Saturday, July 19, 2008

Summer Poetry at Idyllwild

This afternoon in Idyllwild, California, a number of poets will wander up to the amphitheater stage to read recent work, to conclude the week-long summer poetry festival here. It's a good group for a town of 1,000: Ted Kooser, Natasha Tretheway, Terrance Hayes, Eloise Klein Healy, Marie Howe, Charles Harper Webb, David St. John, Cecilia Woloch. All week these poets and about fifty students have been on campus, wandering the trails with notebooks, wearing shorts, eating salads, and talking shop. I love shop talk. There are, naturally, a few parties associated with the festival. Last night, the chief muckety-muck of the foundation had folks over for cocktails and snacks at his house, and I talked to a number of friends from Idyllwild, who, although they'd enjoyed the readings, especially the plain-spoken friendliness of Ted Kooser, felt it necessary to point out that they hate poetry, generally, and would never read it (although they might buy a book of it once in a while), and then say again how much they hate poetry, with a stringer emphasis on the word "hate." Because I like these people, I laugh along with them, admit that my mind drifts away too at a poetry reading, and that, yes, there's a lot of bad poetry out there. But I don't understand, really, what about poetry causes otherwise educated and thoughtful people to such extreme aversion. I quite like it.

Of the poets here at Idyllwild, there are two whose poems have been in high rotation in my mind for years, and I'll post them here. See if you like them or hate them.

Elegy for John Berryman (by Ted Kooser)

He had a head like a fire engine
and a heart like a shelf of old hats.


HUSH (by David St. John)

for my son

The way a tired Chippewa woman
Who’s lost a child gathers up black feathers,
Black quills & leaves
That she wraps & swaddles in a little bale, a shag
Cocoon she carries with her & speaks to always
As if it were the child,
Until she knows the soul has grown fat & clever,
That the child can find its own way at last;
Well, I go everywhere
Picking the dust out of the dust, scraping the breezes
Up off the floor, & gather them into a doll
Of you, to touch at the nape of the neck, to slip
Under my shirt like a rag—the way
Another man’s wallet rides above his heart. As you
Cry out, as if calling to a father you conjure
In the paling light, the voice rises, instead, in me.
Nothing stops it, the crying. Not the clove of moon,
Not the woman raking my back with her words. Our letters
Close. Sometimes, you ask
About the world; sometimes, I answer back. Nights
Return you to me for a while, as sleep returns sleep
To a landscape ravaged
& familiar. The dark watermark of your absence, a hush.

6 comments:

Writer Not Reading said...

What a gorgeous portrayal of grief over a lost child, so tangible both in terms of feathers and lost souls and the carrying around in one's body.

ed said...

Isn't it? St. John's poems are generally very good, but this poem caught hold of me by the throat a few years ago. It has the quiet intensity familiar to grieving, all the hopelessness of loss, and doesn't try to console, and is all the more consoling for what it doesn't try to do as a poem, as a said thing.

jrlennon said...

I like both of these, too--in each case, the words appear almost as if by accident. The poetry doesn't feel composed; it feels born.

I think maybe this is a thing people dislike about poetry, when they dislike poetry. It can feel effortful, like somebody was trying real hard to do something. My favorite poems, even when they are very complex, often seem to me like found poetry, something that just happened and only turned out to be poetry by coincidence.

Dana said...

It's hard for me to understand aversion to poetry. I mean, poetry? You hate... poetry? But that's like hating strawberries. They're both part thrilling and part benign, and they're both, well, delicious. What exactly is there to hate in that? I mean, maybe if you tried to like them both, you would.

Ridiculous analogy aside, that David St. John poem is stunning. These lines just left me breathless:

"& gather them into a doll / Of you, to touch at the nape of the neck, to slip / Under my shirt like a rag"

rmellis said...

I think some people hate poetry because they think it's designed to make them feel stupid -- if they don't "get" it, they think the poet is fooling with them.

jrlennon said...

As R & I have often discussed, when people are afraid of art, they blame the art.