once upon a poetry school…
dispatch from 06510, aka PoetryLand
I could barely sleep the night before it all began — though truth is, it’s because my firstborn was flying across the continent, rising out of a blood-red cell on the weather radar map (“insane,” he declared the weather, as the hour grew later and later, long past the scheduled time for takeoff) and it made no matter that I was 1,800 miles from the epicenter of his Texas-sized storm, mothers don’t leave their firstborns to fly unwatched. I prayed that plane to safe landing, round 4 in the morning, and then I tossed and turned, awaiting Poetry School.
I’d flown some 750 miles all my own to get here, where, for one short week, I’m deep in make-believe. Making believe that I am back in college — make that cobblestone, storybook college. Lugging past Gothic towers and campaniles with my book bag, my syllabus, my three-ring binder, and reams and reams of poems in my tousled-pewter noggin.
Because I’ve homework due at the clang of the school bell today (and because I’m typing on my itty-bitty screen), I might need to practice the art of brevity (though I could go on and on). For the first time since perhaps eighth grade, my homework is to memorize — and recite — a poem, Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” And I’ve lines to go before I shlep up the very steep hill to P School.
I will tell you this, though: In my wildest dreams I couldn’t have dreamed up a more bespoke week for my little monastic self. I’m holed up in the apartment of the boy I love, the one who’s deep in study of the law. (The gnawingly haunting thing is that he’s not here, and while I love being wrapped in this charmed aerie overlooking the steeples and bell towers of New Haven, I feel the ghost of him everywhere, hear echoes of his life here, but it’s all just beyond my fingertips, and the proximity without the presence makes my whole self ache in that way that absence does.)
I’ve carved a path to all the quirky eateries, where alongside folks with purple hair and piercings by the dozens I gorge on voluminous veggie salads, and don’t worry that anyone’s cocking a quizzical eyebrow.
But best of all, it’s the red-brick Jeffersonian quadrangle at the top of Prospect Hill. Inside the labyrinth of corridors and classrooms, I’ve found a place that hits you between the eyeballs with capital-K Kindness, the rarest of commodities in the world these days. The etched-in-brick gestalt, clearly, is “do no harm.” Not to the spirit of those around you, not to the power grid, the water table, and certainly not to Mother Earth. Heck, all the plates and cups and forks and knives in the Old Refectory are compostable. Meat is decidedly absent at nearly every communal grazing; God save the cows, apparently. Everybody smiles. Oh, and prayers come in every religion under the sun.
(I suppose I should mention this is Divinity School, after all, one founded by those sturdy-spined Congregationalists back in 1822, and in the two centuries since, a whole parade of notable senators, preachers, and statesfolk have prayed their way through these hallowed halls.)
In a looming seminar room at the top of a stairs, where sky-high windows let in sun or shadow, howl of wind or rain thrashing against the panes, a rare professor — rare in that he, too, is kind above all, and brilliant — teaches us to pull back every thread of every poem, to pay attention to the white space, the word choice, the lack of comma or capital, and most of all to ask what question the poem is begging of us?
I’d be lying if I didn’t let on that on Day One, I fell in love with my compatriots in the class (officially titled, “Reading Poetry Theologically”), and I’ve only fallen deeper and deeper as the days, and tender revelations, have unfurled.
There’s the 17-year-old from the Upper East Side who every day rides 2.5 hours each way on the train from Grand Central Station, and makes it home each night because, she told us, her mother “believes in family dinner.” She could double for an angel that girl, with her alabaster skin and tumbling blond curls, and when she told us how her father died when she was only six, and how for years, she hated any God who could let that happen, I was not the only one wiping away a tear.
Before we get to the oldest in the class — she’s “past 80” is all she’ll let on, but we know she’s older than the Episcopal priest who confesses to being 82 — here’s the rest of the class list: the poet, the journalism professor, three priests in total, one priest’s wife, and a chaplain from Hong Kong. (Oh, and me, too.)
Elaine, aka Past 80, is a story all her own (and I am over-the-moon for her, and pray we’ll become penpals). Suffice it to say, you might mistake her for, well, Geraldine Page in her role as Truman Capote’s doddering discombobulated decades-older cousin in “A Christmas Memory,” in the way she comes to class with cardigan buttoned askew, short gray bob flying every which way (as does mine, by the way), and shiny beads in ropes and ropes and more ropes. After telling you she was forever too qualified to get the teaching job she’d longed for, she recites her litany of degrees, sounding not unlike the Twelve Days of Christmas: one PhD, three masters, and two bachelor’s degrees. (She will also tell you her first husband left her — and their three young children — for his secretary, and then she’ll whisper an epithet.) While compiling her alphabet of degrees, she spent a few years in Alabama where she criss-crossed the back roads with her pen and notebooks, gathering oral histories for her dissertation on Southern white pastors and the Civil Rights Movement, and yesterday at (meatless) lunch, she had me and a table full of bent-close listeners riveted by her tales. And then she pulled from her satchel, a copy of that very book, published just last year; “only took 26 years to get it published,” she quipped, giggling. For so demure a gentle soul (and one who’s emphatically hard of hearing, besides), she can spin one mean yarn.
Oh, there’s so much more. But I can hear the lines of Manifesto whispering to me now….
…Go with your love to the fields. Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head / in her lap. Swear allegiance / to what is nighest your thoughts. / As soon as the generals and the politicos / can predict the motions of your mind, / lose it. Leave it as a sign / to mark the false trail, the way / you didn’t go. Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary, / some in the wrong direction. / Practice resurrection.
And I’ve syllables and pauses to learn by heart. So I can rise at Poetry School, and not be mortified.
Pray tell, what one poem might you choose to memorize? And if poetry’s not your thing, how have you tiptoed out on a limb most recently?
I just loved your post. I’ll bet you’re savoring every moment.
Because I love poetry so much and because I felt, last year, that I wanted to be able to recite more poems by heart, and also, to get my memory jogging a bit quicker than it has been lately, I memorized Li Young-Lee’s poem, “From Blossoms.” It’s a wonderful poem about the simple sweetness of discovering a roadside stand full of ripe peaches while out driving on a summer day. Well, it’s about that and about life too, which, I guess every poem is about really.
Hope you have a blast this week!
Oh gosh, I have some faint memory that you maybe posted part of that here. I know of it, and know that when I read it the first time I nearly melted off my chair. (Feel free to recite via your keyboard here!)
Also deepest apologies for this post flying forth tonight. I was writing a draft and working off my darn phone and next thing I knew I couldn’t find a way to save and fearing I’d lose it —and hoping I’d find the next trap door — I hit a button and the next thing I know my Friday morning post was flying across cyber land late Thursday evening. Oh well, gives me a few more minutes to memorize.
I am so so glad you didn’t mind a dispatch from PoetryLand! More from this brilliant professor when I get home….
I was at a lunch yesterday with two Yale divinity alumni – one was the Senator,for whom the lunch was being held!
Yikes! I did NOT have lunch with any senators yesterday, but what a small world that you did!!
Ohhhhhh…a LABYRINTH!!!! And a very cool one at that! Pray tell, have you walked it? Ooh ooh ooh. My heart sings that you have had as wonderful a week as I hoped and prayed you would. Marvelous! 😘❤️👏🏽
Wait, did the labyrinth photo show up? I was trying to add it but, amid the techno blunders tonight, I could not get it to move off the middle of the page, so I will add it when I get home. Yes, there is a real labyrinth, modeled after the one at Chartres, and yesterday’s Noonday Prayer was there, and the interweaving of singing voices and walking was mesmerizing….
Glad Poetry School was as divine as the locale. When I was maybe 9, I memorized Longfellow’s “Wreck of the Hesperus” from a 19th-century edition in my great aunt’s bookcase. I would gladly, and dramatically, recite it for anyone who’d listen. At least it wasn’t “Hiawatha.” I think that was half the book. I can still recall the first few verses. Could probably get through it all with a little prompting/peeking. But not sure I could memorize anything longer than a phone number anymore!
I can just picture you, bellowing your heart out with the poem from the time pulled off the shelf at your aunt’s house!!!
I believe I learned a bit of Robert Louis Stevenson —the swing, i’m sure — because the rhyme and rhythm might have guided me along. I think I learned Emily and the browning’ by osmosis; no effort required, just waiting around my mother.
Anyway, I’m with you on the faulty memory of now. I’ll be thrilled if I can spill out the title!
(This is from Jan but there are gremlins here tonight and she can’t get it to post, so I am intermediary)….
Scrumptious post…I feel as though I’m there, feeling the temporary ghost of your boy and the presence of Past 80. As I mentally thumb through the David Whytes, and the Mary Olivers, and the Billy Collins’, and a new one I love this week — Jericho Brown — I remember a Stanley Kunitz poem called Touch Me that has some beautiful lines.
Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that’s late,
it is my song that’s flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it’s done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.
And then there’s the first poem I ever memorized, My Shadow, by Robert Louis Stevenson, memorized so well that I remember it 60 years later.
I HAVE a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.
The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow—
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an India-rubber ball,
And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.
He hasn’t got a notion of how children ought to play,
And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.
He stays so close beside me, he’s a coward you can see;
I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!
One morning, very early, before the sun was up,
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;
But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.
Oh, dear Jan, these are heavenly morsels you’ve brought to the table (though you had the darnedest time getting them here!!).
The first one has me swooning — “the longing for the dance / stirs in the buries life.” And he second one broke me out in smiles. I suddenly remembered it. Poetry is like a linguistic acrobat; it can do so many leaps and bounces.
you hav brought us with u to hallowed halls. thk u! trained as scientist but still full of wonder, Whitman’s When I Heard the Learned Astronomer is always in my mind. Enjoy darling!
Ok, now I must look that up! Love your shorthand, missy! Xox
I am poring over every word and image, drawing the beauties of this post, with all these lovely comments, deep into my heart and soul. I could not exist without poetry… That you, dear BAM, are walking those hallowed grounds, immersing your whole self in this rare opportunity together with others of like mind means everything to me… Thank you for sharing your impressions and observations here. xoxoxoxo
Sweet angel, thank YOU for coming along in spirit to every poet’s nook and cranny. I am now at that bitter-tinged cusp of week’s over and flying home tomorrow. A piece of me i leave behind, a whole new space in me I’m bringing home. Knowing you’re on the Illinois landing pad softens and sweetens the parting here. I’m bringing home poems, so get ready. ❤️❤️❌
Thank you, bam, for sharing your poetry week with us!
My daily prayer, one that I have kept in my heart since high school, is just the first part of a poem (including quirky punctuation and spacing) by e.e. cummings:
I thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
The other poem so dear to me is one I memorized (I hate memorization!) in high school – The Creation by James Weldon Johnson:
And God stepped out on space
And he looked around and said,
I’m lonely —
I’ll make me a world
This is only the beginning of a long poem that reads like a spiritual, a moving and vivid interpretation of the creation story. I invite you to read it in it’s entirety: https://poets.org/poem/creation
oh, both of these are lovely. and i am going to look up the whole of Creation! love that ee is the author of your prayer……
“into it he blew the breath of life….”