Lilac time

Lilacs
“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d”

I owe some of my enthusiasm for poetry to my 11th grade English teacher back at Marshall High School in Marshall, Missouri–Paul Hagedorn.

He devoted an inordinate amount of time that year to the study of poetry. Our major assignment for the whole year, as I recall, was two-fold. We were to create a poetry notebook in which we copied — and illustrated, if we desired — a good number of poems that spoke to our hearts.

He encouraged us to venture beyond the usual suspects. So, along with poems by Frost and Edward Arlington Robinson, I included lyrics by Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. Then, we were to pick one American poet from a prescribed list of lesser known poets, and write a lengthy term paper on our choice. (I choose John Crowe Ransom because I thought his name was cool. Incidentally, I’m was happy with my choice.)

Mr. Hagedorn passionately believed that Walt Whitman was the greatest poet that had ever lived and he did his best to infect his impressionable students with this enthusiasm. I dutifully bought a paperback copy of “Leaves of Grass,” and read the whole thing.

I failed to completely fall in love with Whitman. Some passages were interesting and hypnotic. I recognized some of the cadence of the King James Bible, which I was raised on. He clearly was making an ambitious attempt to encompass the breadth and depth of all of America in his work. I appreciated that he was attempting to do something had not been done before in American poetry.  But I never could figure out why my teacher was such a Whitman nut.

One poem that did thrill me, however, was “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” I understood it was an elegy to President Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated on April 14, 1864, just days after the end of the Civil War.

Lilacs were my mother’s favorite flower, and she had passed along that enthusiasm to me. So I was predisposed to be open to any poem about lilacs.

One other factor, just a few years earlier, America had celebrated the Centennial of the Civil War.  I can remember fighting the Civil War during recess in grade school.  Back in my hometown in the heart of “Little Dixie,” there were plenty of kids who had inherited Confederate sympathies from their families.

As the great-grandson of a Yankee soldier, I was clearly a Northern sympathizer.  So, one year, I recall us  dividing up and re-fighting great battles out on the playground.

Lincoln was a revered figure in my family.  So, that made an elegy to him even more interesting.

As I re-read Whitman’s poem today, decades later, it feels a bit overdone.  I had forgotten it was so long.

Just my opinion, but Old Walt could have used a good editor.

But here are those lines that are pure genius, and so beautiful that you think Whitman found them fully formed somewhere:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

It’s been a tough year for lilacs here in the Northwest.  We had such a warm and early spring that many lilac bushes were tricked into blooming too early.  Our premature spring was interrupted by some cold clear nights that nipped many lilacs in the bud.

Pity, because  there is nothing quite like the heart-shaped leaf and the perfume of the lilac.

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In honor of St. Patrick’s Day

William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Back in college, I had a poetry professor who believed William Butler Yeats was the greatest poet the world had ever seen.

Dr. John A. Bernstein was one of those rare teachers who could instill a passion for the subject matter in the hearts of his students. And that suited me just fine because I was not taking the class to fulfill a major requirement or to get into grad school.

It was the early 70s. I was seeking truth, beauty and love. I was taking Dr. Bernstein’s class to immerse myself in the great poets of the English language.

We spent a lot of time with Dylan Thomas, with Yeats and with Robert Frost. I was familiar with Frost from my childhood. But Yeats was a new discovery.

Frankly, I did not share my teacher’s unbridled enthusiasm for this Irish poet. I was a spiritually promiscuous as anyone in those days, but Yeats’s forays into spiritualism and automatic writing freaked me out.

Besides that, his poetry simply did not resonate with me. Mostly. Except for his poignant poem, When You Are Old.

Almost certainly written for his lover Maud Gonne, who had rejected his proposal of marriage at least three times. It’s a fairly straightforward poem, but touching and one of my favorites.

When You Are Old
by William Butler Yeats

WHEN you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Playing tennis with the net down

Playing tennis with the net down
We don’t need no stinking nets!

Robert Frost once famously said “writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Although this has been the dominant form of poetry for — um — like a hundred years now, I’ve always been more inclined to playing with the net up.

Not trying to restart long-settled fights or open old wounds. I’m just saying I was introduced from a young age to poetry with meter and rhyme, so that’s what I’ve gravitated towards over the years.

So shoot me.

But I must say, Mary Karr may make a convert of me.

Mary Karr
Mary Karr plays tennis with the net down

Mary Karr is best know for her memoirs, Liar’s Club, Cherry, and Lit. These are wonderful, funny and profound books.  They are credited with — or depending on your point of view — blamed for sparking the current trend of confessional memoirs.

But she would consider herself a poet first, and she has a good point.

Full disclosure:  I went to school with Mary back in the 70s.  And by “going to school with” I mean I was at the same college at the same time for a year or so.

She actually dated — or hung out with .. or whatever we called it back then — one of my roommates back at an off-campus house near Macalester College in St. Paul.

It was a pretty arty scene.  We had musicians and songwriters and artists and aspirants all living in close quarters and striving to find their voices.

This roommate of mine was a freeloading squatter who lived in our attic.  But he was a talented musician, so we gave him a free pass.  He appears on the early pages of Lit, the “Missouri cowboy,” who never seemed to lack female attention.

My primary impression of Mary back in those days:  “This girl is trouble.”

I was most certainly right.  And she would probably agree.

Later she would date David Foster Wallace, and reportedly inspire him to write Infinite Jest.  Or at least, make it good.

But enough with the name dropping.

Mary is one heck of a poet.  Exhibit A:  a poem called “Suicide’s Note: An Annual.”  Pretty universally regarded as being about Wallace after he killed himself.

It’s almost enough to make me consider taking down the net.

Old Favorites

Robert Frost, looking much the poet
Robert Frost, looking very much the poet

Robert Frost was one of my mother’s favorite poets.  He wrote a lot about farms and farmers, trees and nature — all of which appealed to the farm girl in her.

She  transferred her appreciation of Frost to me.  I like his poems a lot.  At least some of them.

For my money, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is a near-perfect poem.  It’s widely appreciated and popular, and it should be. It’s so simple that you might dismiss it as trivial. But there is a lot there.

Frost captures the mood of the moment in time.  The silence of snowfall.  The primeval tug of the forest.  The conflict between mundane duty and the longing for something more profound.  The awareness of the inevitability of death.

The repetition of “And miles to go before I sleep,” in the last two lines may be the most famous example of this technique in American poetry.  It really brings the whole scene to a profound conclusion.

And you get all of that and more out of a simple, everyday, rural event.

I had been reading a lot of Frost when I wrote this.

FALLING LEAVES LIKE LOVERS 

The leaves, the leaves are gone except the oak,
Which cling to trees and rattle needlessly.
The others flame and fall for all to see.
They streak and sizzle, leaving only smoke.
But oak leaves hang as by some unseen yoke,
All browned and curled awaiting sympathy,
Or sap to course and lend vitality —
The leaves cannot perceive the sorry joke.
For spring will end the lie and they will drop,
To drift and rot and turn in time to dust.
As sure as buds will burst to make a crop
Of new, the old will flutter down — they must.
The falling leaves like lovers never stop.
It’s hardly gentle, but ’tis just, ’tis just.