“Poetry saved my life.”

Vendela Vida,
Vendela Vida

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.

Literally.

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.

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Hometown Haiku (continued)

Stacks of old letters
Stacks of old letters
Broken hearts and promises.
How clueless I was.

Invite a poet to give your next commencement speech

Poet Mary Karr stands a delivers an awesome graduation address at Syracuse University
Poet Mary Karr stands and delivers an awesome graduation address at Syracuse University

Poet Mary Karr recently delivered the most awesome commencement speech ever.

Not that this is a category with a lot of tough competition. I cannot say I can remember anything from any commencement address I’ve ever heard.

One exception: Sen. Thomas Eagleton spoke at my high school graduation and told us impatient about-to-be-hippies-and-rebels to “work for change, but work within the system.” Advice we promptly went out and ignored.

Likely the only reason I remembered this: a couple of years later George McGovern picked Eagleton to be his vice presidential running mate in the 1972 election.

When the press dredged up records that Eagleton had been treated for depression McGovern declared he stood behind his running mate “1000 percent.” But a couple of days later Democrat party leaders got to McGovern and convinced him that Eagleton was a big liability, the idealistic McGovern dropped him.

Working within the system didn’t really wok out for Eagleton all that well. Or for McGovern. He went on to get trounced by Richard Nixon in one of the most lopsided presidential elections in American history.

Commencement speeches are notorious for bland bomfoggery and inane clichés.

I can’t even remember who spoke at my college commencement. Likewise for any other graduations I’ve attended as a guest.

But I’ll wager that the Syracuse class of 2015 and their loved ones will long remember Mary’s little talk.

She ends her speech with a tribute to her mentor and benefactor from her own undergraduate days, Professor Walter Mink, of Macalester College. She says he inspired her to teach college. But he did much more. A generous and wise man, Mink could see into the souls of his students and give them what they needed.

Professor Walter Mink
Professor Walter Mink

In Mary’s case, Mink and his wife gave her understanding and encouragement until she began to find her way.  (In Mary’s third installment of her memoir series, Lit, she details the many remarkable kindnesses lavished on her by the Minks, ranging from outfitting this poor Texas girl with warm clothes to withstand the bitter Minnesota winters to persuading her to get counseling.)

In the speech, Mary tells an interesting anecdote about a physiological psychology class taught by Mink. During my time at Mac, which overlapped with Mary’s I took that same class. Professor Mink was a wonderful teacher and a compassionate man.

(He was so beloved that three of his students formed a punk rock band and named their group “Walt Mink.”  He was that inspiring.)

One of our major lab assignments that semester was to implant electrodes in the brain of a lab rat. The plan was to stimulate various parts of the brain with electric current and record the behavior.

Each team of students was given a rat. I named mine Sparky. We had to do all of the prep on the rat ourselves, which meant giving the rat a shot to anesthetize it. (I’m deathly afraid of needles.) When the rat was safely numb and groggy, we were to secure its head in a device that closely resembled a toy vise grip.

Then came the fun part.

We were to use a scalpel to slice open the rat’s scalp, pry back the skin, and then drill tiny holes through the skull to create access points for the electrodes. I didn’t realize that the skull of a rat is only about as thick as an egg shell.

So, as I was drilling away, the bit broke through the skull and sank deep into the poor creature’s brain. Poor Sparky. His brain certainly got stimulated!

As his little arms and legs were jerking back and forth in a seizure, Dr. Mink rushed over assuring me that the rat could not feel a thing and that he would be okay. He extracted the drill and helped me patch up Sparky and get the electrodes properly implanted, the mounting glued to the skull, and the scalp sewn up around the mount.

But poor Sparky never was quite right. Our brain experiments on him produced some very strange results that semester.

Let’s just say I quickly discovered I was not created to do anything remotely medical, or anything requiring fine motor skills.

But I want to make it very clear: I was NOT Mary Karr’s lab partner. If you read her speech, you’ll understand why I emphasize this point.

I’m sure you’ll agree that when it comes to selecting a commencement speaker, this speech makes a strong argument for considering hiring a poet to do the job.

Poets on poetry

George Herbert
George Herbert (1593-1633)

By all accounts, George Herbert was a cool guy. Our knowledge is limited because he lived long ago … more than 400 years ago. He only lived to the age of 39, but that was in the days before antibiotics and indoor plumbing.

I’ve chosen to write about this poetic champion because of how he expresses his art as a means of worship.

Born into a wealthy artistic family in Wales, he enrolled in Cambridge with the intention of becoming a priest. He seems to have gotten sidetracked by politics, became a supporter of King James, and served in Parliament.

But King James died, Herbert’s secular prospects dimmed, and he became an Anglican priest in his mid-30s. He was reportedly an attentive parish priest. He cared for his parishioners, looking out for the poor and ill. He was only to live a few more years before dying of tuberculosis.

When I recently asked my Anglican son for suggestions he suggested Herbert. Coincidentally, I already had him on my list. His poem The Quiddity has been one of my favorites for some time.

Quiddity is a Latin word for “the essence,” or “what the thing really is.” The poem is a poet writing about poetry. It starts out with a litany of things that a poem is isn’t.

But, at the end of the poem, Herbert gets to the point about what a poem really is. And for him, poetry is the thing that brings him close to God.

The Quiddity
by George Herbert

My God, a verse is not a crown,
No point of honour, or gay suit,
No hawk, or banquet, or renown,
Nor a good sword, nor yet a lute.

It cannot vault, or dance, or play ;
It never was in France or Spain ;
Nor can it entertain the day
With a great stable or domain.

It is no office, art, or news ;
Nor the Exchange, or busy Hall :
But it is that which, while I use,
I am with Thee : and Most take all.

“Oh love! for love I could not speak”

Pontefract licorice cakes tin
“In the licorice fields at Pontefract”

John Betjeman had what you could call a checkered career.

He struggled at Oxford, and ultimately left without a degree. He published poems and made great friends, yet held a lifelong grudge against C.S. Lewis from his time at Oxford when Lewis was his teacher. (Lewis reportedly assessed Betjeman as “an idle prig.”

During World War II, he worked for the Ministry of Information and may have been involved in intelligence gathering.  One story that has grown up about Betjeman is that he was once targeted for assassination by the Irish Republican Army.  But the order was supposedly rescinded when an old IRA man spoke on his behalf because he had been impressed by his poems.

You might say Betjeman was eventually vindicated. He was named Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 1972. Oxford awarded him an honorary doctorate of letters in 1974.

I don’t fancy all of his poetry, but sometimes he really hits me between the eyes. Like his poem about love, “The Licorice Fields at Pontefract.”

His poem is rich with specific detail and is so descriptive, it almost overloads the senses. Betjeman is a reserved Englishman, but he tells you enough to let you know what’s going on.

The Licorice Fields at Pontefract
by John Betjeman

In the licorice fields at Pontefract
My love and I did meet
And many a burdened licorice bush
Was blooming round our feet;
Red hair she had and golden skin,
Her sulky lips were shaped for sin,
Her sturdy legs were flannel-slack’d
The strongest legs in Pontefract.

The light and dangling licorice flowers
Gave off the sweetest smells;
From various black Victorian towers
The Sunday evening bells
Came pealing over dales and hills
And tanneries and silent mills
And lowly streets where country stops
And little shuttered corner shops.

She cast her blazing eyes on me
And plucked a licorice leaf;
I was her captive slave and she
My red-haired robber chief.
Oh love! for love I could not speak,
It left me winded, wilting, weak,
And held in brown arms strong and bare
And wound with flaming ropes of hair.