope” is the tenor because that’s what Dickinson is directly discussing in her poem, and a bird becomes the vehicle, because she imagines hope as a bird. Similarly, in the paragraph above I used a simile, which is a type of metaphor, when I wrote, “almost as if I could insert one like a surgeon.” Here, the tenor might be reduced to the writing process because that’s what I’m directly discussing, and the vehicle becomes surgery because that’s my imagined relative object.
So what gives metaphor such power? Kooser claims, citing work by the poet Robert Bly, that metaphor becomes more powerful when the distance between the tenor and the vehicle is larger. In other words, the larger the distance, the less likely that these two things might share a connection to each other by way of metaphor. According to Kooser, that “moment of recognition” between these two objects—especially when they are very distant—is where the power resides in a metaphor. Perhaps, then, it’s the ability to see something in a new way that gives metaphor such power.
We could get along without knowing these specific terms for metaphor just as people write without understanding the terms noun, verb, or adjective. However, the terms provide a tool for analyzing our use of metaphors, which might also help some people become better writers. At the very least, I’m encouraged to stretch myself as a writer, reminded to stay away from clichés and the overused. Certainly, Ted Kooser, who served as America’s Poet Laureate for a time, is one writer who might serve as a model, both in his poetry and process, and he doesn’t rush his writing. In fact, I’ve read elsewhere that he’s happy if he writes twelve good poems in a year.
It’s about this time that I’m usually wrapping up my teaching of American Romanticism. We’ve made it through Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and we’re just about done with my favorite, Henry David Thoreau. Over the years, I’ve made deletions and additions to the scope and sequence, hoping to keep the material fresh for me and my students. I’m always sizing up the material and my time. And sometimes things are placed aside for a while, like Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” which I haven’t assigned to my students to read this year.
I’m always discovering something new about these writers, too, as I dig further into their biographies. For instance, I recently learned that Henry David Thoreau and I were about the same height, 5 feet and 7 inches, which struck me as strange because I always imagined him as a tall, brooding man—Lincolnesque so to speak. But not so, which makes sense. His little house on Walden Pond measured only 10 x 15 feet, and I’d probably feel comfortable there, writing and posting my blog.
Walt Whitman, one of the biggest personalities of the time period, measured four inches taller than Thoreau. 5’ 11”. Not enormous, but a little larger, and perhaps that extra height made him a little bolder, choosing to break the rules by writing in free verse about taboo subjects that labeled him indecent by many of his contemporaries. Over the course of the past year, I’ve been reading Walt Whitman: A Life by Justin Kaplan, and I learned that Whitman was fired from a government clerk position while living in Washington, D.C., because his superior discovered a manuscript version of Leaves of Grass while rooting through his desk. Not to be daunted, Whitman always stood tall against critics and naysayers, despite repeated requests to tone down the language in the book.
And like his writing, his actions were bold, too. As I teach my students, and as many people familiar with his biography may already know, Whitman hoped to stake out some territory in the literary world by publishing a private correspondence from Ralph Waldo Emerson, which lauded great praise upon Whitman’s poetry, in his second edition of Leaves of Grass. To put this into context, I often tell my students to think of Emerson as the Oprah Winfrey of the time, and with that kind of reputation and renown, you can’t just appropriate his words for your profit without permission. Indeed, much has been made about this episode in Whitman’s biography.
The proportions of Emerson’s anger are not to be underestimated. Kaplan writes, “Friends who visited Emerson when the blazoned second edition [of Leaves of Grass] arrived in the mail claimed that until that moment they had never seen him truly angry.” It wasn’t until I read that sentence and the account in Kaplan’s book that I really appreciated the kind of rage Emerson must have felt after discovering his words had been snatched away from him. Surely, Whitman must have known that his actions were unethical, realizing that something like this could stain his reputation, but Whitman never shied away from taking chances with his poetry. If he needed positive reviews for his book, he often wrote them, published them anonymously, or asked someone else to sign their name.
Nevertheless, Emerson’s interest in Whitman waned over time. Kaplan writes about Emerson visiting him in New York on more than one occasion, despite his anger about publishing the private letter, but years later, Emerson seems to have regarded Whitman more as a curiosity rather than the great American poet, which Whitman aspired to become. In fact, I read that Emerson edited a definitive collection of poetry near the end of his life, but Whitman doesn’t have a single poem included there. He felt spurned, even recanting some of his earlier love for the man he so revered, but perhaps, Emerson was still feeling some of that anger about the unauthorized use of his words. Whatever the case, years after Leaves of Grass came on the scene, Whitman was still working to validate his poetry, even among the greatest intellectuals of America.
From what I can find, Ralph Waldo Emerson measured 6 feet tall—only an inch taller than Whitman, but he was a giant compared with Whitman at the end of his life. Well-respected and comfortably snug as “The Sage of Concord,” he suffered a long decline until his eventual death and burial among the other famous writers in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Whitman, too, suffered in his later years, having survived two strokes and living in near poverty. It’s certainly not the ending I imagined. In my mind, I’d like to think of the two sharing pleasant conversation while the sun sets over a distant horizon, maybe at Walden Pond, both of them secure in their success, having risen to such a height that neither would be forgotten in American literature.
Back at the end of October, my friend, Edward Luecke, began putting together a video to promote my collection of poetry about Montrose, Pennsylvania, called Public Avenue. On a Wednesday night at The Susquehanna County Historical Society, we shot about an hour of video with a series of questions that explained the project and my writing process. Ultimately, we both knew the video would only be about five minutes, and from that footage, we decided to focus on my decision to write about Montrose as well as the subject matter of some of the specific poems.
About a week and half ago, I posted the finished video on my blog’s Facebook page. The response has been tremendous, the video having been shared over fifty times and reaching a greater audience than any of my previous posts over the past year. It’s a great way to bring this year’s writing to a close.
Indeed, I have learned so much over the past year while bringing this project to completion, not only about my own writing process but also about the history of my hometown, assembling and hand-binding books, and promoting my work. I’m so grateful to those involved, and although I already acknowledged some of the people who helped along the way, I’d like to thank them again and include some of the many others for whom I’m grateful.
So many thanks to my wife, Brenda, for being a great first reader and always challenging me to do better with my writing; Edward Luecke, for his camera work, editing, and patience; Tracey Gass Ranze, for providing such great detailed feedback, kind words at the right time, and inspiration to publish; Michael Czarnecki, whose little book of poems, Drinking Wine, Chanting Poems, fell into my lap so many years and provided a template for constructing my book; Lisa Gruver from The Susquehanna County Historical Society, for scanning the cover image from an old postcard in their collections; also Louise Sammon and Betty Smith, from the Historical Society for their kindness and expertise over the past few months while I completed research, and especially Betty, for allowing us to film after hours for much longer than I ever imagined; Betty Bryden and Alice Mischke at The Butternut Gallery & Second Story Books, for my inclusion in the exhibit The Making of Books: Illustrations, Installations, and Words and for their continued support of my book and poetry; Ellen Stone, the first poet in the family, for providing feedback on the poems and more inspiration; Diana Lombardi, for fielding lots of questions as I explored possibilities for the cover artwork and for taking the time to teach my creative writing class how to create and bind books; George Barbolish, for providing more feedback on the cover artwork; Lydia, my daughter, for letting me raid her brush pens that made such a great difference in the many versions of the hand-drawn and painted covers of the book; for Beverly DeGroat and Mark Terry, for sending me the photos of Jim Olin’s barber shop; and Ann Stone, my mother-in-law, for trusting me with your books and clippings about Montrose, which provided such a wealth of information about our small town. So many, many thanks for your help with this project.
Once upon an empty plate, while I pondered, long and late Over many a quaint and curious cookbook of delicious delight, While I simmered the onions and butter, suddenly there came a flutter As of a gobble gobble at my door, a quiet gobbling at my door, ‘Tis my imagination, thought I, playing tricks at this dark hour. Only this, and nothing more.
Ah, distinctly I remember, it was late in a cold November, When all the pilgrims gave much praise for plenty of meat and stores of maize, And the natives, too, had gathered round to celebrate with joyful sound; From far away they made the trip, on ol’ Mayflower, their only ship. And then I heard the noise once more and looked about the kitchen door. Nothing there, just the floor.
And the onions cooking, sizzling slow, the celery sliced and diced so nice, Thrilled me—filled me with disastrous memories of Thanksgivings past So that now I thought, to quiet my heart, I stood repeating ‘Tis only a visitor I hear out there come to have a taste, ‘Tis only a visitor I hear out there, too soon, of course, For tomorrow I baste”
But in then strolled a fattened fowl, the biggest baddest turkey of all, Not a feather flew or dropped he; no, this big bird he never stopped, ‘Til up he popped upon the top of the stainless steel refrigerator. Much I marveled this Tom turkey that you might think that I’d gone crazy, No, I hadn’t even uncorked the wine, and the bird spoke, too, so clear and fine, These three words, “Why not ham?”
And then he said, I’ll never forget, “Hey, tomorrow’s not here yet. And you’ll have cranberry sauce and green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, Maybe butternut squash and muffins, and, of course, that wonderful splendid stuffing, Maybe some creamed corn on the side, and for dessert, there’s plenty of pies. Man, I can’t barely wait for all these plates, but tell me, please, it’s not too late,” Quoth the turkey, “Why not ham?”
These past few weeks have been a whirlwind of activity, so much so, that I haven’t had time to really write proper posts for my blog, although I have been doing plenty of writing. Last weekend our local art gallery, The Butternut, opened the doors on its latest exhibit, The Making of Books: Illustrations, Installations, and Words, and after many years, my collection of poems about Montrose, Public Avenue, made its debut. I had about 25 copies on-hand for opening day, and I was happy to see people purchasing my self-published, hand-made books. Then, this past Saturday I gave a reading at the gallery to many friends, family, and supporters of my writing as I formally launched the book.
Having now made it through the past month of editing and assembling the book, I’d like to share some of my thoughts from the reading as well as a little background on this project. It’s amazing to me that the book is finally complete, and I’m especially grateful to everyone who helped along the way.
At the outset, I’d like to say that I’m indebted to Michael Czarnecki, a poet from upstate New York, for the design of my book. While still in college, I met Czarnecki at a little coffee shop where he read poems from a slim collection entitled Drinking Wine, Chanting Poems. That collection of poems has been treasured by me for many, many years, and ever since purchasing that book, I’ve wanted to create something similar. While in college, other small books of poetry also fascinated me, and I loved flipping through Allen Ginsberg’s Reality Sandwiches as well as Howl and Other Poems. Something about these books that were physically smaller just pleased me, so when I came across Czarnecki’s undersized, self-published book of original poems, I felt encouraged that some day I might produce my own book. And although Czarnecki and I have been Facebook friends for several years now, he probably has no idea how much that collection of poems has meant to me.
I needed the right subject matter, too. And as I summarized at the reading on Saturday, the sense of place has always intrigued me as a writer. I remember reading Annie Proulx’s Heart Songs and The Shipping News for the first time and quickly becoming a fan. Her stories seemed saturated in the details of a particular place. Later, when she began writing books about the Western United States such as Close Range and Bad Dirt, my fascination with the sense of place only increased. Barbara Kingsolver is another writer who also comes to mind. Her book, The Bean Trees, was the first title I added to my curriculum when I began teaching high school. Some of her other books such as The Poisonwood Bible, and especially, Prodigal Summer, have also stayed with me over the years. And certainly, Tim O’Brien’s novels about Vietnam such as The Things They Carried, If I Die in a Combat Zone, and Going After Cacciato continued my fascination with place as a central idea in my reading interests.
My non-fiction reading, too, often centers around place. This past summer I read Vermont River by W.D. Wetherell, which chronicles a year of fly-fishing in the author’s life. Now, I’m halfway through a book about fishing around Martha’s Vineyard called Blues by John Hersey. And of course, I’m reminded of some of my favorite books such as Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. A more recent title on my reading list, however, has been Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which focuses on criminal relief in Alabama and a terrible miscarriage of justice in Harper Lee’s hometown, Monroeville, where the setting only serves to underscore the irony surrounding the wrongful conviction of a black man.
When I began to write short stories in earnest, hoping to send them off to literary magazines for publication, I wanted place to take a front seat in my writing. As I was living in the northern tier of Pennsylvania, I drew inspiration from my surroundings, including the people and places and traditions that made this region unique. For instance, one of my earliest stories dealt with an illiterate landlord renting to students in a small college town similar to Mansfield, Pennsylvania. Later, when I moved away to Columbus, Ohio, to attend graduate school, I continued to write stories focused on rural Pennsylvania with topics about hunting and fishing, the land often serving as an impetus to the conflicts of my characters.
When my wife and I moved back to Pennsylvania, finding jobs in the same county where my wife grew up, we purchased a house in her hometown, Montrose. I was still writing stories about this area, so I was thrilled to be in the thick of my subject matter. I wrote several short stories and flash fiction pieces, had a few published, but eventually found myself writing poetry, where I could more directly address the details of living in Montrose and Susquehanna County. Over time, I wrote a piece here or there, when inspiration struck me, until after a while I realized I had a collection of poems that might be brought together and published.
To discuss the specific poems briefly, I’ll just say that I wanted the collection to bridge the past and present, hoping to pay respect to our history but also include the right amount of details to locate our town in the present. I wrote several poems that address places such as the county courthouse and other notable landmarks, the places that people know with long memories, even if some of the features have continued to evolve. Likewise, I wanted to include people, some whose names are remembered in books about Montrose, like Isaac Post, who is considered a Founding Father of Montrose, as well as others, who remain alive in our more recent memories for what they have brought to our community such as Joe Welden. It’s been my hope, too, that these poems come together in a way that feels a little bit larger than the fourteen poems that comprise the book, and that taken as a whole, the poems communicate more than each poem by itself.
To that end, I fell upon Public Avenue as the title for the collection. I wanted something that could encompass both the theme and setting of the poems, and that title has been significant to me as I imagined these pieces. Indeed, I wanted the poetry I’ve collected in this book to reflect the public face of our town. The title, too, has helped me narrow the poems to include in the collection, for I’ve culled many of the poems from those I’ve written over the past years to make sure that these best embody the title of the book. Since several poems also reference street names, including Public Avenue, that also became just another piece in the puzzle.
It’s been difficult to put into words the excitement I’ve felt as this project has culminated in the past few weeks. The road has been long traveled to reach this point, but as everything came together, I’ve felt such gratitude. So many people—my wife, family, and friends—have supported me along the way. Being able to finally share these poems this past weekend with an audience, some people whom I’ve known for a long time and others that I’ve only met for the first time, has been such a gift.
Although Edgar Allan Poe may have written the most famous American poem, “The Raven,” it’s Walt Whitman, The Father of Free Verse and The Good Gray Poet, who claims the top spot as our most important poet. Born on May 31, 1819, he became a national treasure by the time of his death, though criticism of his book of poetry, Leaves of Grass, remained mixed. Thirty years after first publishing the book, Whitman, in fact, wrote that its reception remained “worse than a failure.” But that’s expected for trailblazers and revolutionaries, and naturally, many of this ilk don’t receive their due until after they’re dead. It took the world time to appreciate Whitman, but here we are, and to celebrate his 200th birthday, I offer some places where Whitman continues to speak to us.
For an English teacher like me, the 1989 film Dead Poets Society earns one of the top spots. My favorite scene is when Mr. Keating, the teacher played by Robin Williams, makes Todd Anderson yawp in front of the class. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, Ethan Hawke’s character, Todd, is supposed to write a poem for English, but comes to class empty handed, and instead of simply moving on to another student, Mr. Keating rallies him, running to the chalkboard to write, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” It’s one of my favorite lines by Whitman, coming at the end of his epic poem “Song of Myself” and only after about seventy-five pages of poetry. It’s only fitting that this line earned a prominent role in the film. The scene continues, when Mr. Keating calls Todd to the front of the class to “yawp,” goading him until he finally barks out a good one. Eventually, Todd improvises a poem in front of the class, under the tutelage of the teacher, and completes the assignment to much applause from his peers. Sure, it might be a bit contrived, but for any English teacher, it’s also a bit of wish fulfillment.
Like Mr. Keating, Levi Strauss & Company has also paid their respects to Whitman. It’s interesting, too, that Levi’s jeans and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass were contemporaries, their birthdays dating back to 1853 and 1855, respectively. No wonder then, that the company, chose an advertising campaign, led by Wieden + Kennedy, who has done ad work for Nike too, that paired a recording of Walt Whitman, supposedly from the 1890s, with their jeans. Even though many scholars believe the recording to be a hoax, the result, directed by Cary Fukunaga and first aired in July 2009, is a beautiful piece of cinematography where the advertising and the product for that matter, fade into the background to allow Whitman’s poetry—the theme of American democracy—to take front and center.
Furthermore, in a moment of genius, Fukunaga even accounted for the hiss and scratchiness heard in this antique recording by repurposing the noise as a burning fuse to an explosion, or better yet, a firework. I’ve read in at least one source that the ad premiered on July 4th, making this detail even more befitting to the topic. And the bonus, Levi’s advertising campaign distributed Whitman’s voice to a mass audience that probably would have never bothered to listen to this recording. And even if it’s not truly an authentic recording, the words remain Whitman’s. The voice, too, sounds to me like Whitman’s should, which is perhaps why it may not actually be authentic. Nevertheless, it’s something I show my students every year, and the poem’s imagery and style serves as an interesting contrast to many other poems by Whitman.
Finally, it’s hard to write about Whitman without mentioning another one of my favorite teacher dramas, Breaking Bad. Indeed, the AMC series about a chemistry teacher mixing up the best methamphetamine is all about breaking the rules much like Whitman’s poetry. By far, I think this is my favorite TV drama, better than The Wire, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Dexter—many series that I devoted so much time to watching. Maybe it’s because Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass take on a role in the show. Even the name of the show’s main character, Walter White, is eerily reminiscent of Walt Whitman, so much so, that I have often wondered if the writers had the plot worked out so far down the line to include that connection four seasons later to that infamous copy of Leaves of Grass, gifted to Walter White by his diligent assistant, Gale. Even “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” which was referenced directly in Breaking Bad’s plot, recounts a narrator walking away from a classroom to reap the benefits of firsthand experience. It’s just so wonderful, so apropos, to the series that I can’t help but “look up in perfect silence” while watching the storyline unfold.
So there you have it, some of the places where Whitman persists, despite calling his book a failed experiment. It’s been interesting, at least to me, to research many of the details that I often discuss with my students, but haven’t completely fact checked over the years. Of course, an article of this nature requires a proper conclusion, so I’ll leave you with one more detail from my research. For many years, I’ve had the hint, the remembrance, of a directive given by Walt Whitman about reading his poetry. In writing this article, I discovered that directive in the Preface to the 1855 Edition of Leaves of Grass, which is a kind of manifesto on poetry. In later editions, the Preface was cut from the book, but in the first edition, Whitman advises us “to read these leaves in the open air in every season of every year.” I like it, that advice, because poetry is sometimes sterile, confined to the pages of a book, the walls of a classroom, and if lucky, maybe the audience at a coffee house. How wonderful to think of it, instead, mingling with nature, the clouds floating overhead and the green grass under our feet. No, I’ve never done it, but perhaps this year, I’ll finally take my copy of Leaves outside, read a few poems aloud, and celebrate Whitman’s birthday.
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.
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.
While some English teachers shy away from it, I love poetry. Every year I teach two of my favorites, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. I never lose interest in them, and while teaching, of course, I become the student, too, seeing these poets and their work through the eyes of my high schoolers. I practice beginner’s mind, according to Zen, coming back to these poems with a fresh perspective that deepens my understanding.
Most recently, I’ve come back to Mary Oliver’s “The Black Snake,” a poem included my textbook for English 9. This was my introduction to Oliver, the first poem I ever read by her. When she died this past January, the language and imagery of this poem flooded my thoughts, and rightly so, because it’s a poem about death. Its suddenness. Its terrible weight. Its certain coming. Those are the words, especially, that I couldn’t shake.
To summarize, the poem relates finding a dead snake killed in the road by a truck. The poet uses some interesting and ironic imagery, describing the snake as both “beautiful as a dead brother” and “useless as an old bicycle tire.” The speaker, who is moved by the snake’s death, going so far as to place it at the edge of the road, uses the snake to reflect on the nature of death. “Its suddenness. Its terrible weight. Its certain coming.” It’s heavy stuff. But she also writes about that instinct, that something deep inside us, keeping our thoughts of impending death at bay. In the poem, she calls it the “light at the center of every cell.”
When I taught this poem a couple weeks ago, the students seemed captivated. Maybe it was the topic, since the day before we were discussing a rather innocent poem, Vachel Lindsay’s “An Indian Summer Day on the Prairie,” and now we had moved on to something more serious. Or maybe I simply lucked out, chancing upon the right words to draw them into the lesson. I spoke about the likelihood of dying in a car crash versus a plane crash—how driving is probably the most dangerous thing we do—and statistically far and away more dangerous. Yet, we all showed up to school, most likely without giving a second thought to our possible death that morning. And yet again, statistically speaking, there were probably several people who didn’t make it to their destinations and already died that day. But all of us, everyone in the classroom that morning, we safely “crossed the road,” unlike the snake in the poem.
At the time, although my students didn’t know it, my beginner’s mind was in overdrive, because I hadn’t preplanned these remarks. Sure, I had written “discuss the poem” into my lesson plans, but I hadn’t worked out my comments or the connections I wanted to make with my students. It was happening in the moment, as I read the body language of my classroom full of students. At least one student, too, had recently been affected by the sudden death of her grandmother. She had missed an entire week of school, and as I spoke, that consideration twined itself around my thoughts. When I taught the poem in the afternoon class, some of the magic of the earlier class had already faded, because now I had hoped to recreate the script from earlier, expecting a certain outcome that would either fail or succeed. That afternoon class was good, but it was different, having become a more deliberate act by then. The beginner’s mind had passed.
The next day we moved on to more poetry, but the lessons from the black snake don’t end there. This past week, when the Notre Dame cathedral burned, the poem was on my mind again. This time, as a reminder, of the things we often take for granted, the things we assume will be around generation after generation, but then suddenly disappear. The Twin Towers obviously come to mind, but Notre Dame seemed immortal, having been around for so many centuries. It’s easy to assume, like the black snake, that crossing the road, that moving forward, there’s nothing to worry about. But then a fire brings sudden and certain devastation, reminding us once again of the true nature of our world. As Robert Frost has said, nothing gold can stay. That’s the dark reality of the black snake, but the other lesson is that our indomitable spirit, the light at the center of every cell says, no matter that reality, we cannot remain curled up, hidden away from the world. We continue to move forward, and most of us, maybe with a little more caution, always cross the road again.