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Friday, May 18, 2012

Why I am an evangelist for poetry

 by Jamie Lutton

 I am an evangelist for poetry.  And not the moderns, though I have no quarrels with Mary Oliver and her generation. I love the dead white men  - and women - that are no longer taught or read very much.
      
This past Mother's Day, as all Mother's days now, was a poignant one for me.  My mother has been gone  for just over three years .

I essentially have the same job she had. She took a masters in 17th century literature but did not use her degree directly. She worked as a reference librarian, which is very like being a bookseller, except the books I sell do not come back to me after a few weeks. ..She was a frustrated would-be English literature professor.
     
When I was a teen, she found me to be a reasonably attentive audience for her recitation of Robert Browning's My Last Duchess, a macabre short poem of the 19th century.  Or Death of the Hired Man by Robert Frost, a dark poem of the 20th. Or Cavafy's Waiting for the Barbarians, a dark and ironic poem by a Greek poet.
        
She would wave her cigarette in her left hand as she held the book with her right, peering at me through the smoke as she read aloud at the dinner table, often late at night, She would often repeat one line from a poem, look at me,  take a drag from her cigarette, as if she was conducting a lecture on the subject to an audience of one. She would then  take the poem  apart in front of me, like a mechanic with a car engine, demonstrating how the poem worked.  She was quite serious and deliberate when she did this.
   
I suspected her of brooding about many poems, the characters in it, and their fate, as she went through her day. It percolated to the surface, when she had me as an audience.    
    
Sometimes, with no book handy, she would recite a fragment of a  poem, look puzzled, and try to extract the whole piece from her memory, and failing, Later in life, I would hunt the poem down for her, figuring out the author and title, put it in her hand, and we would read it together. compete, completed, mended.  This gave her great satisfaction to do this, and I was often as excited as she was. So I enjoyed hunting down poems for her.  (this was before Googling was available as an option)
      
This sort of reverie is catching.   Anyone who knows me well has seen me grab some collection of classic poetry and read aloud from it, not even so much to sell the book as that I think anyone in earshot needed the enlightenment.  This is sometimes thought to be an obnoxious habit, but I try to restrict it to my own business.
 
My first project in college was to study Shakespeare's Sonnets, and  I memorized a number of them.
       
I had been provoked by a college friend, who was a man of one poet. He had memorized Poe in his youth, and would declaim long poems of his, like Tamerlane and The Raven, by heart, in any social gathering of two or more.   I sized the situation up, and began to memorize Shakespeare in self defense so I could defend myself, like dueling banjos. . This led soon after to ]memorizing other classic poems, mostly short ones.  Memorizing  poetry instead of just reading it or studying it for a class, say,  rearranges your thinking. Poetry displaces in an Archimedian  sense some the garbage in one's memory - the constant bombardment of commercials on TV and bad popular music on the mind.
        
With my parents gone, I  also don't   have anyone to help with reference questions not easily answered on by the Internet.  I used to call them up every week or so, and ask - now who was it who wrote the Oresteia - or If someone likes Philip Larkin's poetry, who should they read next
       .
It pleased my mother, in her last decades, to be called like this. She missed the challenges that being a reference librarian gave her. . She had gone blind the last decade of her life, but her and my father's knowledge of books was prodigious.

I once when I was in college found my dad's old copy of the poems of T.S. Eliot on a shelf. It was all marked up in pencil in the margins, with many small notes over the words  I asked him if it was his copy from a college course, but he said mildly he had studied Elliot's poetry on his own as an adult, and made notes.  My parents were lucky enough to find each other in high school, and growing up and old together, they fed each others' love of books.
  
When I think about my own love of good books, I think about what Thomas Aquinas, a medieval philosopher,  wrote "we have seen so far, because we have stood on the shoulders of Giants". This was quote was stolen by Issac Newton and  others to express, not only gratitude, but sorrow. What is to be done when giants,  our parents or mentors  die, an leave mere mortals to hold the world together.
    
So, I am an Evangelist  for poetry.  I did not know till I wrote this, that both my parents were overtly teaching me to go out and teach the love of poetry. I don't know if I am as successful as they were with me, but I am not done yet.
                 

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