Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Noticing the Poetry

Poetry hides.

That’s what Naomi Shihab Nye tells us in her whimsical poem, “A Valentine for Ernest Mann.” Poetry is found in the unlikeliest of places, even in the eyes of a skunk or at the bottom of a sock drawer. If we're looking for it, we can find poetry everywhere in our lives.

When I first read Nye’s poem at a writers conference many years ago, I was given the opportunity during a writing exercise to think about and list all the places that poetry hides in my life. When my kids were younger, I realized poetry was often giggling under the couch cushions when I came home from work. It was hiding in the bottom of the toy box in the basement, and it was out on the driveway amidst laughter during a game of tag or wiffle ball. As a teacher, I realized poetry is found in random doodles of a student’s notebook, or in their silly comments walking down the halls. It’s found on the fields and in the gym where it is always in motion. I revisit my list from time to time, trying to add new places where I’ve noticed poetry hiding.

April is National Poetry Month, which makes it a time to celebrate the beauty and art of language. For poetry, despite all its mystery, is simply language as art. That’s the approach I have always tried to take in teaching poetry in my English classes. Rather than simply study poetry, I hope my students can appreciate it as well. Seeing and hearing the artful turn of a phrase is the key. A great example of this approach can be found in the poem “Introduction to Poetry” by former teacher and national poet laureate Billy Collins. Rather than asking students what a poem means, he merely wants them to “hold a poem up to the light like a color slide,” or perhaps “water ski across the surface of a poem, waving at the author on the shore.”

In a recent Washington Post article, “What if the Sun Could Make a Sound?” poet Maggie Smith shares how she teachers poetry to her own children. “As a single mother, as a poet, and as a teacher,” Smith says, “I’m a noticer. My work at home, on the page, and in the classroom is paying attention — and, if I’m doing that work well, inspiring others to pay attention.” That act of noticing, of paying attention to simple details, is what artists and poets do so well. And when we listen and follow their lead, we become more mindful and aware of the world. When her kids were young, Smith did not force poetry upon them, but instead “began by celebrating the poetry in everyday life — sound, metaphor and image — because I wanted to instill in them a love of language and its possibilities. I wanted to encourage them to use their imaginations and express themselves. I wanted them to think like poets, and to see the world around them in a poetic way.”

There are numerous ways to celebrate and experience poetry during the month of April. Denver has regular poetry readings and performances. Or, there are numerous websites where you can sign up to get a poem a day sent to your inbox. One simple and fun way to appreciate poetry takes place next Thursday, April 27, which is known as “Poem in Your Pocket Day.” Sponsored by the American Academy of Poets, the day is an opportunity to remember the beauty of poetry and the poetry around us by simply carrying a poem in your pocket. If two people meet with poems, they can exchange poems and add a new poem to their collection.

I try to keep a book of poetry on my desk at work, and I will pick it up from time to time while taking a break from grading and just read. Lately, I’ve been working through the body of work from Billy Collins, and I am always amused and pleasantly surprised by the endless ways he uncovers poetry in the world. So, as Naomi Nye says, poetry hides, but you can look for the poetry in your life. Notice it in casual conversations and appreciate it in beautiful views. For, if I can paraphrase from one of my favorite movie lines, if you look for it, I have a sneaking suspicion you will find poetry actually is all around.

Friday, April 7, 2023

Hope Springs Eternal

Growing up in St. Louis, a Midwestern city where baseball is basically religion, I know of no more gratifying words in early spring than “pitchers and catchers report.” Far more significant than any silly rodent not seeing its shadow, the news about pitchers and catchers signals the coming of spring. Snow may be on the ground, we may have not seen the sun for weeks, the mornings might seem like they’ll never warm up. But when the boys of summer head down to Arizona or Florida, it reminds us winter can’t last forever. Soon the summer afternoons will be filled with that familiar crack of the bat.

Coming with the arrival of spring, baseball brings a myth and magic that doesn’t really exist with other sports. Perhaps it’s simply the season, a time of rebirth and renewal, which gives baseball an air of hope and infinite possibility. It could be the game’s long history and pastoral feel, played on a diamond in a park. Or perhaps it’s the schedule of nearly daily games and the idea of teams playing a series of games over three or four days. With a hundred and sixty two games in a season and the next game inevitably coming the next day, no sense of loss lasts for long. The next day brings another chance to play, another shot at the thrill of victory. It’s easy to have a short memory in baseball because another pitch, another hit, another game is coming soon.

The mythology of baseball extends through the poetry and prose of the nation, memorialized in columns and stories and novels and films. From the timeless song Take Me Out to the Ballgame to the classic short poem “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer to timeless movies like Field of Dreams, baseball is a sport filled with stories, and many are grounded in hope and redemption. At the beginning of the classic baseball movie Bull Durham, Annie Savoy, the part-time English professor and full-time baseball fanatic played by Susan Sarandon, talks about belonging to the church of baseball, for the game makes far more sense to her than any of the world’s major religions. Later she recites the words of Walt Whitman: "I see great things in Baseball. It's our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us."

This year brings a bit more of a spring in the step of baseball fans. It’s a new era in baseball with the recent changes including a pitch clock and the banning of the infield shift. Of course, it’s not really new – it’s a return to the old era of baseball played the way the game was meant to be. The average time of a game this year in spring training was two hours and thirty-five minutes. That’s an improvement of almost forty-five minutes over what games had stretched to in recent years. And with players back to playing their positions as originally intended, the screaming grounder up the middle is a hit again. The base paths are alive with fast players just itching to swipe a base now that pitchers can’t throw over endlessly. The traditionalist in me struggles with some of the new “rules,” but I’m reminded these changes are just returning the game to its roots.

As of this writing, the Colorado Rockies are 2-2, having split a road series against the near billion-dollar payroll of the San Diego Padre$. The Rox still have a chance for a winning record. They can still win the division, make the playoffs, bring home a pennant, and achieve their first franchise world championship. It could happen. Because in baseball, hope springs eternal. Writers from Roger Angell of the LA Times to George Will of the Washington Post to Jayson Stark of the Athletic remind us of the magic of baseball. And perhaps the best description comes from the James Earl Jones speech at the end of Field of Dreams:

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game – it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Oh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”

So, this spring take yourself out to the ballgame, and let’s “Play ball!”