I ♥ Poetry: National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month, and seeing how we’ve only three days left, posting about poetry is either now or never! Although I was an English major and always bookish, poetry was quite another thing. In short, I just didn’t like it. A fantastic poetry prof in college helped open my mind a bit, but I just couldn’t get excited over the stuff.

I was always intrigued by Emily Dickinson’s poems, but truthfully, I think the bleak romance of her life story is what drew me initially, not her language. But after faithfully reading the three volume Letter s of Emily Dickinson edited by Thomas Johnson (Harvard Press), I bought her complete works and was hooked. Dickinson’s poems are some of the few I’ve memorized and if I was a few years younger, I’d probably get a tattoo based on this (yes, really):

Hope is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

Fast forward to teaching the Odyssey to high school freshmen—I know, to some a fate worse than death—and I found myself (finally, English teacher that I was) truly appreciative of the imagery, the word play, the cadence, probably because I read so much of it aloud to the kids.

And that’s, I think, the hook to falling for poetry. You must listen to it read by expert readers. Like poets …  My husband and I had the serendipitous opportunity to hear poet laureate Billy Collins and poet Naomi Shihab Nye read at a local college nearly. The notice was in the Sunday paper, it was small, but we thought, “Wow! Poet laureate—let’s go” not even knowing Collins’ work at the time.

Oh. My. Goodness. We were smitten. Reading Collins—and especially listening to him—I discovered poetry could be not only insightful and musical, but witty and droll. The poet laureate was down-to-earth, humble, and oh-so-fun.  Here’s the first poem Collins read that evening:

See what I mean?!

You may be one of the lucky ones who has always had a love for poetry, but I came to my appreciation late. If you’re still reluctant, try a little Dickinson or Collins. Go to Youtube and listen to Sara Kay and Taylor Mali’s spoken word.

Don’t worry about being serious; don’t think you’re not sophisticated enough. Just let yourself be delighted.

Love what you do: Ray Bradbury

I’ve had a quiet love affair with Ray Bradbury for some time now. I actually think I love the man more than his books—or is it that I love his books because I adore the man? What’s odd is the faRay Bradburyct that I don’t really like science fiction. I mean, Star Trek Next Generation is fine, but anything else … not so much. But Dandelion Wine and Martian Chronicles hooked me, and his short story “The Smile” reeled me in. I’m currently reading Zen in the Art of Writing which shines with typical Bradbury enthusiasm about his craft.

A few years ago I stumbled upon a few (surreptitious, I’m sure) cell phone videos of Bradbury on YouTube—he was a frequent speaker at Comic Con and on college campuses even in his last years–and I was over the moon all over again: a spunky, life-loving, sometimes profane old guy who was a champion of the power of the written word.

I show this National Endowment for the Arts video to my high school students every year, hoping against hope that they, too, will fall in love. And they do find him endearing–because who can’t resist a cute old man who says to the film crew, “I want a close up of the cat, now,” (did you also notice the canary yellow cat tie?) and (lover that he is) re-reads Tender is the Night every time he visits Paris?

Bradbury died in 2012; his last appearance at Comic Con was only two years before. By all accounts he was frail and tired—but he was with his people, passionate to the end. So “the things that you do should be things that you love–things that you love should be things that you do.” I’ll try, Mr. Bradbury. I’ll try.

Grow your soul

Nothing tickles me more than reading my students’ writing when it sparkles. Last week, for instance, I read about a boy who plays baseball “for the man in the clouds”—his grandpa. In that one phrase I see the baseball field in May, those huge cumulous clouds and Michigan blue sky. I hear the crack of the bat and see this seventeen-year-old glance up for a moment as he takes the base.


Now it’s not always easy getting them here—I push. I prod. I question … my voice trails off, hoping they fill in the blanks and capture again their five-year-old selves. You remember, those kids who invent words and dance in the outfield– who tell stories about riding in a parade. Before Twitter and driver’s licenses and Snapchat and high school dances in the gym.

I thought about all this after reading this Huff Post Books article today (link). In 2006, Xavier High school students were asked to write to an author for an assignment. Five wrote to Kurt Vonnegut–and he was the only one who responded.

Now getting a letter from a writer such as Vonnegut would be treat enough. But his advice? If only.

If only my students would keep close to that five-year-old they once were. If only they would dance and sing and paint and write, they’d sparkle. Not for me, mind you, but, in Vonnegut’s words, “to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”

If only we all grew our souls deeper and wider, even just a little bit, every day. Because, really, what else is there to do to make our days matter?

Listen to the Mockingbird

Nearly ten years ago I was captivated by Charles Shields unauthorized biography of Harper Lee, the legendary author of To Kill a Mockingbird. To write Mockingbird: A portrait of Harper Lee, Shields spoke to Lee’s friends and some friends of friends, piecing together a fascinating glimpse of a writer who had became all but a recluse. But here’s the thing. Shields gives us a Harper Lee who was anything but solitary. She entertained closed friends, went out to dinner with her sister Alice Lee, visited high school students, stopped at the casino–in short, she was a woman of a certain age going about life in a quiet Southern town.

Medal of Freedom recipient: 2007

What Lee did withdraw from was the literary life and all things Mockingbird. She never published another book (her second one was supposedly stolen in a burglary) and was disillusioned after Truman Capote snubbed her contribution to In Cold Blood.  Lee reportedly told a close friend, “I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”  Lee didn’t even participate in the 50th anniversary of her ground-breaking novel, nor did she condone the Disney-fication of her hometown Monroeville with its Radley Fountain grill, tote bags and tee shirts, and Calpurnia’s Cookbook. There was no Larry King or Oprah for this legend (although she did meet with Oprah once for lunch in a private suite at The Four Seasons). Some think Nelle Harper Lee eschewed the public eye because her novel was too frank, that she spilled too many family secrets and lived with that regret. Readers tend to take the novel’s young narrator, Scout, as Lee’s own voice–an irrepressible, sensitive tomboy bursting with enthusiasm for life. But she told Oprah during that lunch, “I’m really Boo”, the mysterious town lunatic (link).

Earlier this month The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee written by Marja Millsand supposedly authorized– was released to a kerfuffle. Lee’s sister Alice confirmed the book’s authenticity; her lawyer refuted that the sisters’ agreed to the interviews, insisting that when Mills moved next door to the Lees and befriended them, she did so under false pretenses. You can read the flurry of letters back-and-forth here (link). What most reviewers agree upon is that Mills’ Nelle Harper Lee is fairly close to Shield’s and we readers will probably read little that’s new. But despite the book’s controversial publicity (or perhaps because of it), The Mockingbird Next Door is sure to find its way to the top of bestseller lists just like its predecessor.

Writer Garrison Keillor said about Lee’s early aversion to public attention, “Here is a woman who knew when to get off the train” (link). Maybe we should respect that woman’s decision and let her walk away with dignity.

Remembering Nora

I remember reading Nora Ephron’s Heartburn in the mid-eighties … and I remember my (mental, anyway!) gasp when I read that the delightful novel was Ephron’s revenge after her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein failed. Here she sums up the deliciousness that is reading. I should probably frame it.

May you find endless stacks in your life beyond, Nora. Happy reading forever.