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.

Lessons from The Black Snake

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.

a black snake on the road

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.