Wild Friendship

The Peace of Wild Things
By Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Last week I taped this short Wendell Berry poem to my desk. I remembered the poem in time to send it to a friend for her birthday – words are our best gifts to each other nearly ten years into a friendship marked mainly by raising children and growing up ourselves. We talk daily, cutting the distance between her California exile and my mountain home with text messages and harried phone conversations. We have some standing rules: hanging-up in mid-sentence without explanation is acceptable, often necessary; whining about husbands is allowable, but both men are saints for putting up with us and should be defended; our children are beautiful, nearly perfect, and will grow up just fine despite our neuroses and constant need to analyze their lives. We have a well-honed pattern for hashing out ideas – we talk it over and over and over; throw words at the problem – circle round it and rehash; think it to death.Mari and Sj
 
I’ve read that Wendel Berry and Pulitzer prizing winning poet Gary Snyder traded more than 240 letters over 40 years. Chad Wriglesworth compiled decades of this correspondence in his book Distant Neighbors The poets write about the big issues they are famous for tackling in their work: environment and place, community, religion and economics. But they also write about family and home. They share details about their marriages and their children. They hash it out. Arguments about ethics and faith thread through the narrative. They even edit each other’s poetry. Berry says their friendship and their letters are an attempt to make “as much sense of the world as possible.” He talks about carrying Snyder around in his head as he writes and farms in Kentucky; Snyder became his “binocular vision.” Snyder says the letters were a kind of conversation about learning “how to live in a place” and defining an “ethical life.” It seems clear that the California Buddhist and the Kentucky “forest” Christian hashed it all out in their letters.
 
Our phone calls between Wyoming and California will never be literary fodder, but they could serve as a sort of scrapbook of parenting and thinking in a modern era. We share the mundane: school lunches and soccer mom commutes, but we also chew on politics and faith. I would love to have my dear friend closer – I have made shameless pitches for a Wyoming move, but I do wonder how our friendship would change if we were no longer forced to talk our way through each other’s lives. She has become my binocular vision, my secondary perspective in so many ways. I notice this most in the quiet spaces between our phone calls. I find myself thinking about how I might explain something so that she can see it. Our physical distance creates a sort of distinct thinking space.
 
I ordered two leather bracelets on my friend’s 40th birthday. Berry’s words are hammered into a small metal loop on the leather: a reminder of our attachment to reason, our attempts to find all the right words, and of how often we fall short. It will remind me to appreciate the space in our longtime friendship, to appreciate the quiet “wild peace” between the conversations. We are not Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder – I will never be a poetic genius– but their enduring friendship is inspiring and seems to make our phone calls a little more legit.
 
– Sarah
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The Red Wheel Barrow… once again

red-wheelbarrow[2]

 

The Red Wheelbarrow

William Carlos Williams

so much depends upon

a red wheel barrow

glazed with rain water

beside the white chickens.

 

I have taught this poem many, many times and have always told students that it’s easy to read too much into it, that it is an image, a little snap shot and not much else. I do believe that is true, but that doesn’t explain the “so much depends” of the poem, not really. I have also always said that the most important word in the poem is “glazed” but I didn’t really think about why “glazed” is so important until recently.. until, to be exact, I was lying in bed in a dingy motel room in Casper, Wyoming, trying to go to sleep. I sometimes recite poetry to myself as a way of drifting off, but as I recited the Williams, I began to think about what, really have been inadequate analyses. ( I would like to insert here , that too often student do want to find the “deeper” or “hidden meaning” as if poetry is some sort of arcane code that requires “special knowledge” to decode. I always work to dissuade them of this notion, that the meaning of the poem is on the page, in the specific words, and that all a student needs to do is read carefully and thoughtfully.)

But now, as I was thinking, in the drifting moments before sleep, I thought again about why “glazed” is so important. First of all, it creates the glassy sheen on the wheelbarrow. “Slick” would not have done as well to create that window-like glassiness. However, “glazed” does something else. When we think about the word, it immediately brings to mind what potters do to pots. They glaze them, by covering them with substances that turn hard and “glassy,” creating a permanent finish on the pot. We have shards of glazed pots from ancient civilizations, and potters today are using techniques very similar to the ones used centuries ago.

Thus, Williams, with the use of this lovely verb, makes the red wheel barrow into something permanent and ageless, something that connects people of the twentieth century to people from ancient times. Not only is this connection made through the word “glazed” but it is reinforced by the implement itself, which is a lowly, and low tech tool used by farmers and gardeners throughout history.

Finally, Williams contrasts the glazed wheel barrow with the white chickens, also a part of human agriculture for millennia. These creatures are ephemeral, new chickens are hatched, adult chickens are eaten but the generic “chicken” connects humans throughout history.

So, now, we come back to the “So much depends upon,” that apparently cryptic statement at the beginning of the poem. If the chickens and the glazed wheel barrow take on the weight of millennia, (with Williams’ very light and imagistic touch), then civilization depends on these things, the simple tools, the animals that provide us with food. Indeed, much does depend on them. Yes, “glazed” is the most important word in this poem because without it, we wouldn’t understand the first stanza beyond except in the simplest way.

I find it interesting that it took a moment before drifting off to sleep to see this, and I am reminded again of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” Williams is telling us an enormous truth, but he is also telling it slant.

 

Jane

 

 

It Makes My Ears Happy

This semester, I have taught a Creative Writing: Poetry class to undergraduates for the first time in decades.  It has been easy enough to avoid because we always need to cover many sections of English Comp, and then someone has to teach the required literature classes for our few English majors.   But finally, last fall when we were constructing the schedule for this fall, I decided that it might be fun to do again.

For many years, I worked with high school aged writers, which was, in general, a joy, but I found that after all those years, I had lost interest in working with beginning poets. I was tired of poems about unrequited love and tired of poems that relied on abstractions and clichés.

So, it was with a little trepidation that I jumped back into a Creative Writing class. I had nine students enrolled, six women and three men, of various ages and backgrounds.   We began working in small forms, paying attention first of all to image.  As we worked on filling our poems with sights, sounds, tastes, and textures, each poem became richer.  The students moved from image alone to using image as metaphor, doing that powerful poetic trick where a poet shows a reader two ideas and says, “Look, this is like that” and a reader feels the unexpected connection.  It was during one of these classes when Ernest said that he liked a particular line. When I asked him why, he replied, “It makes my ears happy.”

Often after that, when someone wrote a satisfying line or a whole satisfying poem, one of us would repeat Ernest’s words.

Although it’s a seemingly simple statement, it says a lot about what we want from and what we should expect from poetry. Before anything else, poetry should delight the ear.  Beginning poets often say that poetry is about “emotion” or about “love,” but that is because they have been exposed too much Hallmark verse and not enough real poetry.   When I read Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” out loud to the class, I didn’t ask them what the poem was about because that is not a particularly interesting question, nor is it one we can really answer, but I asked them how it sounded and what pictures it created in their minds. One of the students observed that it was “trippy,” which it is, indeed, if the stories about that poem are true, but  if we read it, or listen to it paying attention to image and sound, it becomes an experience like looking at a piece of interesting surreal art or listening to  Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.”  We don’t especially care what it is about, but listening to provides a real, sensual and visual experience.

The best poetry stretches our senses.  We feel the best poetry in our bodies and skins. It is the combination of image and sound that makes the best poetry work the way it does.

Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise

And so, I want to thank all the students in this fall’s poetry class for providing me with many moments that made my ears happy.

J

Making the Case I Should Never Have to Make for Reading Good Literature

 

poetry_reading[1]

 

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die every day
for lack
of what is found
there

William Carlos Williams

I grew up in a family of readers. My mother used to put her hand to her forehead, and quote Shakespeare, saying “When to the sessions of sweet, silent thought” when her four young girls were too noisy. One of my earliest literary memories is of my father reading Kipling to me, and relishing the words “The great, gray, green, greasy Limpopo River all set about with fever trees.” I am sure that the way that these words continue to echo in my head has something to do with the fact that I am a poet.

However, teaching literature in a community college has become a somewhat endangered profession.  For years, we have required students to take two semesters of writing  ( Composition I and Composition II). Comp I is usually basic essay writing, and the readings are traditionally non-fiction essays, although I have tended to use whole books instead in my own classes. The books I choose are usually what I would call “popular nonfiction,” books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory. These books have generally engaged my students, although they find them challenging. I often tell them that these are books that college- educated people in this country read, but the greater reason for reading them is to learn about ideas and experiences that are outside those of the average Wyoming community college student.

Our Comp II classes vary, but the common course syllabus calls for an introduction to poetry, drama and short story, as well as learning to integrate research with writing. At Sheridan College, teachers have a great deal of leeway about what works they want to teach.  This semester I have taught Othello and The Laramie Project,  poems from an international anthology, poems by prisoners, novels by Tony Hillerman,  and classic short stories. A colleague of mine has taught Richard III, and Medea. Another colleague has taught The Gifts of the Body by Rebecca Brown, Wit, and an anthology of poetry by nurses.

We have gotten considerable pressure to open the Composition II slot to other subject areas. In theory, students could get the second level writing skills in courses that were more related to their majors. Our psychology teacher actually said, “I would rather have my students do research in psychology than a paper on The Great Gatsby.”  On the surface, this statement makes a kind of sense. However, if we step back and really consider what she was saying, it’s kind of horrifying.  The underlying assumption is that literature is not “practical,” doesn’t have any direct connection to a degree. This is a dangerous and narrow-minded assumption.

Good literature provides touchstones for us.  Good literature provides direction and inspirations. I think of Nelson Mandela, imprisoned in South Africa for 25 years, who continually drew sustenance for the poem “Invictus”  by William Ernest Henley (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/invictus/)  or the way the psalms have provided comfort to people for millennia. Good literature helps us know what it means to be human. Students can know all the psychology or economics in the world, but if they don’t have a sense of empathy, an understanding of the depth and richness of common human experience, and a sense of wonder that beautiful language provides, then these students are missing one of the cornerstones of human culture.

Some people will argue that students need more practical skills first. However, one semester, during a Remedial English class, I introduced students to some poetry by Langston Hughes. One of the youngest students, an 18-year old woman about to be a mother for the first time, fell in love with Hughes’ poem “From Mother to Son.” This young woman printed out the poem, framed it and hung it in her baby’s room. The poem goes on to say, “Don’t you fall now—/ For I’se still goin’, honey,/I’se still climbin’,/And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”  This poem provided inspiration and guidance for this young woman.  The course provided her with many of the writing skills she needed to continue in college, but it also gave her a poem she will never forget.

I had a conversation with someone else recently who said something like “Well, Shakespeare might not appeal to students nowadays.”  I think as teachers, we have a responsibility to introduce students to Shakespeare. I think of the psychology teacher above, and I want to tell her that we can learn a great deal about human psychology, human behavior and to quote William Faulkner, “the human heart in conflict with itself” by reading Shakespeare.  I do not have the space to go into the beauty of Shakespeare’s language, but just meditate for a minute on Othello’s  statement, “Think of me as one who loved not wisely but too well.” To assume that Shakespeare might not appeal to some students implies that some students don’t need what Shakespeare ( and other great literature) has to offer. This assumption sells both our students and the literature short.

If we live totally in the moment, we have no history, no connection to our pasts. It’s a lonely place to be. Like Mandela, reading “Invictus” over and over, committing it to memory, we can find our place in the deeply rich human continuum if we have some understanding of and experience of the rich literatures of the world.  In an ideal world, children should be listening to and reading great literature from very early in their lives, but if that doesn’t happen for most children, we must provide some experience with great literature for all college students.  I would go so far as to contend that our civilization, our understanding of ourselves and our culture, in fact, perhaps even our lives depend on it.

Jane

 

Loss

Kita waiting for a ride up the mountain

Loss is a part of life, but it can cripple us temporarily. This past weekend I lost my pet.

It was sudden. We didn’t even know she was ill.

Apparently, she had liver cancer, and by the time she displayed any symptoms, it was too late.

To some people, losing a dog may not be that big of a deal, but for me and my husband, this weekend we lost not only a pet, but we lost a member of our family–a member of our family who we thought would live at least a few more years.

Sitting on the living room floor, petting Kita for the last time as the sun shone in and warmed her coat, I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite poems: “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop.

One Art

by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it
 was you meant 
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have li
ed.  It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Part of me feels silly for being so overwrought over a dog. I can hear other voices in my head saying, “she’s just a dog.” But that’s the thing about loss…a pet, a parent, a friend…there is still an absence–a hole–a loss that we grieve.

Eventually, the pain subsides and we continue. This loss, and others to come, will not be a disaster…it will just feel like it for a while.

Kita with her hedgehog. 2002-2012

~ K