Uncategorized

Nurturing the World With Our Own Two Hands

Imagination opens again to earth. We
believe in bees, the wild rose’s grail filled
with summer–from “In Late Winter,” Thomas R. Smith

The world has changed. Worldwide we feel it. It has been changing all along, but in the solitude of our current sheltering in place situation, we feel it more distinctly. I wash my hands or cook food and consciously consider the scarcity of everything I have, and contemplate the multitude of unknown and unseen people throughout the world who have cooperated in order for me to have the food I eat, pen and paper I use, books I read–packaging and transportation included. This is no simple thing.

Though each of us have different approaches to coping with the shelter in place, if we didn’t recognize it before, we recognize now that we literally depend on each other’s work and actions for survival. Because of the variety of perspectives, insights, knowledge, and skills found in the larger community, we have the strength to hold each other up and to meet problems. Our need to depend on each other is bigger than what divides us.

As a child, I grew up in a home in a rural area with parents who lived during the Great Depression. They knew how to live on sparse resources. We grew food in a garden, and we had an orchard. My mother gave us haircuts, sewed our clothes, and also wore hand me down clothing my great aunt sent in boxes that my mother resized or remade for us. We lived minimally, learned to care for things so they would last, as well as to save, repurpose and recycle. I’m glad to have had as a model my parents who had many skills for fixing things and making things by hand.

While living abroad, my husband and I grew small gardens in pots and containers on windowsills and balconies, and while living in India, had a small plot in a community garden as well. Living in California again now, we have a garden once more where we’ve built raised beds. When we first returned home, the yard was filled with weeds. We had built some of the raised beds earlier as well as a grape arbor, and a place for berries, but in our absence, weeds grew prolifically, even though we periodically had someone weed.

It has been hard work, a long process of pulling weeds, creating compost, filling the beds with new soil and compost, saving seeds, watering, learning about what kinds of light various plants need, and how to prune them, but the physical rewards of working in the soil and watching things grow into blossom, fruit, and vegetables is a continuing delight. Recently, I dug weeds out of new areas in the garden and planted the many flower seeds left from plants last year. We just planted arugula, berries, beans, cilantro, collard greens, pickling cucumbers, kale, lettuce, onion, peas, squash, and tomatoes. The grape vines are beginning to bud, and the lemons are ready to pick. It’s a joy to see on the front porch in the morning listening to the bees and hummingbirds at work, and to see the visible evidence of physical work. In his poem, “Morning Song,” Don Colburn writes,

Spring is the dangerous season, awakening
this bee-crazed meadow to overgrowing-
and in me awe, and ache, avid to begin
like birds and the earth all over.

It doesn’t have to be spring to watch a bee-crazed garden, light illuminating flowers and the undersides of leaves as if living works of art. Cloudy days and rain filled days are good too, each bring their own mood.

Laura Spinney explains in her article in the Guardian, “It takes a whole world to create a new virus, not just China,” that the pandemic we’re currently experiencing “wouldn’t emerge in food markets if it wasn’t for factory farming, globalized industry, and rapid urbanization.” Humans have pushed further and further into wild places. industrialized farming in China has pushed millions of smallholder farmers, in order to survive, “into the production of more exotic species – animals that were once eaten only for subsistence. But the bigger operations have pushed the farmers out geographically too, as they have taken up more prime farming land. The smallholders have been forced closer to uncultivable zones such as forests, where bats – reservoirs for coronaviruses – lurk.”  What we eat, our lifestyle choices are costly, Spinney explains. It’s a systemic problem. The globalization of farming industries have marginalized the majority of the world’s farmers, and we are all bearing the cost.

Growing our own food is a creative act, connecting us in a relationship to the earth and its cycles. We understand this in a new way with the effort it takes to garden and grow your own food, and it is a way to come back into a healthy, life-giving relationship with the natural world. When I garden, I often remember what I learned years ago when beginning my own garden for the first time, as I describe in this poem.

What You Planted
–for Michael

Years ago, you knelt                
in the garden’s dark soil,
planting carrots,

tucking them into the earth
one by one,
telling me

“You’ve got to treat them
gently, as if they are
your babies,” then you

pulled a blanket of loam
softly over
the next seed
and tamped it down.

Tiny roots
waiting inside
reached into the earth’s
rich warmth,
and stretched.

Look at the garden now.

published spring, 2012, phren-z

Just as artists give themselves creative challenges, time in confined space can push us in new directions, allow new creative exploration. Gardens have requirements. If you want certain things to grow, you have to take care of them by renewing the soil, giving them with adequate water, continuous weeding out of what you don’t want so the plants producing food, fruit and beauty can flourish.

During this time indoors, I hope you’re able to find a way to plant a seed and grow something on your window ledge, on your balcony, or if you’re able to, in your back yard. While you’re waiting to go outside again, you will be nurturing something that grows and gives you sustenance. If you can’t order seeds to grow something or have no space, perhaps you will find some other way to allow the stillness to quietly nurture your imagination so that when doors are able to open again to the outside, you will be like the rose in Thomas R. Smith’s poem above, a grail filled with summer’s abundance.

poetry, Uncategorized

Poetic Truth in a Post-Truth World

On the parkbench sleeps a tiger
With a very tall old lady
In his lap; she is so tall
(And so noisy) that her knees
Have attracted a pair of screechowls
To form on them a nest that sways.

–from Kenneth Patchen’s poem, “On the Parkbench”

This boisterous, fanciful scene from Patchen’s poem awakens the physical senses, describes the unbelievable, and invites us into a world of imaginative play we can delight in.

A while back I visited the Sherlock Holmes museum here on Baker St. in London. Since I received the book, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as a gift from my brother when I was in fifth grade, I’ve been an admirer of Sherlock’s keen ability to observe closely, to see the relevant details in a situation others passed over, and to draw conclusions from them. “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes,” Holmes states in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Doyle’s Holmes had a wonderful ability to pull together a wide array of details, imagine himself into the scene, and to find the truth of the story that rested beneath the details that others pass over. What struck me as particularly interesting when I visited the museum, however, was how the docents would tell you in all seriousness as you entered a room in the house, “This is where Sherlock slept,” and “This is where Sherlock sat, “as if Sherlock were actually a living person. While here in London, I’ve visited Handle’s, Jimi Hendrix’s, Samuel Johnson’s, Thomas Carlyle’s, and Leighton Ford’s houses where you can read about their lives and see their work. These were, indeed, real people who actually did sit in specific chairs or slept in the beds in the house. Hendrix, for example, is said to have spent a lot of his time writing while in bed. Holmes, on the other hand, though he was concerned about truth, is still a fictional character–even if he seems vividly alive in our imagination. “Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth,” Holmes stated in The Sign of Four. This is why, even though I realize that the Sherlock Holmes museum is a tourist spot and is appealing to people’s need for a touch stone for this well-loved character, it struck me as odd to hear information given out about Holmes as if he had lived, and it made me wonder about the fiction’s role in our lives.

Unlike at the Sherlock Holmes Museum, at the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studio here in the UK, those who love J.K. Rowling’s books can go to the studio and experience how artists and set makers have turned the fictional scenes of the novel into tangible realities for the movies. You can see the Hogwarts’ castle bathed in dramatic light, step inside Dumbledore’s study, and observe see for yourself the golden snitch made for the game of Quidditch. This is invented reality. We know it, but like all good literature, the imaginative story in the Potter books holds life lessons we can learn from–the value of friendship, staying true to yourself to name but two.

Fiction offers truths that enable us to reflect on who we are and how we are living. Ralph Elison wrote, “Good fiction is made of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by,” a statement which seems quite relevant for our current social context. Susan B. Glasser, in her article in Politico Magazine, “Covering Politics in Post-Truth America,” mentions how, “a few days after the election the Oxford Dictionaries announced that post-truth has been announced as the 2016 word of the year, defining it as a condition in which ‘objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.'” Facts are essential to our lives, and they are particularly important to poetry. Poets rely on facts to tell their truths. One of the great purposes of literature is to enable us to see truths about ourselves that we can’t see by simply reading the news. Poetry uses the literal realities of the world to aim at larger truths about the human condition. If you read Gerald Stern, for example, in his poem, “The Dancing,” you are brought through the facts of the poem into post World War Two as he describes his father in his family’s tiny apartment on Beechwood Boulevard,

his left hand under his armpit, doing the dance
of old Ukraine, the sound of his skin half drum,
half fart, the world at last a meadow,
the three of us whirling and singing, the three of us
screaming and falling, as if we were dying,
as if we could never stop–in 1945–
in Pittsburgh, beautiful filthy Pittsburgh, home
of the evil Mellons, 5,000 miles away
from the other dancing–in Poland and Germany–
oh God of mercy, oh wild God.

We can feel the tension between the dance punctuated by the “half fart” sounds coming from beneath the father’s arm pit in the poem and the war, “5,000 miles away” where Jews were “dancing” to keep away from Poland and Germany’s death camps. The family is dancing and laughing, falling as if dying as a way to deal with the horrors of the world. As readers, we see the pain between the lines, how the family is caught in their poverty and loss, and the greater loss of those who they feel connected to across the world, who are, in fact, dying. Similarly to the efforts of Sherlock Holmes, poets work to help us become aware of the larger connections of our inner world to outward realties so that we bring to the surface the details that enable us to begin to see the truth of our own experience. Though still affirming emotion, poetry in this way is a kind of corrective to a post-truth world where appeal to emotion matters more than facts.

Michael Longley, in a recent interview with Krista Tippett on her program, On Being, “The Vitality of Ordinary Things,” Tippett asks Longley, “What does poetry do? What does it work if it’s not solace?” Longley responds, “if you think of an out-of-tune violin, and tuning it up so that it’s in tune, I think that’s what art is, and that’s what art does. And good art, good poems is making people more human, making them more intelligent, making them more sensitive and emotionally pure than they might otherwise be.” This is a truth built from the fabric of the heart, and is also what I recall Lucille Clifton saying when I took a summer the Flight of the Mind writing workshop from her in Oregon during the 1990’s, “Poetry humanizes.”

Langley goes on to say in the interview with Tippett that “one of the marvelous things about poetry is that it’s useless. It’s useless. ‘What use is poetry?’ people occasionally ask in the butcher shop, say. They come up to me, and they say, ‘What use is poetry?’ And the answer is no use, but it doesn’t mean to say that it’s without value. It’s without use, but it has value. It has — it is valuable. And it’s the first thing — the first people that dictators try to get rid of are the poets, and the artists, and the novelists, and the playwrights. They burn their books. They’re terrified of what poetry can do….It means that — poetry encourages you to think for yourself…The image that I love the most… is English critic, Cyril Connolly, and he compared the arts to a little gland in the body, like the pituitary gland, which is at the base of the spine. And it seems very small and unimportant, but when it’s removed, the body dies.” Unlike those who embody a post-truth mentality, poetic imagination is central to helping readers see the truth of human experience beneath the rhetoric. Facts do matter. Intention matters. Poetry asks us to examine the details of our lives and the fabric they weave. Poetry calls us to think about what matters, and to move into relationship with the world around us.

In his poem, “Wounds” Langley writes,

Over a landscape of dead buttocks
My father followed him for fifty years.
At last, a belated casualty,
He said – lead traces flaring till they hurt –
‘I am dying for King and Country, slowly.’
I touched his hand, his thin head I touched.

Now, with military honours of a kind,
With his badges, his medals like rainbows,
His spinning compass, I bury beside him
Three teenage soldiers, bellies full of
Bullets and Irish beer, their flies undone.
A packet of Woodbines I throw in,
A lucifer, the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Paralysed as heavy guns put out
The night-light in a nursery for ever;
Also a bus-conductor’s uniform –
He collapsed beside his carpet-slippers
Without a murmur, shot through the head
By a shivering boy who wandered in
Before they could turn the television down
Or tidy away the supper dishes.
To the children, to a bewildered wife,
I think ‘Sorry Missus’ was what he said.

In Langley’s poem, we see the human side of dying for one’s country–the visual image of a wounded young man, and how “Paralysed as heavy guns put out/The night-light in a nursery for ever;” something that is often glossed over by politicians whose aim is to gain or maintain power while sending young men to war.

Poets must look closely at facts and tell them with the truest words they know.  Poets must aim to tell the truth so we don’t forget it, so we can find hope in bleak and difficult times that seek to erase those things that matter most.

Uncategorized

Poems To Reach Across Worlds–The Poetry Post

 

This fall I had a poetry post made for the school where I work. It’s a simple post with a plastic box for the poems and every couple of weeks I put copies of a different poem in the box. I include the author and publication site for the poem. To add interest and newness to the post, I made a ceramic plaque for it. It’s a pleasure to share poems I love in the box and to see them disappear day by day. I put about 15 poems in at a time and within a couple of weeks, enough people have found the poem meaningful enough to take with them. Occasionally, people write me a note telling me how much they appreciate the poem, or how it moved them, as someone did again this week for Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem, “Betrayal.”

This week I read the white paper for the Pioneer Institute, Public Policy Research, written by Anthony Esolen, Jamie Highfill, and Sandra Stotsky, “The Dying of the Light,” about the value of poetry instruction. Whereas the current trend in education is utilitarian and values data collection and sameness, poetry is something that enlivens the human spirit and the imagination. Poetry is an art form, doesn’t fit in a utilitarian category, and perhaps this is why it is minimized in the Common Core education standards. The Common Core, as the Huffington Post says, is “an education push that aims to make sure students across the United States are learning the skills they need to succeed in a global economy.” While one of education’s purposes is to help people find their place in the world where they can contribute to the common good using their abilities and skills, humans are much more than cogs in an economic machine, and education should nurture the human element as well–that part of us that is asks questions about existence and that stands in humility and awe before creation’s beauty. Or have we in our competitive workaday world and habitual rhythms lost our awareness of a world larger than our own–of creation in all its wonder?

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in and how are we nurturing our children through our education system to create that world. As Exolen, Highfill and Stotsky assert in “The Dying of the Light,” we might need to ask ourselves “What is a child for?” Do we want to raise our child to simply fill a role or do we want the child to be awake to life? One of poetry’s functions is to help the reader to see the world’s beauty, to notice life, and to experience it deeply in all its complexities and paradoxes. Poetry can help us see ourselves and our interconnection to the world and to each other. “One does not read poems to learn about poetic techniques. That again is backwards. One learns about poetic techniques, if one learns about them at all, the better to read poems; and one reads poems for their own sake–that is, because they are beautiful and wise,” say Exolen, Highfill and Stotsky. 

Though more poetry is being published than ever, poetry is not read by the general public nowadays. As we have culturally moved toward modernism and postmodernism, as in other fields artists, and poets, in general, no longer sense themselves as a voice of their culture or their time and place in history when they write. Gardner points out in his book, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-first Century, that there is no longer any common agreement about what is beautiful. Beauty is more a matter of subjectivity he states. But does this mean it should not be nurtured? Humans were created in the image of God, our Biblical myth tell us. Robots may be able to do a lot of the thinking we used to do and do it more rapidly, but as E.O Wilson in his book, The Meaning of Human Existence, points out, “With more and more decision making and work done by robots, what will be left for humans to do? Do we really want to compete biologically with robot technology by using brain implants and genetically improved intelligence and social behavior? This choice would mean a sharp departure away from the human nature we have inherited, and a fundamental change in the human condition.” The humanities and the arts connect us to the essence of ourselves. They explore meaning amidst the myriad gray areas of life. We are alive when we are connected to a creative act. Wilson advocates that we “promote the humanities, that which makes us human, and not use science to mess around with the wellspring of this, the absolute and unique potential of the human future.” Our humanness and our relationship to the world is the very subject literature and poetry explore.

Pushing aside poetry and the arts in our educational system demeans our humanness and lessens the “unique potential of the human future,” to use Wilson’s words. Because it can’t be measured easily, because the processes are organic and slow, because they are subjective, does it necessarily mean poetry and the arts are not important? Dana Gioa, previously chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, explains in his essay, Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture,” how people who write poetry and work in academic setting often are required to publish frequently in order to keep their jobs. He goes on to say, however, that “In art, of course, everyone agrees that quality and not quantity matters.” Creating anything takes time, and years of effort in most cases, to create quality.

Poetry is not reviewed seriously, Gioa says, and this is one of the reasons it’s not taken seriously. It used to be that poets once held many different occupations other than writing poetry. Nowadays, most poets are also teachers. Still, poetry matters to the “entire intellectual community,” Gioa explains, because it “involves the role of language in a free society. Poetry is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning. A society whose intellectual leaders lose the skill to shape, appreciate, and understand the power of language will become the slaves of those who retain it—be they politicians, preachers, copywriters, or newscasters.” Gioa suggests that when writers share poetry, we share not only our own, but others’ as well, that we combine it with other arts, and that we devote more of our time in schools not to analyzing poetry, but to performing it. “Poetry needs to be liberated from literary criticism. Poems should be memorized, recited, and performed. The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized.” This is what kept it alive for centuries, Gioa asserts. Though I have referred to Gioa’s essay that I’ve quoted from on this blog in previous posts, I come back to it again in this post because of the insights it offers.

Poetry matters deeply to me, and I want others to be able to experience for themselves the gift it is to our lives–how it can wake us up, connect us to each other, and help restore us. A poetry post is one way to keep poetry’s voice alive and to allow people to see how it is that poetry enriches, inspires and strengthens us– how it continues to speak to our spirits.

The poem copies I put in the poetry post box this week are already gone. It encourages me to know Gillan’s poem has spoken to others the way it spoke to me. A poetry post is a simple way to share poems with others, and as one parent recently wrote me, “It is amazing to see how far the poems from this small box reach.”