My friend and schoolmate, John Marquand, was writing poems before I knew what to do with a pencil. While I was playing football, Johnny was putting his heart on paper and getting published.
Our senior high English teacher saw his potential and submitted some of John’s poems to a magazine that published the best of Missouri high school poetry. He got three poems accepted, including one on the cover.
He went off to the University of Missouri, where he took some writing classes, and met some real, live poets. He was influenced by Weldon Kees, an undervalued and underappreciated poet from the 20th Century.
I got to read a few of his poems when we were back in school together. They inspired me even then.
While John is now concentrating on nature photography, he is still a poet at heart.
His pen name is Quill. He’s got a bit of Weldon Kees in him. But he is his own poet.
Made another discovery recently, this one thanks to my old friend and schoolmate, the photographer and artist (and poet) John Marquand.
John turned me on to his favorite poet, Weldon Kees, an important, but overlooked poet from the last century. Kees really hasn’t gotten the attention his fans think he deserves, possibly because his output was small.
He was a modern day Renaissance Man, who in addition to writing poetry, was a novelist, short story writer, painter, literary critic, jazz pianist, and filmmaker.
Kees’ career was cut short when he disappeared in 1955 at age 41, a presumed suicide. His car was found near the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, but his body was never found.
Kees captured the despair of modern urban life in the 20th Century, and expressed in fresh ways.
Perhaps the best examples of this is his series of four “Robinson” poems about an outwardly successful, but inwardly despairing modern man.
If you’re interested in this sort of thing, it’s worth your time to read the whole essay, but I’ll include a tidbit:
“This poem demonstrates how Kees transformed the alienation and vacuity of contemporary life into lyric poetry. It does not offer readers comfort or escape. Kees did not transcend the problems of his century with a religious or a political faith. He did not elude the vulgarization of public culture by stealing away into an aesthetic realm. What he offered was uncompromising honesty, the transforming shock of recognition.” — Dana Gioia
It would very well be that the Kees’ uncompromising honesty combined with his inability to find redemption amidst a fallen culture finally led to his demise.
Some have speculated that Kees’ anti-hero, Robinson, was named after E.A. Robinson, the earlier American poet, who enjoyed a bit of a revival after Simon and Garfunkle adapted one of his poems into a famous song in the 1960s — “Richard Cory.”
There are certainly similarities between Kees’ Robinson, and Robinson’s Richard Corey. But Kees’ Robinson is much more of a world-weary man of the mid-century. Robinson’s Cory was a member of the sated upper class at the turn of the century.
More intriguing is the theory that Kees’ Robinson is really an aspect of the poet himself.
When the willow world is with hoarfrost hung,
And the white fog lifts leaving trees bright new,
The foliage flashes with a crystal clue
Of how the world looked when light first leaped young.
Before man’s weight and weakness had begun
To break the branch or bruise the sodden slough,
The garden grew unburdened, bathed in dew,
Grew like a canticle, perfectly sung.
NOTES: Many years ago and many miles away, I awoke one Minnesota winter morning to the most astounding display of hoarfrost I had ever seen. The world was completely coated, clothed in white.
This was approximately 35 years ago. Garrison Keillor was just getting traction with his Prairie Home Companion show. He still had a day job on the local public radio station, and that morning, he celebrated the frosty morning by reading a poem.
I regret that I do not remember the name, or author of the poem he read that day. Perhaps it could have been this poem, Hoarfrost and Fog, by Barton Sutter. But I don’t think so.
It might have been his own work. But his efforts inspired the modest 8 lines I’ve posted above.
This fall, I’ve been writing a lot about how the death of summer is a metaphor for the inevitable death we all as humans face. This might be the single most-used image in all of literature.
Hopkins also wrote a 2-part poem, The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo, that gets at something even more. The first part, The Leaden Echo, sets up the problem of the decline and decay of beauty. It ends with despair.
But, in The Golden Echo, we come back to hope for redemption, for eternal life, and for the love of a Heavenly Father who restores.
“When the thing we forfeit is kept with fonder a care Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it ….”
You hear it said: “Poetry saved my life.” There are books with that in the title.
I’ve said it myself.
It’s usually meant figuratively. When I’ve said it, I know I meant it figuratively.
But when author Vendela Vida says it, she means it literally.
As the novelist told NPR Fresh Air host Terri Gross on June 30, 2015, she owes her life to poetry.
During the course of the interview, Gross asked Vida about her novel, “And Now You Can Go,” in which a woman is confronted by a man with a gun intent on suicide.
And he because he doesn’t want to die alone, he poses a mortal threat to the woman.
In the novel, a young woman is walking through a park in Manhattan, when a man calls out to her using the word “ma’am,” and she turns around.
The man is suicidal and has a gun. And, he doesn’t want to die alone. The woman is terrified, and in her desperation to find a reason to give him to go on living, she tells him about her love for books.
Interviewer Gross is skeptical. As Gross says, “she does it by trying to convince him that there’s, like, great poems and fiction out there, and I’m thinking, like, are you kidding?”
Well, it just so happens that this vignette in Vida’s novel is based on an actual event in her own life. As she told Gross, “I think the first 10 pages, are based on something that happened to me when I was 21 years old and I was studying at Columbia, and I decided to go for a walk one December day in Riverside Park. I think it was around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and I was approached – like the protagonist in the book – by a man who didn’t want to die alone, and he had a gun.”
What Vida told Gross next is so good I want to quote her directly.
“And so I started saying to him, you know, there’s so much great stuff out there,” said Vida. “There’s poetry. You know, I sounded like some deranged schoolteacher at this point, and I had recently been reading the work of Mark Strand, the poet, and so I started just reciting some of his verses to this man.
“I started just, you know, the beginning of one poem, the ending of another – anything. I said, let’s go to the bookstore and let’s go look at some work by Mark Strand. It was the craziest thing. You know, I didn’t know what I was saying even, but I saw some kind of flash of interest or recognition in this man’s eyes, and he said, OK, let’s go to the bookstore.
“And so we started walking up to Broadway Street. And when, you know, as we were getting near, he said, you know, he said, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry, and he put his gun away, and he ran.”
When Gross heard the explanation, she was apologetic for suggesting that the scene in the novel was unbelievable.
“Oh, there’s no need to apologize, Terri,” said Vida. “No, it seems – it is – it was very bizarre, and, you know, I think it is a very unlikely situation. It does seem like a very, like, writerly dream to think that poetry can save someone’s life, but in my case, you know, it literally did.”
I love that story.
I also love the fact that Vida contacted poet Mark Strand and told his the story.
Strand served a term as the U.S. Poet Laureate in 1990-91, and it turned out was delighted by Vida’s story.
And who wouldn’t?
Here was a poet … a poet who had been honored with the highest honor his country could bestow … and finally, he had some assurance that he had made a difference in someone’s life.
His poetry had actually SAVED a life. Maybe two.
We poets go through life playing a game of Marco Polo. You know, the swimming pool game. We poets are perpetually coming to the surface and hollering “Marco!”
Whenever we hear a “Polo” in reply we are surprised and gratified.
In this case, Mark Strand heard a resounding “POLO!” from Vida.
Poetry has saved my life in figurative ways.
Poetry has allowed me to turn heartbreak, grief, despair, and tragedy into small bouquets of beauty.
If that’s “saving my life,” great. I’ll take that.