…I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
Poetry wounds and and poetry heals. It lifts the spirit and breaks our hearts. Profound poets offer the gift of contemplation. Transcendent truth slips into the soul through the simple, solid things poets hold before our eyes.
Take Robert Frost’s “After Apple Picking,” for instance. The poet sets before us ordinary physical objects and as we follow their linking in thought we’re caught up in wonder at the presence they’ve evoked: Apples. Ladders. Cellar bins.
Frost’s lines provoked these wonders as I helped my husband clear crispy squash vines from the back yard garden while The Daily Poem streamed into my earbuds. In just a few minutes my heart was full enough to remove the earbuds and take Frost’s lines to silence with gratitude for the gift I’d been given to see the world anew.
Poetry peels the eyes and makes them young again.
If you’re lucky, you may have once had an eyes-ablaze teacher reminicent of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, an incandescent soul who opened your heart to poetry’s possibilities. Or maybe you had a parent, grandparent or family friend who amazed you with an ability to add meaning to a moment by quoting just the right lines from a poem memorized long before.
For me, that person was an elderly man lived alone in old house filled with books and sundries who joined my family after church each week for Sunday dinner.
Mr. Foster was a widower. He and his wife were a reclusive couple in the western Kansas farm community where my dad pastored a church for over a decade. They were among the very few people I knew who didn’t attend one of the prairie churches scattered about the countryside and that fact alone made them fascinating and mysterious.
But one Sunday morning a little while after Mr. Foster’s wife had passed away, the crotchety farmer with big, black-framed glasses slipped into the back pew of our church. Instead of the pilot’s jacket and earflapped barnstormer hat he was known for, Mr. Foster now wore a white shirt, wrinkled black pants and weathered boots.
My mom invited Mr. Foster to come over to the parsonage for some roast beef before he drove the dusty miles home, beginning a Sunday dinner tradition that changed my life.
After a few weeks, Mr. Foster rarely came alone. He brought a world of friends who seeped into my heart and remain to this day: Lord Byron, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Barret and Robert Browning. I still have copies of Rupert Brooke, Dorothy Parker and The Mentor Book of Major American Poets that Mr. Foster left behind.
Soon high school English began to make sense. The library became my safe haven between class changes. I majored in English in college and though my career path was unsteady–a drug store customer service clerk, an office manager, full-time mom, English adjunct and finally a counselor–the joy of books sustained me through it all.
Those books weren’t always poetry, however, and over the years I haven’t always taken the time to keep steeping myself in poetry’s rhythm and rhyme.
These days a bright, brief podcast is bringing poetry back into my life.
If like me, you’d like to return to the wonder of words, The Daily Poem will repay you in just five minutes a day. Even if you’re feeling podcast overwhelm, this one is brief enough not to burden.
I discovered this little jewel through another boon to the bookish life: The Center for Independent Research on Classical Education (CiRCE) Institute’s Close Reads podcast, my companion last summer when I binged listened to Tim McIntosh, Angelina Stanford and David Kern discussing Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter while weeding the garden or walking the dog.
That’s hours of listening I don’t feel I have the time for now that school’s back in session and my days are spent helping children manage friendships and feelings. But a few minutes to take in a poem is perfect. Episodes average five minutes each, one released each weekday.
Kern, the CiRCE Institute’s Director of Multimedia, adds just a bit of background or reflection, usually before a second reading, the repetition elivening the experience. Many of his selections are well known to lovers of English and American literature: Shakespeare’s Sonnet #18 (“Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?”), Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us,” Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” Dickinson’s “I Heard a Fly – buzz when I died -.”
Hearing these poems now, remembering the “you” you were when you first heard them coupled with the meaning they evoke today is reward enough for the few minutes spent.
Some even hit you at just the right moment to make fresh connections with concerns still broiling in the whirlwind of politics and culture.
For example, what are the odds that Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” would enter your ears on a given day…and how much poorer would you remain for not having experienced this poem now, as an adult who takes the painful experience of black Americans seriously and wants to understand?
Then, to learn through Kerns’ commentary that Hughes wrote this masterpiece when he was just 17 years old. And then, to read or re-read Hughes, letting the cry of his soul inform your thinking and pierce your heart anew.
And then there are the poems you may not have yet encountered, unfamiliar gems which penetrate your heart by completely catching you off guard.
Having lost a beloved dog last winter, Wendell Berry’s Sabbath Poem #2 was one of those for me.
The eager dog lies strange and still
Who roamed the woods with me;
Then while I stood or climbed the hill
Or sat under a tree,
Awaiting what more time might say,
He thrashed in undergrowth,
Pursuing what he scared away,
Made ruckus for us both.
He’s dead; I go more quiet now,
Stillness added to me
By time and sorrow, mortal law,
By loss of company…
Eddie’s “ruckus” on the Rio Grande had delighted my husband and I so many times.
The “loss of company” is deep sorrow, yet made more bearable when another’s words give shape to the experience. The poet’s masculine voice helped me feel my husband’s heart a little better, for Eddie was his beloved friend.
Wonder returns, vision is reset. The soul stills.
It happened again yesterday in a completely different context.
In addition to The Daily Poem’s merits already mentioned, David Kerns has a fantastic seasonal sense that can surprise you with the perfection of its timing.
Yesterday, in the waning of this autumn, I scraped my windshield for the first time before I could drive to work, sensing the coming winter which in our mountain valley can be brutally, enduringly cold.
In the evening, washing the dishes while listening to The Daily Poem, I heard Kerns read the opening line of Scott Cairns’ “Early Frost”:
This morning the world’s white face reminds usthat life intends to become serious again.
The words held me captive. I replayed them. Then I set earbuds aside and let the poet’s rumination sink in.
Serious, yes indeed. Joyless, not at all.
R.L.Foster–twinkle-eyed lover of language, prairie parsonage dinner guest–this one’s for you.
Have you been blessed with your own “Mr. Foster”–a teacher, friend or family member who made poetry’s possiblities present for you? I’d love to hear about it in the comments or on Sparrowfare’s Facebook page….and if you know a poetry lover who would enjoy this post, please share Sparrowfare!
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Another favorite poetry feed for me is Karen Edmisten’s blog. Her “Poetry Friday” posts have been filling me up for the past few years. I especially came to love Billy Collins through her. See Poetry Friday: Billy Collins, W.B. Yeats, MRIs and Knowing Poems by Heart.
David Kerns interviews Wendell Berry for Forma—Education Is a Dangerous Thing: A Conversation with Wendell Berry.
Sparrowfare reflects on Robert Frost’s Choose Something Like a Star and much more–Choose Something Like a Star: A Christmas Contemplation.