Thursday, March 9, 2006

Pause for Poetry Provides Oasis of Thought

I didn’t know if he was serious or not. This kid I sat by in a high school English class. He had asked me for my impression of his poem:

“Blades of grass,
blowing in the wind,
like blades of grass.”

Like I said, I didn’t know if he was serious or not. He often goofed off. He didn’t seem to take the class seriously. But somehow he seemed as if he were proud of this poem.

“Deep,” I said. I figured he could decide if I was serious or not.

He nodded, thoughtfully. Unless he was faking it.

It was hard in high school to take poetry seriously. I’d be in class during the afternoon and prodded to discuss iambic pentameter and heroic couplets. Then, in my after school job, all I was allowed to say was: “paper or plastic?”

But something did stick. I had an English teacher in seventh grade, whom I’ll never forget. I remember this young woman partly because she had fake teeth in the front of her mouth—due to an accident of some kind--that she would suck up and down to freak us out. But also because she taught so passionately that diagramming sentences was as exciting as sports. She sparked for me a life long love of words.

In college that love blossomed under the tutelage of another young woman who taught the mandatory freshman English composition course. She forced us to keep journals. Many complained about this, and at first I thought it was ridiculous as well. But I still have that journal today, and many more that I’ve maintained since then. Journaling has been good practice, therapy, and habit. Many of my journals include poetry.

I also began to read poetry just for fun. My bookshelves include collections from Frost, Keats, Dickenson as well as more contemporary work from the likes of Jim Harrison, Robert Haas, and Billy Wilder. I like the efficiency of the words and the power of sparse expressions to yield profound thoughts.

It’s deep.

So my interest was piqued when I saw a notice in the paper and on the sign at the Spring Lake library about a poetry reading night. Local people were invited to come in Tuesday night and read their poems. I made a note to attend.

There were about a dozen people in the room. One of the librarians made a few announcements, and then people were invited to read. The editor of “Peninsula Poets” started it off. He was followed by a group of other local poets—men, women, senior citizens, and younger people too.

There were serious and spiritual themes, as well as humorous and whimsical efforts. There was free verse, more metered verse, and even some poems that rhymed. The topics varied. There were poems about cats, the breakwaters at the Muskegon pier, life in a cemetery, lions in the zoo, remembering a mother’s sewing machine, gardening and flowers, something called “Ode to Pilot Biscuits” about a unique type of cracker the poet had encountered in Alaska, prayer, and many other subjects.

All of it was deep. Seriously.

Earlier in the week I watched a few glimpses of the Academy Awards. I am a little interested in films, but find the self-aggrandizing speeches, over-hyped glamour, and feigned humility to be sickening. This poetry reading was a refreshing alternative. Local talent gathered together to humbly share their inner thoughts and creations with fellow citizens. We were a collection of every day people, sharing our sense of the profound.

I hadn’t intended to read myself. I was a little shy of bringing public the words I had thoughtfully and privately etched in a series of notebooks. But I was so inspired that I did read one. It was a poem about my wife that I had with me in my laptop because I printed it and framed it with a picture of her. It felt odd to read it aloud to a room full of strangers. But they politely applauded, as I had for them.

This poetry reading at the library was the same--a chance to listen to the innermost thoughts of fellow human beings, and just sit there a while to think and appreciate words and life itself. We should do it more often. It all reminded me of a poem called “Oasis” that I wrote about attending a poetry reading several years ago. Other people’s thoughts bounced around in my own mind and, even though in a room full of other people, I felt I enjoyed a moment of solitude. I had the same feeling at the Spring Lake library earlier this week:

This period,
This place,
This collection of words
And pauses,
This cause for reflection
Is refreshment
And relief.

It is real.

It is a place on the hazy horizon,
A time unmeasured,
A pause in dry routine,
A shimmering image
For me
Alone.

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