Welcome to another Thursday in April, filled with poetry!
(This week, a view from my desk. Because it is too discouraging out in the garden right now . . . with all the frost-kill and all.)
“I’m a great believer in poetry out of the classroom, in public places, on subways, trains, on cocktail napkins. I’d rather have my poems on the subway than around the seminar table at an MFA program.”
Although my mom read me the standard children's poetry available in the 1960s, it was mostly of the Nursery Rhyme and Robert Louis Stevenson variety (Shel Silverstein's Cracks in the Sidewalk - which really changed the landscape for poetry-directed-at-children - wasn't published until 1974). My mom wasn't a fan of poetry. She thought it needed to rhyme, that it needed to be taken seriously, and that it wasn't for "regular people." Like us.
Then, in third grade, I had Mrs. Hermann as my teacher. She turned my world upside down when it came to poetry!
(Third grade me.)
Mrs. Hermann loved poetry, and she found poetry in everything. We had poetry in the classroom almost every day. We memorized poems and recited them, which most kids hate -- but Mrs. Hermann made it fun. She showed us that poems could be serious or funny - or sometimes both at the same time. She introduced limericks and haiku. She shared nonsense poems like The Jabberwock and had us create an entire "zoo" of the creatures we imagined in the poem. We wrote poems for her -- that didn't ever have to rhyme, although they certainly could. She taught us that songs (like "Waltzing Matilda," which we sang on the regular and with gusto) were poems, that stories were poems, that poetry was everywhere. And that it was most definitely for "regular people." Like us.
(I often wonder about the rest of the kids in my third grade class. I wonder how many of them, like me, still love poetry. I wonder if any of them actually became poets. I'm betting . . . the percentage is higher-than-average.)
Anyway. Mrs. Hermann made poetry accessible to us as children. She knew that the way to a child's heart . . . was through silliness, (age-appropriate) humor, and fun. I believe that the best way to get people who "hate poetry" to actually pay attention and listen to poetry - to make it accessible to them - is much the same: silliness, humor, and fun. (What poetry-hating adult doesn't appreciate silly limericks, for example?)
And when it comes to making poetry accessible for the masses (for all of us "regular people"), I think no one does it better than Billy Collins. His poetry is serious. It covers serious themes and universal truths and all that "poetry stuff." But he always gets there with cleverness. With humor. With a bit of the silly thrown in to make you smile . . . in that very knowing kind of way.
This week, Bonny, Kat, Sarah, and I are sharing the "fun stuff" -- poems that are silly or clever; poems that are easily accessible and that "regular people" can "get." Mine, as you might have guessed, is by Billy Collins. (And I think my mom would have loved this one.)
The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the pale blue walls of this room,
bouncing from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past --
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that's what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift -- not the archaic truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
Today's poem was originally published in Billy Collins' collection The Trouble With Poetry, 2005, but can also be found in Aimless Love: New and Collected Poems by Billy Collins, 2013, Random House. For more information about the poet, check out his entry at Poets.org.
For a real treat, here is Billy Collins reading The Lanyard. Worth a watch/listen!