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When I was a little boy, my grandmother gave me a framed copy of Rudyard Kipling's If. The poem sat on the mantel in my bedroom throughout my childhood. I can see it still, green text on a white ground, the black frame. I know there are legitimate concerns these days about some of Kipling's more unfortunate enthusiasms (colonialism, racism, misogyny, imperialism ... just to name a few of the most objectionable), but that poem taught me a lot as a child. The lady who gave it to me, like Kipling himself, was a product of the Victorian era—and so, as a result, to a degree at least, I suppose I am too. I believed its message. It became as much a part of me as anything I learned in church or school. The repeated conditional phrases: “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you ... / If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same ... / Or watch the things you gave your life to broken, / And stoop and build 'em up again with worn-out tools .... / Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, / And-which is more-you'll be a Man, my son!” I know. Silly, old-fashioned sentiments. But, truth be told, they still have the power to lift me up, keep me going, even after all these years.
In seventh grade, Miss Baird gave us a homework assignment I'll never forget. We were to find a poem we liked, memorize it, and, in a week's time, recite the poem in class as a piece of music we'd chosen accompanied our recitation. I selected Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade" for my poem and the "1812 Overture" to accompany it. I had to practice a lot to get the timing right, but, on the appointed day, just as I intoned in my squeaky adolescent voice, “Cannon to right of them, / Cannon to left of them, / Cannon behind them / Volleyed and thundered ....” Tchaikovsky's cannon boomed from the ancient public school Victrola Miss Baird had set up at the back of our classroom.
After that, in high school and college, I grew a little afraid of poetry. Some of the smart kids, and many of the smart teachers, began to admire and promote a type of poetry that made me feel stupid. I didn't understand it. Lines that struck me as serious, if a little ponderous, they found funny, and lines that made no sense to me at all, they exclaimed over as though they bore the most profound of messages. There was talk too of the way the words sounded, that it didn't make any difference if the words of a poem meant nothing, indeed struck one as little more than gibberish, that their “music” was the meaning.
It was about this time too that a subset of my fellow students, perhaps understandably, began to dismiss all poetry as little more than a flimflam, that only those of a particularly effete and possibly even effeminate nature would admit to liking poetry. I wasn't sure what “effete” meant, but at that age, in those unenlightened days, I knew for sure I didn't want anyone calling me “effeminate.” So, for some time, the only poetry I permitted myself to enjoy was that then being written by the likes of Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell.
But in graduate school things changed. One of my fellow students was a poet who, as an undergraduate at the University of Alabama, had been a running back for Bear Bryant's fabled Crimson Tide. Hardly effeminate. And to this day I can remember the poems he wrote about growing up poor in backwoods Alabama, what it had been like to be dismissed as nothing more than an ignorant peckerwood, what it had been like to pick up his father one night after a drunken brawl and carry him, bloody and defiant, home. My friend's poetry was muscular and alive, straightforward and brave, and he introduced me to other poets who wrote like him, poets like James Wright and Wendell Berry, James Tate and Randall Jarrell. He was the first of a long line of poets (including such local luminaries as Sue Ellen Thompson and Meredith Davies Hadaway) who have taken pity on this poor ignorant Kentucky peckerwood and shared with him the beauty and meaning to be found in great poetry.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, the Buddha—they all said something along the lines of “You become what you think.” But thinking about poetry, the effect it has had on my life, I would add a corollary: “You become what you read.” From Kipling's If to Jack Gilbert's A Brief for the Defense, great poetry has provided me wih an armature for my life, lines that have given me strength, lines that, like a mantra, I repeat when the going gets rough.
April is National Poetry Month and, in honor of the occasion, I'm hoping you'll share with me and others the poetry that has helped you navigate your life's ups and downs. On Wednesday, April 28, at 6 p.m., and again on Thursday, April 29, at 3 p.m., I will host a Zoom session in which participants will have the chance to read their favorite life-mentoring poem aloud. If you would like to join us at either of these Zoom sessions, a minute or two before the appointed hour please go to https://marylandlibraries.zoom.us/j/94757172963 and then type in 382949 as your passcode. So that as many people as possible will have the chance to read, I would ask that you limit your selection to a poem of no more than 400 words. Together, I'm hoping we'll all discover another poem or two of the sort that helps make life worth living.
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