The School Week (highlights)

In a lot of ways, the school year that’s wrapping up now has been an especially frustrating one. But several moments this week have reminded me of what I like most about this job. For what it’s worth:

1. My first period Creative Writing students have been writing some extraordinary, inspiring words lately–and a group of them have started performing their poetry out loud in some really powerful ways. We’ve snuck off for the last couple of weeks to a little room off the back of the library, and while nobody else is looking they’ve been doing the most amazing things.

2. The same group has been goofily experimenting with various approaches to reading other people’s poetry out loud. The goal has been to get us thinking about the limitless ways in which our voices and our bodies can interact with the spoken word–whether enhancing, complicating, or undercutting the meaning of a text. Earlier this week we were seated around a big glass-topped conference table, and one student walked across the top of it in his socks while reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Constantly Risking Absurdity.” I was surprised how much this very literal approach to the poem–in which a poet is compared to an acrobat–actually managed to reshape my experience of Ferlinghetti’s words, which I’ve read many times. Lines like “…whenever he performs / above the heads / of his audience…” feel different when the poet is actually performing above the heads of his audience; the same goes for “balancing on eyebeams” and “paces his way / to the other side”–and all the other lines. And then there was this: we were all a little terrified the whole time that the table would break. Both the performer and the audience were physically engaged in a way I hadn’t expected: just as if they were watching a tightrope walker or acrobat, students around the table were holding their breath or clenching their teeth until the poem was over. Some where leaning in; others were leaning out. It was pretty special.

Luckily the table did not break.

3. Same class: a group of students read Charles Bukowski’s “The Laughing Heart” as if they were reading it to their dogs–in those funny, high-pitched voices people use just for addressing their pets. There is something hilarious about “You can’t beat death / but you can beat death in life, sometimes” when it’s read in a “You’re a good boy, yes you are” voice. (If you don’t believe me, try it.)

4. Another student read “The Laughing Heart” as if he was being slapped in the face with every word. And then, a second time, as if he was being tickled.

5. Two students read an excerpt from Green Eggs and Ham with such genuine drama that the class demanded they finish the rest of the book, so we’d know how it turned out.

6. Meanwhile, in my twelfth grade English class, we had some leeway in the end of our year, so I decided for the first time to throw The Catcher in the Rye into the mix. The first large chunk of it was due today. Luckily, the students are into it so far, and it’s a very refreshing change of pace from everything else that class has read this year. I know there are a lot of people out there who don’t like this book–or think it’s overrated, or whatever–but I don’t need to hear it. (My students are welcome to tell me they don’t like it–I just don’t want a bunch of haters chiming in in the comments below.) I liked the book fine when I first read it in high school, but it didn’t do a whole lot for me. I remember the wisdom was that if you’re going to read this book, you need to read it while you’re still in high school, because the older you get the less it will resonate. I assumed that was true, and like I said I liked it just fine, even if it didn’t change my life or anything. A few years ago I read this book for the first time as an adult, and I discovered how wrong this wisdom was; it meant much more to me then than it had meant the first time. And now that I’ve read it a couple times more I absolutely, wholeheartedly adore it. Reading a few chapters before school today made my morning. That kid breaks my heart in the most beautiful ways. He really does.

7. Then there was this. In my eleventh grade class today, a kid pointed out a disturbing trend: “In every book we’ve read this year, a woman gets slapped.” We all stopped and thought about it. Desdemona had just been slapped by Othello. Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan slaps his mistress Myrtle (really, he smashes her nose with his open palm). Tea Cake slaps Janie (and her previous husband is also abusive). No women get slapped in Of Mice and Men, but one does get shaken to death. And she’s the only woman in the book, and we never even know her name.

I’m not sure what to do about all this, but it surely doesn’t sit well. There’s no question, for starters, that we need to be teaching more women’s voices in our English classrooms, and that a wider range of voices brings in a wider range of experiences. I know that some schools have done better than others at opening up their curricula, but most places I think this is (still) a slow work in progress. As for this theme of literary slaps: if handled well, it can certainly (but doesn’t necessarily) generate some useful discussion about domestic violence, or about the portrayal of women in the “canon” that still shapes so much of what’s taught. I’ve tried to facilitate some good talks along these lines this year, with varying results. But I don’t think those conversations go far enough in counterbalancing a year’s worth of slapping. The worst slap of them all, by the way–because its author, unlike the others, seems so okay with it–is the one Janie receives from Tea Cake, the love of her life, in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Of all these slapping scenes, this is the only one that was written by a woman. It’s an uncomfortable acceptance of violence near the end of a beautiful book that’s (on most of its pages) empowering and ahead of its time.

It’s tough.

But here’s the part that made me happy: a student noticed the trend and pointed it out today, and got the room all worked up about it before the bell.

So all in all, it was a good day.

*

A P. S.: on teenagers, adults, guns, protests, Greek tragedy, and learning to listen…

Speaking of favorite moments in the classroom, a definite highlight of my year–albeit a heavy one–was the series of conversations some of my classes had about gun violence, student walk-outs, and other issues sparked by the Parkland shootings. I won’t go into all that here now, but feel free to ask me about it if you see me around.

What I do want to say here is not political. I don’t especially care what you think about guns. But I do care what you think about teenagers.

I’ve heard and seen so many adults in the last couple of months, especially on social media, bashing student protesters–mostly bashing those Stoneman Douglas kids–for taking a stance on guns. A popular punchline to a hundred memes suggests that “the same kids” who were eating Tide Pods a few weeks ago are demanding gun control this week. Ha, ha: it’s a dumb generation, goes the joke. I was recently sent–because it was supposed to be inspiring–a  viral “open letter” in which a retired schoolteacher somewhere in America patiently explains to the kids of today exactly why they’re wrong. (“This is not a tweet or a text,” the letter begins, thinking condescension an effective way to make teenagers listen. “It’s called a letter; lengthy and substantial. Do you really want to make a difference? … First of all, put down your stupid phone…”) A whole lot of people, meanwhile, have been pointing out that teenagers are too emotional or too uninformed to participate in an important national conversation. Some have claimed that teenagers, unable to think for themselves, have just become pawns in the schemes of liberals or the media, whose opinions they’re brainlessly parroting. The worst extreme of all this, of course, is the sad bunch adults who have publicly attacked these young people in Florida or have cooked up conspiracy theories about those students’ true identities. It’s reprehensible stuff. But even the more benign, apparently well-intentioned forms of this teenager bashing–that open letter, for example–make me furious.

All I want to say is this. If you consider yourself an adult, please: go ahead and think what you’re going to think about guns. But don’t discount or discredit the young people. For the love of God, don’t bully them, and don’t use them as punchlines.

I’d ask you, even, to listen to them. And learn from them, and with them.

Before we started The Catcher in the Rye, my seniors were reading Antigone, an ancient Greek drama and the third installment in Sophocles’s Oedipus trilogy. My favorite character in that play has always been Haimon, the son of the bull-headed king Kreon. This year Haimon’s words seemed more timely than ever. He’s trying to convince his dad to listen to reason, but his dad is incapable of listening to anything or anyone, let alone his own son–a kid.

“Men our age, learn from him?” Kreon sneers. But what if, says Haimon, “I happen to be right? Suppose I am young. Don’t look at my age, look at what I do.

That’s my favorite line in that play. I live in Birmingham, after all, and kids in this town have been known, before, to change the world.

But if you still don’t believe that the kids have something to say–some things we haven’t thought to say, ourselves, and some things we all need to hear–then please: come listen in on my first period class sometime. They will get you straight.

*

One more P. S.: recommended reading, listening, and viewing…

Before I sign off, a few recommendations relevant to this post:

A week ago today I got a copy of the wonderful book Syllabus by the great Lynda Barry. For the last seven days it has made my world brighter. I recommend it to anyone whose life could use some creative inspiration.

And speaking of creativity and (see above) of Lawrence Ferlinghetti–as another source of perpetual inspiration I will always recommend Ferlinghetti’s book Poetry as Insurgent Art, which he published at age 88, and which is small enough to fit in your pocket.

And here’s a video of Tom Waits reading “The Laughing Heart” by Bukowski.

(Near our school, by the way, there’s a walking/running path that goes through the woods, and there’s this empty little one-room house just off the path. I heard from some students several years ago that they snuck into the house and the words to this poem were written on the wall.)

Here’s one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs.

And speaking of how young people in Birmingham changed the world, here is a 40-minute film I show every year to my students, Mighty Times: The Children’s March. Every year it knocks me out. Every person should watch it. If you’re an educator, you can contact the Southern Poverty Law Center for a free copy and teaching materials (or just watch it at the Youtube link above).

Thanks for reading. See you next time.

Spring! Poetry! Can-openers! Dirt!

“Meanwhile, SPRING, which has been approaching for several pages, is at last here.”
— William Carlos Williams, Spring and All

Sometime in the last ten or twelve years or so, I fell in love with spring poems. When spring arrives each year I pull them back off the shelf and I reread them often; I keep them close at hand, too, the rest of the year, for when spring feels impossibly far away.

Today—it’s Easter, and April Fool’s, and it’s a beautiful day outside—feels like as good an excuse as any to share a few of those poems here, starting with my favorite: “The Cast Off,” by Marge Piercy. Technically Piercy’s poem says nothing about spring itself—nothing about the seasons or weather or nature, about fresh blooming things or the calendar—but it’s a poem for new beginnings, for openings, for awakenings and rebirths, and to me it’s always been the perfect poem for the season. It also happens, unexpectedly, to be a love poem:

This is a day to celebrate can-
openers, those lantern-jawed long-tailed
humping tools that cut through what keeps
us from what we need: a can of beans
trapped in its armor taunts the nails
and teeth of a hungry woman.

Today let us hear hurrahs for zippers,
those small shark teeth that part
politely to let us at what we want;
the tape on packages that unlock
us birthday presents; envelopes
we slit to thaw the frozen
words on the tundra of paper.

Today let us praise the small
rebirths, the emerging groundhog
from the sodden burrow; the nut
picked from the broken fortress of walnut
shell, itself pried from the oily fruit
shaken from the high turreted
city of the tree.

Today let us honor the safe whose door
hangs ajar; the champagne bottle
with its cork bounced off the ceiling
and into the soup tureen; the Victorian lady
in love who has removed her hood, her cloak,
her laced boots, her stockings, her overdress,
her underdress, her wool petticoat, her linen
petticoats, her silk petticoats, her whalebone
corset, her bustle, her chemise, her drawers, and
who still wants to! Today let us praise the cast
that finally opens, slit neatly in two
like a dinosaur egg, and out at last
comes somewhat hairier, powdered in dead skin
but still beautiful, the lost for months
body of my love.

*

Next is one of e. e. cummings’s many spring poems. Even if poetry and spring are natural and frequent mates, it’s hard to imagine a poet more in love with the spring than cummings. Here’s a great one, a poem about humanity’s naive insistence on defining, categorizing, and pinning down something that’s so much bigger than us. (This blog software, sadly, resists my efforts to replicate the spread of cummings’s poem across the page; you can read it, with all the original spacing, in numerous e. e. cummings collections.)

O sweet spontaneous
Earth how often have
the doting

fingers of
prurient philosophies pinched
and poked

thee
,has the naughty thumb
of science prodded
thy

beauty          .how
often have religions taken
thee upon their scraggy
knees squeezing and

buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive
gods
(but
true

to the incomparable
couch of death thy
rhythmic
lover

thou answerest
them only with

spring)

*

The next poem, “Loss of Vitality” by Alice Walker, is another that I keep in my stash of spring poems, even if the connection’s again just metaphorical. It’s a good poem to hang onto for all your metaphorical winters, no matter what time in your year they may fall.

Loss of vitality
Is a sign
That
Things have gone
Wrong.

It is like
Sitting on
A sunny pier
Wondering whether
To swing
Your feet.

A time of dullness
Deadness
Sodden enthusiasm
When
This exists
At all.
Decay.

You wonder:
Was I ever “on”
Bright with life
My thoughts
Spinning out
Confident
As
Sunflowers?

Did I wiggle
My ears
& jiggle my toes
From sheer
Delight?

Is the girl
Grinning fiercely
In the old photo
Really me?

Loss of vitality
Signals emptiness
But let
Me tell you:
Depletion can be
Just the thing.

You are using
Have used
Up
The old life
The old way.

Now will rush in
The energetic,
The flexible,
The unmistakable
Knowing
That life is life
Not mood.

*

I’ll end this post with a couple of those good old, silly, giddy Elizabethan springtime songs. The first one, by Thomas Nashe, comes from the 1592 play, Summer’s Last Will and Testament. It deserves (like every poem, ever) to be read—or, better still, sung—out loud.

Spring, the sweete spring, is the yere’s pleasant king,
Then bloomes eche thing, then mayds daunce in a ring,
Cold doeth not sting, the pretty birds doe sing:
Cuckow, jugge jugge, pu we, to witta woo.

The Palme and May make countrey houses gay,
Lambs friske and play, the Shepherds pype all day,
And we heare aye birds tune this merry lay:
Cuckow, jugge jugge, pu we, to witta woo.

The fields breathe sweete, the dayzies kisse our feete,
Young lovers meete, old wives a-sunning sit,
In every street these tunes our eares doe greete:
Cuckow, jugge jugge, pu we, to witta woo.
Spring, the sweete spring.

And here’s one from Shakespeare, a little springtime ditty from As You Like It:

It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
That o’er the green corn-field did pass,
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

Between the acres of the rye,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
These pretty country folks would lie,
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

This carol they began that hour,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
How that life was but a flower
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

And, therefore, take the present time
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
For love is crown`d with the prime
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

*

(An aside—besides helping us celebrate the spring, here is something else poetry is good for (perhaps, even, the thing that poetry is best for): helping us celebrate, rediscover, and live for a moment inside language. Because what is poetry but a feast of language?

“those lantern-jawed long-tailed humping tools”
“upon their scraggy knees”
“sodden enthusiasm”
“hey nonino”
“Cuckow, jugge jugge, pu we, to witta woo!”

And so on.)

But, back to spring—I’d like to end for now with this: not a poem, but a line from a short story (“Unearthing Suite”) by Margaret Atwood, and a proper reminder for the season—

“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”

Alleluia. Hey, nonny. Amen.  

P.S. Don’t forget this great spring poem, which I shared last January.

Make America America

In about a week we start another school year — my thirteenth year teaching, and my first to teach eleventh graders.

I’m excited for the new class. There’s a unit on the Harlem Renaissance, so this week I started pulling down and rereading some favorite poems and stories, trying to decide which texts to share with my kids. I’ve been flipping especially through the giant Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, one of the first books of poetry I ever bought. It’s been a while since I’ve read “Let America Be America Again,” first published in 1936; I look forward to reading it with my students in the new age of #MAGA.

If you don’t know it, check it out, below. If you do, why not slow down to read it again?

Langston Hughes.jpg

Let America Be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a ‘homeland of the free’.

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME —
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

*   *   *

P.S. I kind of took a summer break from this blog; hopefully I can get back again soon into the habit of regular posting. Thanks for reading. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here’s something good you can store away for a rainy day (or a sunny one) soon: Langston Hughes speaking at UCLA in February of 1967, just months before he died.

Peace.

This Is What You Shall Do

This one’s quoted often but rewards frequent revisits. So — from the original preface to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, published in 1855 …

Version 2

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

IMG_0209

Things Found in Books

Alongside the tables and booths at Crestwood Coffee runs a row of old and donated books, with a “take a book, leave a book” policy. Yesterday I picked up this one, from 1939: Ted Malone Presents The American Album of Poetry. Ted Malone (I’ve since learned) hosted a popular CBS radio show, “Between the Bookends” for more than thirty years, and on it he championed the everyday poetry of everyday people. “This Album,” the intro to his book begins, “is made up of poems written by poets—but these are the poets who in daily life are housewives, business men, professional people, teachers and students, and their poems are composed wholly for the joy of self-expression.”

The coffee shop copy also bears a handwritten inscription, dated May 10, 1941: How about going poetic, it says—From Your Brother & Sister, Alonzo & Alma. And stuck between the pages of the book are a few typewritten pages of poetry, each signed L. C. Steiner, Jr. Whoever Steiner was, he seems to have been just the sort of poet Ted Malone would have loved: neatly typing his poems on the backs of business stationery (Alexander Motors, Mobile, Alabama), numbering them in pencil, and folding them up and sticking them inside the Album. My favorite of the batch, “Tribute to King Booze,” begins:

       A man does strange things when he gets himself drunk.
       His legs go to shaking and his mind’s full of junk.

Here’s the whole thing. You can barely make out the Alexander Motors letterhead through the paper.

Jesse James inside cover

*

I’m always on the lookout for inscriptions, marginalia, and things stuffed between the pages of old books; they let us glimpse the ghosts of readers past. We get through these artifacts only a cryptic fraction of a larger story and are left to wonder at the rest. What about L. C. Steiner? If he’s the brother to whom the book was inscribed, did the gift inspire him to “go poetic” as challenged—or was he a secret poet already?

Who else got to read his poems?

*

Several years ago in a Chapel Hill bookstore I bought an old biography of Jesse James for fifty cents. The Rise and Fall of Jesse James was published in 1926, its author Robertus Love; my copy belonged at one point to the Sondley Reference Library in Asheville, North Carolina. I haven’t read it and don’t expect to; I laid down my fifty cents for the sake of this lengthy tirade written on the book’s first blank page:

Version 2

Here’s what it says, in case you find that hard to read:

The Yankees who, unprovoked, murdered thousands of Southern people, men and women and children, and stole millions of dollars worth of Southern property and deprived Southern survivors of their liberties and burned their homes and ever since have continued to rob them and slander them with the most nefarious lies and have attempted to deify an atrocious murderer and thief named John Brown and an equally vile beast named Abe Lincoln (or something else) are horrified when a few of the robbed men turned the tables and robbed the robbers.

The writer of this book is a dirty Yankee liar and his statements are entitled to no credit.

If that were not enough, there’s a rejoinder underneath, from another, more modern hand: And the critique above, it announces, was written by an ignoramous!

This, I suppose, is what lately we’ve come to call “trolling”; it’s the Youtube comments before there was Youtube.

And there’s more, too: finally, a third voice weighs in at the top of the page, rendering a final judgment on the entire affair—book, notes, and all.

50¢, it says. A steal!

*

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve found inside an old book? I invite you to describe your favorite finds in the comments below. But first, here’s a poem by Billy Collins, another lover of poetry in the everyday .

It’s called “Marginalia.”

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
who wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of “Irony”
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
hands cupped around their mouths.
“Absolutely,” they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
“Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” “My man!”
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written “Man vs. Nature”
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird singing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page–
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

a few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil–
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet–
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

 

How to be a poet (drawing)

Wendell Berry

A few years ago I drew this picture of Wendell Berry for my friend Daniel on his birthday. Daniels wife Lucy commissioned the drawing and gave me one of Wendell Berrys books as payment. She also suggested the text, “How to Be a Poet.”

A few weeks ago, while I was moving, I came across my copy of the drawing, which I’d mostly forgotten. Now I’ve put it where I see it every day. I’m not a poet exactly, but I find Berrys reminders a comfort and encouragement. Heres the full poem. Maybe it will be useful, also, to you.

Don’t forget to breathe.

How to Be a Poet
By Wendell Berry
(to remind myself)
i
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
ii
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
iii
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Hail, Hail! Viva, Viva!

I.

Chuck Berry, the great poet-hero of rock and roll, died yesterday at the age of 90.

In one of his music’s definitive anthems, “School Day,” he gave us this little couplet:

   Hail, hail, rock and roll
   Deliver me from the days of old

Those lyrics, I think, are rock and roll’s most perfect poem.

II.

But then, too, there’s this, from “Viva Viva Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a raucous highlight of the extraordinary album, San Francisco Dues:

   Rock on!
   Go ahead and jerk it, child, work it
   Rock on!
   Go ahead and shake it, I can take it
   Rock on!
   Oh, my soul—
   Viva, viva, rock and roll.

If you haven’t heard that song, plug into some good speakers and play it now, loud. A few times. I’ll post it below.

A purer, more joyous celebration of rock and roll you can’t hope to find.

III.

There’s much more to be said about this man and his music, but for now I’ll leave it at that, and at this:

Thank God for Chuck Berry.

Hail, hail.

Viva, viva.

Rock on.

Amen.

P.S. This Saturday I’ll play an hour of Chuck Berry songs on the radio. I hope you’ll tune in 9 to 10 a.m. on Birmingham Mountain Radio, roll down or throw open your windows, and (again) play it loud.

P.S. also: I promised Part Two of my Ethel Harper biography this week, and got a little slowed down. If not tonight, it will be up tomorrow. Meanwhile, if you missed it, here’s Part One.