As a writer, when I have a new book out it means that my publisher requires me to go on the road for promotional purposes. So, recently, I found myself reading at a local library. A poetry group was meeting and I had been invited to join them. I expected the usual modest crowd elbowing each other to go on first and read their newly-minted poems. It didn't turn out that way. After my reading as the invited poet of the evening, the audience members each came forward and read, not their own writing, but their favourite poems from the past; poems written by others. I sat transfixed, listening to poems I had not heard read aloud since high school. Wordsworth's "I wandered lonely as a crowd," Yeats' "I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree," Hopkins' "Glory be to God for Dappled Things" and Davies' "A Great Time". I actually felt tears swell in my eyes as the poems triggered memories. I just let go and wallowed in the past.
But I have a very practical survival streak under all this sentiment and the idea suddenly occurred to me, "Why not," I thought, "Why not trace peak moments of the past by routing to them via favourite poems?"
The first image that immediately popped into my head was A.A. Milne's "Little Boy kneels at the foot of the bed" for it was framed with Shepherd's wonderful illustration and hung above my twin's and my own bed. Ours was not a religious household, and I was never taught to pray, yet something there was in the "Droops on the little hands little gold head" that stirred a response within me. Mostly, I think now, it was for the desire to have an ordinary family, with a middle-class home and daily rituals - something I never had.
It was years later before I found out that Christopher Robin's childhood was even messier than my own.
The Lady of Shalott haunted my adolescence, where I loved from afar a series of totally unsuitable older boys, just as The Lady had her web shattered by a glimpse of that idiot, Lancelot.
When I immigrated to North America, it was Dorothy Parker's brief witticisms that held my imagination - "men never make passes at girls who wear glasses" kind of poetry. Then, of course, there was Ogden Nash's brilliant word play such as rhyming "obstetrician" with "lobstertrician" and "parsley" and "gharsley" and his hatred of metaphor in "Something Like a Whale," which was a factor in me writing haiku many years later, where metaphor is totally absent.
Such poems as Emily Dickinson's wonderful one on "How to make a Prairie" reminded me what an immense and varied landscape I had chosen to adopt as my new home.
I have recently come across a copy of Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham, which saw me through early motherhood, delighting both me and my children but, when wifedom and motherhood became jail-like, I recited Stevie Smith's "Not Waving but Drowning," which led me to rebirth in Zen Koans and the poetry of Rumi.
During my second marriage, life in rural surroundings became a reality as we built an earth-sheltered house together guided by the nine bean rows in
Yeats' Lake Isle of Innisfree. When rural life became too burdensome, we travelled, and I, nostalgically, became Padraic Colum's The Old Woman of the Roads as I longed for a home, any kind of a home, to put an end to our meanderings. Japan became a temporary home and haiku and, later, tanka became my favourite poetry forms for expressing myself and Narihara's death poem began to haunt me:
I have always known
that at last I would have
to take this road
but yesterday I did not know
that it would be today.
Eventually finding and settling in a small house on a reasonable piece of ground, Billy Collins' witty poetry and Wislawa Szymborska's brilliantly honest poetry helped me find my own poetic voice and integrity.
at the bank
the teller discusses
I'm secure in the thought
"I live by my poetry"
Naomi Beth Wakan
Recently I read Alberto Manguel's Stevenson Among the Palms: the story of Robert Louis Stevenson's last days. I recalled his wonderful requiem
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie,
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
This wandering through the years with poetry has probably brought up a whole lot of odd lines that have stuck in your mind too, tying past events in your life to poetry. I do hope so.
NOVEMBER 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND
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