May 2018 . . . .

“Poetry Book”

Eleven years ago, I began scribbling in a blank book. Well, it actually just looks like scribbling because my handwriting, even when I slow down and use a fancy pen and really pay attention to the crafting of each letter, is only borderline-legible. This particular blank book contained the impromptu poetry inspired by sitting in a car (a beige Nissan van) waiting for children to finish. Finish class, karate, a birthday party, gymnastics, what have you. That, however, is not the punch-line of a Dad-joke. Actually, that little blank book was the beginning of a lesson.

Hear me out. I promise, no lecture.

At the time, eldest daughter was in third grade, and youngest was just starting kindergarten. They were both, finally, in the same school, and I was their preferred mode of transport (along with food, clothing, teeth-brushing, face-washing and entertainment coordination). We passed a lot of time in that old beige van, waiting for traffic to move, school to start, rainstorms to blow over, this or that event to commence. Reading! Listening to a song on the radio. Watching a movie. Snacking on chips and juice-boxes, coloring, drawing, writing poetry. Truth! Writing poetry. And my third-grader had reached the point in her education where she decided that she was beginning to understand what poetry actually is.

Far be it from me, at this point (in the story as well as today) to try and encapsulate “what is poetry?” in a 700-word essay. What I did try to do with my daughters is tell them how I felt about a poem, what it was like for me to cobble an image (for at best, I am a shoemaker) and to begin the discussion with them about the difference between a poem and poem-fragment. Poetry is art as much as painting or sculpture. You have to work at it, like a garden that you plant and tend and weed and water. “Is a poem the whole garden, or is it a flower in the garden?” I asked them once. Oh, Dad, replied my third grader. I thought you meant a vegetable garden. Good point. So some of my words stuck and some were considered and dismissed. Which, I think, is both good and as good as it gets, perhaps in equal measure.

I know I promised no lecturing, but I used to think that the responsibility for teaching about poetry, the great poets of history and their works, was a great, necessary and wonderful burden that teachers (and parents and authors and editors and other poets) all shared. This, you see, is good poetry, and this over here? Not so much. Read Gerard Manley Hopkins! Read Yeats and Keats (or is it Keats and Yeats?). You’re too young to know what’s good for you! (Hey, Dad! Did you know “groan” is a homonym for “grown”?)

And I think I know, if not the precise moment that my mind changed, the two ideas that broke through the calcification. One was a friend’s son, who told him that while he respected his father’s opinion on some things (like art, politics, and career choices) he wasn’t going to follow all of his father’s advice. Why not? Because he knew what his own interests were, wasn’t terribly concerned about making mistakes, anyhow, fifty years from now being wrong wouldn’t matter very much because he (Dad) wouldn’t be around to say, “I told you so. ” My friend argued with his son for a while, because that’s what fathers do, but always his son returned to the point that, in the end, it was his decision.

Damn — that’s good. By the way, my friend, rather than pushing back against this rock, has embraced it (his son is wicked smart). Stop worrying about those things that you cannot change, change the things you can, etc., etc.

But, I tell my own progeny, you don’t know enough about poetry, or painting, or drama, or music!

My own daughter’s response? “Dad, you’re probably wrong about this.” Points for concise.

So, while I really do think that poetry is the responsibility of those who follow us, what we found to be judged great and wonderful may change, if not for us, for others. Time was our unit of measure. This poem has been read for a long time, therefore it is good and it must be read by you. You will see for yourself how great it is, and if you don’t, I will explain it to you!

Rubbish. Those marvelous, dusty works may not resonate for them. I mean, they might, but might not. I still put the poems I love in front of her, and the music and art and films and books and, and, and. But I don’t bludgeon her with how great they are (much) and I don’t dismiss the art she loves. And if my daughters, for example, find poetry in a garden different from mine, who am I to judge them on that? It’s their poetry at that point, all that is and all that ever was. Because I will be gone, someday. And they, and others, will hand that sheaf of papers down to the next group of young poem writers and readers. And trust me, I didn’t make up this line of reasoning — again, my eldest revealed it to me in her follow-on comment to my wrongness.

How, I asked her — not at the time; I never have the correct words when I need them (more’s the pity) — will you be certain to give the next generation all the same possibilities to find poetry that . . . I’m giving you? What I said was “How am I wrong?” (oh, the list of things . . .) .

Easy, Dad, said she. Don’t throw anyone or anything under the bus.

I suspect that this sounds preternaturally profound for a third-grader. In any case, I have grown up in the ensuing eleven years to find that she was not only right, but that embracing this idea makes things a bit easier. My advice? Throwing people and their art under the bus is a lot of heavy lifting, and nothing good comes of it.