My son came home from school last week with a choice sheet, the piece of paper used to choose his classes for the next year. I find inordinate pleasure in such things. My favorite part of college was the day the schedules and course descriptions for the upcoming term were released, a cheaply printed book filled with possibility. I couldn't resist the logistical puzzle of building the perfect schedule and the anticipation of new subjects and ideas.
There was a wildcard, though. Sure, I could create a schedule that would dazzle an incoming freshman, artfully balancing workload and topics, but all that actually mattered was the teacher. A required course at 8 a.m. with someone who loved the subject and believed in its value always outshone the right topic at the right time with an indifferent professor.
That's stuck with me, and I'm reminded of it when I read the honest, insightful contributions of this community week after week. Time and attention are precious commodities. Whether you're reading the dispatch on the train early in the morning or replying to a prompt when you should be getting some sleep, you're part of what Uncommon is and will be. Thank you.
Last week's dispatch asked, What is one of your memorable encounters with poetry?
I can't remember a time when poetry didn't have a strong presence in my life (e.g., I wrote a book of poems-- illustrated and all!-- for my grandparents when I was 6), so it's hard to choose which "memorable encounter" to share here. Maybe Adrienne Rich's "Storm Warnings", which I had to analyze in high school. It resonated with me so much at the time (and did so more and more as I got older) that I read it, re-read it, wrote it out over and over so that I would never forget it. I played tennis then, so at nights I would go to the half-court tennis wall in a nearby park and practice my backhand, repeating the verses out loud until I had committed them all to memory. But I was also a theater kid, a Shakespeare nut-- so I would repeat the verses out loud in a trained British accent. To this day, I can quote this poem from start to finish verbatim at a moment's notice, but I cannot say the lines without defaulting to the accent.
I went to Catholic high school. And, in what must have been a violation of some canon, my sophomore English teacher made us recite the e.e. cummings poem "I thank you God for most this amazing" every day as a prayer. It's stuck with me quite memorably since.
I was quick to overlook this email as poetry was always more of a literary-school nemesis of mine. But once I reread the email, I did recall my first enjoyable poetry experience. It was English and Literature with Mr. Neal. During Black History Month of that year, we were focusing mostly on poetry, and he read Langston Hughes, "Harlem", which I had mistakenly always referred to as "a Dream Deferred", until 5 minutes ago.<br><br>As a kid, this poem blew my mind! It was the first time words captured my attention; they were so simply descriptive. In my error of mixing up the title, it reveals a youngster's take on this- my fascination with dreams, and his imagery; the superficial.<br><br>Upon rereading this poem as my 26 year old self, I was saddened by the real meaning tied to racial discrepancies and the broken dreams it created. But, that is what makes literature so interesting, and even movies and music. We are so happily captivated by the simple aspects- happy words, pretty scenes, and fun lyrics...and then we experience life, and can gain that sense of worldliness and suddenly the same poem from 8th grade is now seen as a message of truth beyond imagery.
I have a sporadic tendency to fall in love with poems and poets. It's not that I don't like poetry. I do. Very much. I'm simply not a passionate seeker of new poetry. When I happen upon a poem that resonates with me it is usually because there is a confluence of thoughts and feelings that simply cannot be denied. One of my favorite poems is also one of the bleakest poems I know. I discovered it when the poet, Gwen Harwood, was assigned to the advanced English class I took in high school in Australia last century. It is brutal in it's shift from the inconsequential interaction to the sharp point of a stiletto in the final line. The poem stuck with me, and continues to do so to this day. It captures a moment that is so immediate, accessible and heartbreaking. It haunts me.
Matt wrote about Eyedea:
My most memorable encounter with poetry is one I wasn't actually present for. One of my favorite rappers/poets was Michael Larsen aka Eyedea. For years I have wished to see him perform live. When he eventually stopped by my hometown in Montana, I had a work engagement that kept me from the show. My friend Liz, who was attending, had him write me a personal note, scrawled on the back of a crumpled up old poster, after the show. It read "To Matthew: She misses the way your pheromones make her sleepy". One of my favorite lines of poetry he has written, this note meant the world to me. Eyedea died a few months later, at the age of 28. While I will never see him perform live, this note still hangs in my bedroom, a reminder to cherish even the smallest glimpse of artistic passion.
When I was in junior high, an admired teacher gave me a beautiful book of friendship quotes. One that particularly struck me began, “What is a friend? I will tell you….Your soul can be naked with him.” The entire poem is insightful, but that sentence was especially compelling. A friend requires no pretenses, expects nothing more than what you are. He understands the flaws and contradictions in your character and accepts you notwithstanding. I have since searched extensively for the source of the poem, which seems to be shrouded in mystery. Many have claimed authorship over the years, but the earliest source I can find cites Dr. Frank Crane in the 1910s. You can read the whole thing here.
Early on in my experience at Apple, we had a store meeting going into the Holidays. After some facts, figures, and a few words from our leaders, the lights went dim and a captivating, passionate, incisive spoken word performance played for us. His monologue pierced to the core of what we did, who we were, and set that core ablaze. I was moved to tears and we all cheered with exceptional gusto at its conclusion. I later discovered the poet was Sekou Andrews, who creates such spoken word pieces in his own distinct style for many occasions. I highly recommend his work, but this video gives a phenomenal taste of the liquid inspiration I drank that evening.
One of my most memorable encounters with poetry was at a reading where the Australian national slam poetry champion read a few of his poems, all of them fiery, beautiful and vivid.
One of the few things I remember from a very young age is my mother reciting to me and my sisters the Robert Louis Stevenson poem, My Shadow. For some reason, the visual memory also includes me on a rope swing in our yard.<br><br>This fall, as my mother lay comatose in her bed, just hours from death, I read the poem to her. I could barely get through it, but to this day it brings her back to me like almost nothing else.
Poetry was everywhere this week, thanks to Lisa's dispatch. My father was a poet, so I found myself reading through his writings, then spending time with Emily Dickinson, his favorite. My latest memorable encounter was with the poem, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace by Richard Brautigan (the title is shared by a recent BBC documentary). Reading this Sixties-fueled, utopian vision of technology today is almost chilling.
Bill Keller wonders if there's a place for poetry in business and politics:
Poetry is no substitute for courage or competence, but properly applied, it is a challenge to self-certainty, which we currently have in excess.
The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt by Phillip Lopate:
Strangely enough, doubt need not impede action. If you really become friends with your doubt, you can go ahead and take risks, knowing you will be questioning yourself at every turn, no matter what. It is part of living, a healthy evolutionary adaptation, I would imagine. The mistake is in trying to tune out your doubts. Accept them as a necessary (or at least unavoidable) soundtrack.
The National Day of Unplugging, March 1, 2013:
We increasingly miss out on the important moments of our lives as we pass the hours with our noses buried in our iPhones and BlackBerry’s, chronicling our every move through Facebook and Twitter and shielding ourselves from the outside world with the bubble of “silence” that our earphones create. The National Day of Unplugging is a 24 hour period – running from sunset to sunset – and starts on the first Friday in March.
If you could teach any class, what would be the topic and title?