Useful Poetry: Or, The Knucklehead Poetical

Poetry is hard. And it’s weird, too.

Well, that’s not really fair. But it is the general impression, I think mostly because we’re unused to it. Many of us have read poetry, grudgingly, back in school, and have had little exposure to it since. And that’s a pity, because enjoying poetry is a skill that must be practiced. It’s a different kind of reading, reading that requires a different kind of attention than we give to a novel. Or a newspaper article. Or Facebook.

It’s not poetry’s fault. We left poetry, not the other way around. Poetry has always been there, waiting – offering, nagging, pleading, demanding sometimes – to be breathed again. But the longer we wait, the more intimidated we become. It’s like spending a lifetime watching Pixar movies and then jumping into a Terrence Malick film festival. You might be smitten. But you’ll probably be bewildered.

And this is where I have always relied on the kindness of English teachers.

In particular, my pal, Jaime. My pal Jaime teaches high school English, and her Facebook feed is a witty blend of John Hughes movies, Camus, and road rage. And poetry, which she loves, is nourished by, and in return, serves up to the lucky teenagers who wander into her classroom. (Jaime is the one you heard screaming at the first line of this post.) Jaime has been my poetry dealer lately. She doesn’t wag a finger or scold us for our illiteracy. She throws out a poem on Facebook from time to time as if to say, “Here’s what you’ve been missing.” And the poems she shares leave me wanting more.

So when Jaime shared a link to a Bookriot article called “Poetry Books For People Who Are Afraid of Poetry,” I took notice. It was time to jump into these waters again, risk a little swimming without Jaime as my lifeguard. And as I looked through the books on the Bookriot list, I realized that I could pass on two titles of my own. I’d like to pass them onto you now.

* * *

Before I do that, a word about knuckleheads and blind spots.

Part of being an adult is being aware of our blind spots. We can say, “here is something I know little about, and that’s alright. I just need to understand I’m missing something here and should defer to the judgment of others.” This is my attitude toward jazz music, cricket, and Twilight. We can also say, “here is something I know little about, and that won’t do. I really need to get up to speed on this.” This is my attitude toward the Grexit and GMO foods. And poetry.

When we teach our children, we tend to shy away from our blind spots, and that’s natural. We want to teach them the skills or lore that we feel we’re on top of. So we teach our kids how to throw a slider, or make scrambled eggs, or about reggae music or Firefly. We teach from solid ground. And, admit it. We like the little rush we get when our knuckleheads look at us like we’re Zen masters. Nothing wrong with that.

But it’s also important that our kids learn from us not just how to succeed, but how to struggle. Our knuckleheads, being human, will have blind spots of their own, and they need to be taught to be self-aware enough to shine a light on them. If blind spots were easy to illuminate, they wouldn’t be blind spots, so that always takes effort, and effort means struggle. If your blind spot is the infield fly rule, you can safely leave that to others (like my Knucklehead and me). If your blind spot is current events, you’d best get cracking.

So when The Knucklehead was very young, we’d one night read some Shel Silverstein before bed, and I said, “You know, I like poetry, but I’ve been away from it for too long. I want to read some poetry for adults, but I don’t know where to start. I’m going to have to look into that.” Shortly after that, I became aware of a volume of poetry Garrison Keillor published bearing the outrageous title, Good Poems.

Good Poems is a collection of poems chosen by Keillor to be read on The Writer’s Almanac, 5-minute spots Keillor would air every day on NPR. It seemed like just the thing, as Keillor writes in his introduction:

…I am not the Maud Hill Hallowell Professor of American Lit, and your name isn’t Daphne Foxcroft. It’s simply a book of poems that got read over the radio… poems that somehow stuck with me and with some of the listeners…

The radio audience is not the devout sisterhood you find at poetry readings, leaning forward, lips pursed, hanky in hand; it’s more like a high school cafeteria. People listen to poems while they’re frying eggs and sausage and reading the paper and reasoning with their offspring, so I find it wise to stay away from stuff that is too airy or that refers off-handedly to the poet Li-Po or relies on your familiarity with butterflies or Spanish or Monet.

It sounded like just the thing for the working nurse and father. I dropped some broad hints to The Knucklehead, and on a Christmas when he would have been 8 years old, I received the book as a gift from my boy. I’d taught him to always write something in a book you give somebody, so here is what I found inscribed:


Over the next few months, I’d pick up the book in the odd moment and read a poem or two. If The Knucklehead was about, I’d throw out a random comment on his gift:

  • Hey, here’s a good one, listen to this.
  • This one makes me feel stupid. I don’t get it.
  • This is a good line, I like this.
  • I love the sound of this poem, but I don’t feel like I get it yet. I’m going to have to think about this for a while.
  • OK, that one was just dumb.
  • I have to remember this poet. This is the second poem I’ve read of hers that really caught my attention.

My knucklehead didn’t need to see me mastering poetry. He needed to see me wrestling with it. He needed to see me coming back to it after it knocked me on my ass because I knew there was value there if I stuck with it. He needed me to show him how to struggle with something that’s worth the struggle. And see the rewards reaped when I made the connection with someone who had something important to say.

* * *

But that wasn’t my first post-collegiate go-around with poetry. In the interval between the time my father died and my son was born I was working in a bookshop, and (predictably, looking back) was going through something of a “Men’s Studies” phase; reading a lot of Robert Bly, attending meetings of “men’s groups”, even going on a sort of drumming retreat at one point. Some of it seems a bit silly now, but it filled a need then, so I’m grateful for it. One of the things that stuck with me from that period was a remaindered book I found at work called The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: Poems For Men. Edited by Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Michael Meade, it’s a thick volume of poetry classified under headings like “Approach to Wildness”, “War”, “Loving the Community and Work,” “Mother and Great Mother,” and (my favorite) “Zaniness.” Some of the poems are maddeningly precocious, others stab you like a jailhouse shiv. Some are inscrutable. Some are a hoot. And if nothing else, it led me to Rumi, a 13th-century Islamic mystic poet, who I like to describe to the uninitiated as “like Jesus, if you caught him on a day off and poured a bottle of wine into him.” It’s a good book.

It’s also a book The Knucklehead couldn’t have missed seeing around the house, because I kept it in the bathroom for a long time. And when Knucks was 14, I returned the favor of the gift of Christmas poetry he’d given me six years earlier by getting him a copy of his own. This is from his copy:


* * *

It’s time to jump into some poetry again. Sure, it remains a gap in my worldview. But to be honest, I’ve also missed it. A good poem is a wonderful thing . It’s a connection to another human being able to give voice to the same joy, sorrow, anger, wonder, awe, or pain that lives inside you. A good poem is a companion for life. Time to make a new friend.

I ordered a copy of A Book of Luminous Things, by Czeslaw Milosz, the first book on the Bookriot list Jaime pointed me to. Next week My Knucklehead and I leave for an unstructured week of leisure in Seattle. I’ll take it with me (no Kindle copy of this one) and treat myself to a poem a day, under the kind tutelage of Prof. Milosz. After that, I’ll take it to work with me to enjoy a poem with lunch for as long as the book lasts.

This filling of blind spots, it’s a lifetime’s work. And, in the case of poetry, a lifetime’s pleasure.

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