I’m back to work on my poetry propaganda mission. My friend L. is still not convinced. So I’m going old-school. Forget the comic and the witty, let’s try pure lyrical beauty. You gotta love the 17th century. I first read this poem by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) in high school, and several of the lines have stuck with me since then – the part about the grave being a fine and private place bubbles to the surface of my mind at inopportune times. See what you think:
To His Coy Mistress
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness lady were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges side
Should’st rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber wold complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood:
And you should if you please refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze.
Two hundred to adore each breast:
But thirty thousand to the rest.
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For lady you deserve this state;
Now would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I alwaies hear
Time’s winged charriot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lye
Desarts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found:
Nor, in they marble vault, shall sound
My ecchoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserv’d virginity:
And your quaint honour turn to dust:
And into ashes all my Lust.
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hew
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapt pow’r.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball:
And tear our pleasures with rough strife,
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Is that the stuff or what? Isn’t it gorgeous? And yet so mind-bogglingly old. I feel comforted when I read works like this, about such human subjects as a guy trying to impress a lady. I feel more connected to humanity. Centuries later, men are still trying to get women to sleep with them. But isn’t it so much lovelier to hear this language. Isn’t it somehow nobler to talk about “time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” than to say, “hey, clock’s ticking, sister.”
Reading the old classics does more than bring fond nostalgia for a more chivalrous time. We live in an era where so much is ugly – television, the internet, the newspaper, even the view out the car window is often just a reminder of humanity’s folly. There was a time when poets only had lofty subjects: truth, beauty, love, God. While I love to read modern poets who have taken the everyday and elevated it to the heights reserved for the old standards (yes, we’ll get to William Carlos Williams), sometime I chafe against the backlash against the old school beauty. Take the brilliant C.K. Williams, the darling of the New Yorker and other cutting edge poetry schools of thought. Here’s a clip from one of his poems, The Dog.
The limp leash coiled in her hand, the woman would be pro-
filed to the dog, staring into the distance,
apparently oblivious, those breasts of hers like stone, while he,
not a step away, laboring,
trying to eject the feeble, mucus-coated, blood-flecked chains
that finally spurted from him,
would set himself on tiptoe and hump into a question mark,
one quivering back leg grotesquely lifted.
Um…no? While I can appreciate some of Williams’ long-lined genius and graphic word painting, this just doesn’t appeal. Yeah, sure, it’s not fair to put it against Marvell, but I’m not writing an academic paper here. I’m just trying to show that sometimes we just want to read something lovely, the way we want to look at a beautiful landscape, hear a sweet song, eat a perfect peach. That’s what Marvell’s poem is to me. When I want a gritty true look at a snapshot of life – then I’ll nod along through the Holocaust films, read the New Yorker fiction, try to see the beauty in an urban slum, read Williams’ poem. But Marvell serves a different purpose.
On another note, I really hope Marvell’s coy mistress put out after this poem. He earned it. I had a guy in college whose attempt at wooing was a late night invitation back to his dorm room “to look at his poster collection.” Perhaps he would have had a better chance of sporting like amorous birds of prey if he’d spoken of the youthful hew on my dewey cheeks. Or mentioned that it was but a short time on this earth before I was buried in a marble vault with nothing but the worms for lovers. (OK, maybe better he skipped that). But still. You gotta give the guy points for effort.
My daughter and I are home for day 2 of Stomach Flu-appalooza. It’s awesome. I should sell tickets. She vomits while I stress about work that is not getting done, work that is not do-able from home. She napped for an hour and I whipped up a pair of pajama pants on my sewing machine. That is serious nervous energy. I don’t normally sew.
We also watched the DVD of the musical Cats, and I contemplated bleak possibilities for my future. Ones where I have no job or income and end up one of those people with a cardboard sign on highway exit, or worse, having to go back to practicing law.
It’s the new year, and I’ve been thinking about Dan Savage’s video balm for gay teenagers, the It Gets Better campaign. A worthy and heart-breaking endeavor. With apologies to Dan, I’d humbly like to offer my own encouragement to parents of babies and toddlers – an It Gets Better campaign aimed at the sleep-deprived, Goldfish-cracker infested, stroller toting crew. It would be what I wanted to hear back in those days.
I’ve been thinking of this as we just wrap up a two week vacation from school, where I’ve spent a LOT of time with my kids. It has been – dare I say it? – fun. Relaxing. Awesome. This is not to say they weren’t fun and adorable when they were little ones, it’s just they were so. much. work. I don’t think I’ve ever felt older than when I was a new parent. The stress over the minutiae of biological functioning of two tiny people. The decision when to start solid food, how to potty train, what entertainment was enriching/healthy/educational. I left the house like a sherpa, burdened with packs and gear and endless containers of cut up grapes, cheese sticks, crackers and it was beyond critical to get home in time for the Nap. And it is not hyberbolic to say that things were life or death – toddlers are bent on self-destruction at every turn. You have to watch them EVERY MINUTE as there are cars, choking hazards, poisons, steep stairs, hot woodstoves and probably hungry grizzlies around every corner. Worst of all, there’s the communication barrier. You want to yell, “What the hell is wrong with you?” during random tantrums, but they can’t even tell you. It’s like being in a foreign country all the time, where you don’t speak the language and you’re in a scavenger hunt with a list of random items like knitting needles and rocket fuel and gerbil cages and the stakes are your very soul. It’s not relaxing.
They are not without their rewards, granted. Why else are they so adorable? Babies are just a constant marvel – and your baby laughing is, bar none, the greatest sound in the world. Hearing it is like free-basing joy. And you can’t stop marveling at the concept that you MADE a person. How cool is that? But a little less Raffi music and cartoon characters would make the whole experience a little more palatable.
Compare the sick baby/toddler to a kid. My daughter, she of the sensitive tummy, would frequently climb on to the potty, feet dangling and um – have her gastro-intestinal issues. I would sit on the edge of the tub to keep her company. Invariably, at some point, she’d lean over and vomit on my feet. Not once, not twice, but so many times that “feet vomit” was a catchphrase in our house. That is not to say she never throws up anymore, but now I can make encouraging sounds from the other side of the closed bathroom door. Fevers? A wailing hot baby is a nightmare. Now, the feverish kid can tell me exactly how lousy they feel, in glorious detail, and while remedies are the same, they are infinitely improved by dispensation to watch 17 hours of “Mythbusters” in a row while the fever burns, rather than being attached to me like a polyp for that time.
Flash forward to today. I’ve heard that ages 7-12 are the honeymoon age. They still think their parents are great, they are fairly self-sufficient and they are fun. Actually, freaking hilarious. Instead of solemnly explaining the necessity of pooping in the potty, I enjoy the company of two comedians who appreciate a good fart joke. Instead of luggage to be wheeled about and fed, I have two buddies who ride their bikes next to me while I run. Instead of sitting through yet another Thomas the Tank Engine video, we are gathered around the dining room table, playing Bananagrams, and I’m pretty sure they are both cheating, and we are laughing our heads off. I feel ten years younger.
This week, we hit a new high. I cracked my eyes one morning, and they were standing next to my bed, fully dressed for skiing. I hadn’t agreed to this notion, but was willing to entertain the thought. However, they had already packed the whole car, including loading the skis and poles into the box on the roof. Lunch was made and packed – my daughter made three PB&J sandwiches and squashed them into a container meant for one, and my son had cut up the apples and loaded them into a container meant to hold a turkey, but OK. They’d fired up the hot pot and boiled water for my tea. In the face of such a mounted attack, I had no choice. I rolled into my ski clothes and we were off. We had a GREAT day.
So to new/newish parents, let me tell you: it gets better. Just when you think you couldn’t love them anymore, you’ll find you can. Think your heart will burst when they take those first tottering steps? Just wait until you see your kids helping their grandma with her suitcase. Or when you come back from a run and your son is standing on the steps with a glass of water, saying “I figured you’d be thirsty.” Or when you go to their school and see your daughter has written a sweet poem about you and it’s hanging in the hallway. Or when they have a squabble with each other but still ask for an extra goody bag at the end of a party to bring home to their sibling. Then you’re marveling all over again, not that you made a person, but that you made a GOOD person, made two good people actually, funny people, clever people, kind people. People who sleep through the night, can pour their own cereal, read a book, fold some laundry, ski a double black diamond run. People you want to spend time with for a very, very long time.
Happy New Year.
I have a short story published this month is a great new literary ‘zine. Very excited! I think it has a great editorial staff and I was flattered to be selected. Check it out.
So we went out for our first ski day of the season. Rough snow, high winds, pure bliss. Ski days are some of the purest, truest family time we have. I’ve been neglecting the blog, so I’m posting something I wrote a couple of years ago. Now I’m off to dry off the skis.
Ski Days, Redux
Twenty years ago, I fell in love. A suburban girl, I spent four years at college in rural Vermont where the winter entertainment, besides copious drinking and complaining about the cold, was skiing. I got a student season pass to Mad River Glen and discovered the joys of going downhill in a rush. I enjoyed the camaraderie of skiers and being part of a crazy social club for which only requirement is the senseless desire to get up at O-dark-thirty to spend a day sliding downhill in the freezing cold. But most of all, I experienced something I hadn’t yet in my almost twenty years: a sense of solitary contentment, a sudden consciousness that I could experience joy alone while doing something that I loved. When I was schussing downhill, there were a few moments in a day that transcended mere pleasure, the ones when I was conscious of a rare and fleeting sensation as gravity, my body, and my skis worked together on just this side of control. In these brief moments, I would laugh out loud for sheer pleasure, heedless of anyone else.
I was not a particularly good skier, but possessed a recklessness that brought inclusion with a group of skiers far better than me and caught the eye of a cute ski instructor at the college’s small ski bowl. We piled into barely functioning cars, careening up and back the slippery roads leading to the mountain, spending the drive time recounting spills, comparing runs, telling fish stories of snowy exploits. We ratcheted up our bindings with the screwdrivers chained to the lift line posts, then took to the slopes, our skis all but welded to our boots. With my skiing buddies, I embraced all types of terrain: the trees, the steeps, the downright stupid, heedless of injury potential. My skis were 185cms, two narrow slices of arrogance that towered over my 5’1” frame, but went downhill in a hurry. I loved the group experience, the nod of acknowledgement to another raccoon-eyed student in the library or chatting at night with someone in the dorm I’d shared a lift with earlier in the day.
But as much as I loved the group experience, it was the solitary moments that helped define my developing identity. It was when I was briefly alone, at a distance from my fellow skiers that I felt most like myself. I nodded knowingly through my philosophy classes during the morning as we discussed philosophy and the self, but it was on the afternoons on the slopes that I had anything approaching understanding of it. In my poetry classes, we parsed through the words of Yeats, and when we got to “how can we know the dancer from the dance?” I thought not of ballerinas, but of myself carving turns, my body and skis moving together more gracefully than my awkward legs could ever do alone.
As for the cute ski instructor guy, well, Reader, I married him. We moved out to Seattle and began that real life with jobs and health insurance and mortgages. We didn’t get out skiing as much as we liked. When we did, we were out of shape and out of practice, our gear out of date. One day in 1998, on a rare ski day, I took a tumble. My bindings were still set to “idiocy” from my screwdriver antics years before, and would not release without a sledgehammer. The sound of my anterior cruciate ligament snapping was like a gunshot. That was the end of skiing for a few more years. When knee surgery and physical therapy were finished and I was pronounced slope-worthy, I became pregnant. A kid. Then another. Then several years of the juggling of infants and toddlers, wonderful years, but a time when a good night’s sleep and children who can use the toilet take far more headspace than skiing. These are the also the years of true selflessness, a loss of self, where it is easiest to forget you were ever anything but a parent, that you ever had an identity separate from the family sphere.
Finally, my husband and I decided to brave the mountains again with the kids, three and five years old, in tow. After an almost six year hiatus, we emerged Rip Van Winkle-like into a brave new world of skiing. We rented equipment, my 185’s long since gone, probably still in the storage unit of our first apartment. Acquiring new equipment was humbling and confusing. Stumpy curved skis! Helmets for adults! We mocked the skis at first, then made a few turns on them, so effortless it felt like cheating. We scoffed at the helmets, then changed our minds as we were nearly taken out by several snowboarders, several hundred pounds of teenage exuberance and adrenaline. We scoffed at the helmets, then changed our minds after nearly being taken out by some crazy college kids on snowboards. There was something vaguely familiar about them, but regardless, skiing without helmets now seemed as prudent as driving blindfolded, a quaint throwback to the days our parents piled six kids into back of a station wagon, sans carseats, cigarettes glowing out the window on the way to the ski area.
We didn’t bother with poles, as they would only be a hindrance as we slowly followed our skiing progeny, scooping them off the slope and setting them back on their skis over and over. Poles only made it more difficult to lift bundled children on to lifts that hit them square in the center of their back. On lifts and in lines, we doled out candy, dropping gummy bears into their mouths, open and expectant like baby birds. We struggled through lost gloves, pinchy goggles, outgrown ski pants. In those days, we’d finally make it to the top of the mountain with our many-layered children only to hear the dreaded words: “I have to go potty.” We paid the usurious prices for full day lift tickets never to even get off the beginner lift, never to move at more than a glacial pace. In short, we muddled through two seasons of a very expensive and cumbersome sport known as nearly-skiing. Like skiing, but twice as expensive and with half the fun. I was as far from my skiing self as I had been in the slopeless years.
Nevertheless, we soldiered on. One day toward the end of the season, the weather brought an unexpected gift of snow. After checking the ski report, we began to prepare for another family ski day. Somehow, the kids managed to gather their own clothing and gear and lay them out the night before, chattering excitedly about the upcoming day. In the morning, everyone remembered to use the bathroom before piling into the car in the still-dark morning. The two-hour ride to the mountain went by in a blink. We’ve fallen into a routine of reading stories and playing car games that make the time fly. Once at the mountain, we stowed our sack lunch in our usual spot and joined the line for the high-speed chair, bypassing the line at the bunny lift. My daughter raised her arms at the precise moment, and I lifted her up onto the chairlift, a practiced duet. My son sat next to my husband, adjusting his goggles, lobbying for a harder run, rather than the long green warm-up run I insist we start with every week. Candy was delivered to small mouths, a habit I’ve maintained, mostly because I like candy. As we approached the top, we swung up the safety bar and unloaded swiftly, without the tears or spills on the part of parents or children. Even a year ago, all four of us would have been ready for a break.
We stood at the top for a minute, then wordlessly slipped into our follow-the-leader routine. My husband went first, skiing with the same distinctive form that I can pick out from any lift, the same form that drew my eye twenty years ago. Soon he was far below me, carefully carving out exaggerated turns, laboring under the illusion that the kids were watching him and attempting to emulate his actions. I could see him about to be overtaken by my son who was in a full tuck, poles under his arms, his skis chattering straight down the hill, as he experimented with the limits of physics as only an eight-year-old boy can. Trailing them at a distance, my daughter was cruising, searching the trees on the trail’s edge, looking for a path into the woods that she loves. I watched her unconsciously shift her weight as she turned, her small form moving gracefully. She has a natural affinity that I never possessed, and I know that she will be a far better skier than me.
Watching them, I realized we’d reached a new point in our family dynamics. My days of enjoying the shared experience of skiing were back. I could see the whole day ahead of me. At lunch, we’d be replaying the inevitable crash of my son, soon after he passed his surprised father. My daughter would gush about the waist-deep powder, and we’d respond that it was only knee-deep to us. We’d eat the traditional Fig Newtons on the drive home, and the kids would fall asleep and then my husband and I would have time to talk, the dashboard-lit car a setting more intimate and familiar to us than a candlelit restaurant. Standing at the top of that mountain, watching them, was one of those rare moments when I realized that I was currently living a day that I’d be revisiting again and again throughout my life, a lifetime memory freshly-minted.
But first I had to get down. My family was far ahead, so I had to pick up speed to catch them. I took my usual spot at the rear. No one needed scraping off the snow right now, so I concentrated on myself. I made a mental note to buy some poles in the near future, then pushed off and picked my own line down the slope. The only sound I could hear was my skis carving through snow. I made a few good turns, then fell into a rhythm, turn, turn, turn. Muscle has a long memory, I thought. Then I stopped thinking and focused on the skiing. Suddenly, I was twenty years old again, and in love, and in that moment, there was only me, just a deep satisfying sense of self as everything else fell away. Picking up speed, I felt the old thrill. I laughed out loud, the sound echoing off the snow.
Ok, I’m skipping ahead to some non-rhyming poetry this week, in honor of Billy Collins’ visit to Seattle today. My editor at Seattle Met had asked if I could interview him this week, but alas, I opted instead to visit the parents in southern Cal. So my new dear friend O. will be meeting and interviewing the former poet laureate. I will be dragged to the La Brea tar pits today with the family instead. Let’s just say I am awash in jealousy, but as O. is a better writer than I, all is as it should be. My parents were not at all appreciative of my sacrifice. They are huge fans of Mr. Collins, and the news that I could have stayed in Seattle and done the interview was met with, “Are you crazy? What are you doing here? Is it too late? Can you go back now?” Yeah, thanks for the love, folks.
Billy Collins has often been called “accessible,” a term the poet himself dislikes. (He prefers “hospitable.”) Accessible implies that most readers are poetically handicapped. While I see his point, accessible is probably more accurate. His poems are a nice gently ramp with a sturdy handrail for the those who have trouble walking the poetry path. It’s hard not to like him. His poems are witty and fun and oh-so-relatable. But he’s not a comic poet or a kids’ favorite (the 3-year-old reading his poems on YouTube notwithstanding). He takes common subjects and gives them a poetic treatment, with his clever voice coming though, coupled with an elegant yet light polish of the English language. Insomnia, air travel, a painting, a visit to a museum – even a lovely meal of osso bucco – have all been distilled thoughtfully and beautifully into a picture of words and feelings. Here’s one I love:
You are so beautiful and I am a fool
to be in love with you
is a theme that keeps coming up
in songs and poems.
There seems to be no room for variation.
I have never heard anyone sing
I am so beautiful
and you are a fool to be in love with me,
even though this notion has surely
crossed the minds of women and men alike.
You are so beautiful, too bad you are a fool
is another one you don’t hear.
Or, you are a fool to consider me beautiful.
That one you will never hear, guaranteed.
For no particular reason this afternoon
I am listening to Johnny Hartman
whose dark voice can curl around
the concepts of love, beauty, and foolishness
like no one else’s can.
It feels like smoke curling up from a cigarette
someone left burning on a baby grand piano
around three o’clock in the morning;
smoke that billows up into the bright lights
while out there in the darkness
some of the beautiful fools have gathered
around little tables to listen,
some with their eyes closed,
others leaning forward into the music
as if it were holding them up,
or twirling the loose ice in a glass,
slipping by degrees into a rhythmic dream.
Yes, there is all this foolish beauty,
borne beyond midnight,
that has no desire to go home,
especially now when everyone in the room
is watching the large man with the tenor sax
that hangs from his neck like a golden fish.
He moves forward to the edge of the stage
and hands the instrument down to me
and nods that I should play.
So I put the mouthpiece to my lips
and blow into it with all my living breath.
We are all so foolish,
my long bebop solo begins by saying,
so damn foolish
we have become beautiful without even knowing it.
Collins isn’t the master of rhythm like some other modern poets. But he’s not without it either. Rhythm can get you past the non-rhyming bits to resonate in your head. Here, he used repetition of certain words as a musical phrasing. Each time you hear “foolish” and “beautiful” (you were reading it out loud, right?), the brain says, “Yes!” or “Ahh…” The words are the notes. And who can’t love describing a saxophone as a “golden fish?” I’ll never see another without thinking this.
My dear friend Natalie, who is a serious poet, complete with MFA and encyclopedic knowledge of all poets, scoffs at Collins. (She writes gorgeous, enigmatic poems, reminiscent of Garcia Lorca on acid). Her views are common in the upper ether of the poetry ranks. We were discussing him once when we were at a writers’ residency together. “Billy Collins, Hil?” she said, as we cracked open PBR tallboys at 10:30 in the morning on our snow-covered deck. “That shit’s too easy.” (Side note: we had a GREAT time at that artist retreat.) Ah, the highbrow academics may sneer, but you can’t deny the guy’s got style.
Finally, for my friend L., who said she didn’t get poetry, here’s what Mr. Collins says.
Introduction to Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to water-ski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
I wish I were in Seattle tonight to hear Collins. He’s reading to a sold-out crowd at Town Hall. A pure delight for those willing to brave the snow. Enjoy, O.!
“Pretty things well said, it’s nice to have them in your head.” – Robert Frost
I’ve been known to have an occasional rant about poetry on Facebook. (Don’t get me started with the Betty comic strip that was smack talking poetry. Just don’t). One of my dear friends, L., whom I occasionally run with, was asking me about this. “I’m sorry, I just don’t get it.” Then I gave her an earful as we huffed around the block. She cited some crap ass education, I blathered on quoting random poetry lines I love, with no context, and we moved on. I want to be more thoughtful about it. So I’ve made a deal to try to win her over. I feel confident – she’s sharper than a pointy stick and a music lover, so we’re already halfway there. Her first request: “Start with the rhyming stuff.” Nothing I’m going to say here hasn’t been said elsewhere, and probably more articulately, but I’m going to say it anyway. Here’s hoping I can sway my friend.
Poetry is a big word. To say you don’t like poetry is the same as saying you don’t like books. Or music. Or food or people or any other tremendous category. You can like crime mysteries and cyberpunk and hate romance and historical fiction. You may love techno-pop music, while modern jazz leaves you cold. Cinnamon rolls are delicious, but sometimes you’re really just craving a lamb chop. There’s this weird snobbism around poetry: people think they should open a book and enjoy every poem, by every poet. It’s quite liberating to read aloud a Wordsworth poem, and say, “Well, that one sucked.” Hey, they all can’t be winners.
So here are some rhyming poems for L. Think about why rhymes stick in your head. Why do kids remember nursery rhymes? Why is that jingle from 1976 still there when you can’t remember where you left your kids? We’re just wired that way. It’s pleasing, the same way a circle is a perfect shape, the way we seek symmetry in people’s faces, the way certain sandwiches have to be cut on the diagonal. It just is right.
Ogden Nash is the master of rhyme and wit. His clever verses show a deep appreciation of the English language and a piercing sense of humor. You just know he’s the guy you’d want to sit next to a dinner party, to make snarky comments about the other guests. (He brought us the oft-used Candy is Dandy but Liquor is Quicker). Besides, the kids love him. It’s a great way to start a lifetime love of wordplay.
A few gems:
The cow is of the bovine ilk,
One end is moo, the other, milk.
One would be in less danger
From the wiles of the stranger
If one’s own kin and kith
Were more fun to be with.
I’ll have more next week, but in thinking about a mythical dinner party, I’d like Dorothy Parker on the other side of me. She’s got the same edgy wit. I’d like to have her and Ogden give me their thoughts on the “Twilight” oeuvre. I’ve always enjoyed this one:
Lady, lady, should you meet
One whose ways are all discreet,
One who murmurs that his wife
Is the lodestar of his life,
One who keeps assuring you
That he never was untrue,
Never loved another one…
Lady, lady, better run!