Before We Leave

It always happens. Just as soon as you think you’re ready to leave and go on to the next place, the one you’re in becomes incredibly beautiful. It happened to me this morning.

In a few days, I’ll be leaving this Florida island and going back to Minneapolis. I’ve told everyone I’m ready to go home: the island is too crowded with visitors, I say. I just want to go to my regular grocery store. I miss my Minnesota family and friends.

Then this morning as I sat outside reading the Sunday Times and drinking coffee, I dropped deep into the astounding beauty around me: the gentle air, the birds’ songs, the green of foliage, and the startling blue of sky and water. It all seemed impossible to leave.

The hibiscus and bougainvillea by our front door are putting on an incredible show saying to me, Don’t go. Stay and look. See what you will miss.

It also happened this morning that our radio was tuned to Krista Tippett’s “On Being” featuring the poet David Whyte.  April is National Poetry Month, so how pleasing to hear the musical voice of David Whyte read his poems and talk about poetry and the spirit.

                                                              Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice.

–David Whyte, “Everything Is Waiting for You”

The place I’m in now as I prepare to leave is the space of poetry. It is the time when you notice what you will miss, when you see all that you have not seen, when it will all go away in an instant. Poetry helps me see–if but for a moment.

The song of the cardinal is shriller than ever this morning. The pileated woodpecker searching the hole in the dead palm trunk is brilliant: red, white, and black, bright and clear against the brown. The sunlight through the blinds as I write makes a work of art of the keyboard and my desk.

I have missed much in the days before when I drove methodically down San-Cap Road focused on how slow the car in front of me was going.

My friend down the street created a delicious dinner for four of us neighbors on Friday night. How sweet to eat cooked-to-perfection lamb chops, to taste the caramelized walnuts in the strawberry salad, and to savor the beauty of her chocolate cake with its small lake of raspberry sauce and crown of piped whipped cream! All of this as the smooth words of conversation flowed around the candles; and there too, on the table, were three translucent pink hibiscus blooms to remind me of the temporality of all of this. They bloom for only a day.IMG_0030

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Writing Idea:  Look for something today that will be gone tomorrow. Go for ten minutes in your notebook. Try it again tomorrow. And the next.  It could be the last chocolate chip cookie in the bag. It could be that old shirt you decide to throw out. Is there a story or poem in the transitory? See what you have to say.

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“I’ll tell you how the sun rose, a ribbon at a time.
The steeples swam in amethyst,
The news like squirrels ran.
The hills untied their bonnets,
The bobolinks begun.
Then I said softly to myself,
“That must have been the sun!”

But how he set, I know not.
There seemed a purple stile.
Which little yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while
Till when they reached the other side,
A dominie in gray
Put gently up the evening bars,
And led the flock away.

Emily Dickinson 

The Vertigo of Possibility

I enjoy the daily audio poems I receive via email from the Poetry Foundation because I can listen to them unencumbered by words on the page.

In “Prelude,” A. E. Stallings carries us along as we wait for the moment at the end of the poem when she reveals why she is moved by art and music.ae-stallings

Listen to the poem here for the sheer joy of it:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/audio/Prelude.mp3

Did you notice the rhyming? The beauty of the language? A. E. Stallings is a contemporary poet who works with rhyme and forms.

Now that you’ve heard the music, read her poem below and note how she uses original rhymes and creative line breaks to give the poem a definite structure. I also

Monet's Water Lilies (MOMA)

Monet’s Water Lilies (MoMA)

like the way she writes about tears while avoiding clichés (i.e.”tears gushed from my eyes”) as her poem reveals how moved she was by the possibility of creativity.

On our recent trip to NYC, we visited MoMA and saw Monet’s huge triptych, “Water Lilies.” When I remember my feelings as I stood before the painting, I can understand “the vertigo of possibility” and some of what A. E. Stallings was trying to convey in “Prelude.”

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Prelude

Lately, at the beginning of concerts when
The first-chair violin
Plays the A 4-40 and the bows
Go whirring about the instruments like wings
Over unfingered strings,
The cycling fifths, spectral arpeggios,

As the oboe lights the pure torch of the note,
Something in my throat
Constricts and tears are startled to my eyes,
Helplessly. And lately when I stand
Torn ticket in my hand
In the foyers of museums I surprise

You with a quaver in my rote reply—
Again I overbrim
And corners of the room go prismed, dim.
You’d like to think that it is Truth and Art
That I am shaken by,
So that I must discharge a freighted heart;

But it is not when cellos shoulder the tune,
Nor changing of the key
Nor resolution of disharmony
That makes me almost tremble, and it is not
The ambered afternoon
Slanting through motes of dust a painter caught

Four hundred years ago as someone stands
Opening the blank
Future like a letter in her hands.
It is not masterpieces of first rank,
Not something made
By once-warm fingers, nothing painted, played.

No, no. It is something else. It is something raw
That suddenly falls
Upon me at the start, like loss of awe—
The vertigo of possibility—
The pictures I don’t see,
The open strings, the perfect intervals.

A.E. Stallings

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Writing Jumpstart: Think of a time when you had difficulty writing or talking about an emotional moment. Use this line as a starting point:  “No, no. It is something else.” Then go for ten minutes saying (as best you can) what it is.

Deb Wlaz: Keen Observer

As a participant in several of my Sanibel classes, Deb Wlaz discovered that many of her free writings were more like poems. “I write in bullet-point style,” she told us one day. Perfect for poems.

Deb, an avid reader, gardener and indulgent grandmother, has had a variety of occupations over the years. She has been a special education teacher, a reporter for a local newspaper, and a loan officer for a bank. “All second to raising my children,” she says.

“I am fortunate to live in the best of two worlds,” she writes. “I live six months on idyllic Sanibel Island. The other six months I live on a farm in the rolling countryside of central Pennsylvania.” In Sanibel, Deb volunteers at a wildlife clinic; and in Pennsylvania, for a local animal shelter. Deb’s writing often reveals her love of nature and wildlife.

“I’m sending you a couple of poems that grew out of the ten-minute writing,” she wrote in response to my last blog. She also included two photos: one from her spring walk and the other of her now missing companion.

Here, for your enjoyment, are Deb’s poems and photos.

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Late Bloomer

Crab apples bursting
With color and fragrance
The showpiece of new spring.

ImageGraceful dogwoods
Open with pinks and whites
Contrasting with the fresh
Greens of beech and maple.

The pines sprout new growth
With soft cones
Standing straight to
Reach their destiny.

Even the slow to wake
Walnuts are showing
Signs of life,
Yet the black locust
Stands bare – waiting.

—Deb Wlaz

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Walking Alone

I walk the hills alone
Following the trails
You chose
With calling scents.

I imagine you
Beside me, excited
With your freedom
To explore.Image 1

I absorbed your love
Of the moment,
Knowing a calm
Felt only with you.

I ache for that face
Searching mine, eyes
Dancing with pleasure
At my simple words.

Smiles still appear
From memories,
That need suffice
For your cycle is over.

Your spirit roams
These hills and valleys
Your playground.
I look out aimless.

—Deb Wlaz

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Writing Prompt:

Brenda Ueland (1891-1985) taught writing classes for many years at the Minneapolis YWCA. In her book, If You Want to Write, she says that from the people in her classes, she learned “that everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.” I too have learned this from the writers in my classes.

Using Ueland’s quote, write for ten-minutes as if you really believe this to be true about yourself.

 

 

Mingus and Matthews: A Moment in Time

Since April is National Poetry Month, I want to honor poets and poetry. Particularly poets like William Matthews, who may have slipped from our memory.

2013 National Poetry Month Poster

2013 National Poetry Month
Poster

Matthews would have been my age had he not died of  a fatal heart attack at age 55 just one year after winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for his collection of poetry, Time & Money, in 1996.

Why does April (“the cruelest month”) bring us face to face with our own mortality? Perhaps because everything around us is so full of life, we are reminded of the brevity of it all. Poetry because of its brevity seems especially good at capturing those moments that pass by so quickly.

In “Mingus at the Showplace,” Matthews harkens back to that time in 1960 when he was age seventeen. He was listening to the music of double bassist and jazz composer, Charles Mingus, at The Showplace in New York City. At that point in his life, Mingus was 48 years old and at the height of his career. He, himself, would be gone in 1979 at age 57.

William Matthews

William Matthews

So I’m struck by the perfection of this moment in time when young poet and gifted musician come together. I’m also struck by how generous Mingus was to the young poet. “There’s a lot of that going around,” he says to the young Matthews about the poem Matthews has asked him to read.  Mingus certainly has standards because later that night Mingus, who was known for his temper, fired his pianist. Yet he is kind to the poet and continues to live in this poem.  “…and the band played on.”

Listen  (To hear the poem, click on this “listen” button.)

Mingus at the Showplace

BY WILLIAM MATTHEWS
I was miserable, of course, for I was seventeen,
and so I swung into action and wrote a poem,

and it was miserable, for that was how I thought
poetry worked: you digested experience and shat
literature. It was 1960 at The Showplace, long since
defunct, on West 4th St., and I sat at the bar,
casting beer money from a thin reel of ones,
the kid in the city, big ears like a puppy.
And I knew Mingus was a genius. I knew two
other things, but they were wrong, as it happened.
So I made him look at the poem.
“There’s a lot of that going around,” he said,
and Sweet Baby Jesus he was right. He laughed
amiably. He didn’t look as if he thought
bad poems were dangerous, the way some poets do.
If they were baseball executives they’d plot
to destroy sandlots everywhere so that the game
could be saved from children.   Of course later
that night he fired his pianist in mid-number
and flurried him from the stand.
“We’ve suffered a diminuendo in personnel,”
he explained, and the band played on.
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William Matthews, “Mingus at the Showplace” from Time and Money: New Poems. Copyright © 1995 by William Matthews. Reprinted with the permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
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You can order the free poster above by going to: http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/98
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Writing Jumpstart: A brush with someone of genius. Or a time when you were young, and you had a chance to rub shoulders with someone like Mingus.  Go for ten minutes.

 

More on C. K. Williams: “On Being Old”

C. K. Williams, who is now 75, has been writing poetry since his twenties. Along the way, he has published eighteen books of poetry and has won almost every prize out there, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

I’ve read and admired many of his poems because of his willingness to take the plunge and stay with the long line. He holds an idea or an image and doesn’t let it go, wringing everything out of the language he pours upon the page.  (You can hear this in the poem “Whacked,” which he reads in the video, “On Being Old,” linked to my last blog.)

Courtesy of Jesse Nemerofsky
C. K. Williams: His collection “Repair” won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for poetry

I enjoyed watching Williams in the video, sitting there in his corduroy jacket behind the podium, reflecting “On Being Old.”  I liked looking into his lined face and hearing his voice.  Sure, we can read the essay (The American Poetry Review, July-August 2012), but how much better to see him before us, talking straight out about being old.

Most of us are in a state of denial about being old. One friend responded to my last post: “You’re not old.” Well, I’m certainly not young, so what do you call me? I’ll turn seventy this month. True, most of us don’t feel old. So what is it we feel? Let’s hear from those of us who stand at this end of life.

C. K. Williams speaks out from age 75.

He begins by making some funny comments about his sagging body when glimpsed in a mirror, naked, late at night, after a few glasses of wine. ‘’The body,” he says, “doesn’t seem to realize what an important person it is carrying around.” He tells us about trying to imagine his literary heroes, like Robert Frost in his 80’s, whose “face was like a sculpture,” in such a state.

We can’t avoid the subject of our bodies. We live in them after all. Now at almost 70, mine is beginning to show signs of wear. Yet it was able to take me to see the vistas of Machu Picchu, and for that, I am thankful. After the trip, it let me know that such climbing wasn’t as easy as it would have been in my thirties.  Yet how pleasing that my body is giving me this extra time to do the things I was too busy for when we (body and spirit) both were much younger.

Williams covers many topics in his talk: taste and how it changes over one’s lifetime, critics, the depression that comes from not writing, the changes in his own poetry, his past and the “stupid things” he said and did, his obsession with a future that terrifies him, his thoughts on death (“It doesn’t hang around the way it did when I was in my twenties”), and the gratitude he feels for the beauty and miracles of the present.  Finally he ends his talk by reading a poem entitled “Writers Writing Dying.” The final line: “Keep dying, keep writing it down.”

In The Art of Growing Old: Aging with Grace, Marie de Hennezel quotes Hermann Hesse in her chapter entitled “The Fecundity of Time.” “We who have white hair derive strength, patience, and joy from sources the young know nothing about,” says Hesse. “Watching, observing, and contemplating gradually become habits and exercises, and imperceptibly all our behavior begins to be influenced by this state of mind and the attitude to which it leads.” And I would add writing to those habits and exercises.

We are living—and dying—every day; we will keep writing it down, at every age.