Poetry. Part of my life for as long as I can remember. I see the little girl standing on a kitchen chair drying silver while her big sister does the plates and glasses. Mother, her hands deep in the soapy water squints through her glasses at the book propped behind the soap tray.
At the door on summer evenings
Sat the little Hiawatha;
Heard the whispering of the pine-trees,
Heard the lapping of the waters,
Sounds of music, words of wonder;
“Minne-wawa!” said the Pine-trees,
“Mudway-aushka!” said the water.
We chanted the Longfellow poem until the last pot and pan was safely stowed. I still can chant it, sometimes to the distress of my family. (I know lots more lines than I’ve put here.)
Learning poetry meant learning it by heart in my youth. At school William Ernest Henley’s Invictus—
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
While at home, besides the stints with the dishes, I learned from my writer-Dad. He set Portia (Merchant of Venus) as a role model for me—a woman with a career! Thanks, Dad! For one summer, almost daily when I made my dinner-time entrance, I’d smack my forehead—“The quality of mercy is not strained, it falleth as the gentle rain. . .” Distressing family with recitation seems to be in my system.
I gave up the memorizing game, but I’ve never stopped reading poetry; indeed, I’m now reading more than ever. Occasionally, I write some, but we’ll save that endeavor for another day. I’ve always loved women poets, so many of them speak right to my heart. Just now I’m reading Luminous Other by Robin Davidson (watch for a Story Circle Review one of these days.) who, as so many of the women poets do, can take my breathe away. How did she know?
Women poets spill out of my overfilled books shelves—Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Anne Sexton, Kay Ryan, Muriel Rukeyser, Grace Paley, Marianne Moore, Rita Dove, and the current United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. Of course, there are many, many more but one has always a few favorites. Right at the top of my heap is Maxine Kumin, since the day sometimes in the 1980s that I first read her. She gi
ves a wonderful mix of prose and poetry. Her poems focus on family; horses, she named one of her poetry books after Jack; dogs, children and life. She is real and a realist, but never bitter or heavy. Her prose is straightforward. I learned much about poetry, both reading and writing from these essays.
Last Sunday, her name appeared in a headline in the New York Times. To my dismay, it was an obituary. After a long and mostly satisfying life and almost equally long marriage (66 years) Maxine Kumin died. I cannot mourn the end of this long life; rather I rejoice that it touched mine and that will not end. (You can read the obituary here http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/08/books/maxine-kumin-pulitzer-winning-poet-dies-at-88.html?_r=0 )
One approach to poetry Maxine Kumin shared with my folks. Memorize. She did herself and when teaching poetry writing, she had her students learn 55 lines a week. That’s a lot. I’m thinking that to honor both Kumin and my parents I can begin (or try to begin) to memorize a few lines a week. But where to begin? More Hiawatha? Then what do I find but an app for my phone.
This week I’m learning, appropriately, Eternity by William Blake.
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
Except I’m learning it as “She who binds herself to joy.”
(To learn more about Maxine Kumin and read some of her poems visit the Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/maxine-w-kumin .)