Monthly Archives: April 2013

Simple pleasures

“Sssshhh; we need to use our inside voices,” I caution my students primly as we leave the sunlit campus courtyard to head back inside the building.

This is met with a burst of raucous laughter from my twenty- and thirtysomething students before we settle into a tasteful silence as we enter the hallways. Our decorum lasts mere seconds before we break into fresh merriment. They’re a witty group, and no one is exempt from the gentle barbs  … including the professor. (Lest anyone think we are using the fine weather as an excuse to goof off, I will add that the students have been sharing with one another their rough drafts for a final project, and the fresh air and green space helped to sharpen their mental faculties. Their comments on their classmates’ work are detailed, respectful and astute.)

“This is the best English class I have ever had,” Kaytlyn chuckles. “I’ve been telling everyone they need to try to get you as their teacher.”

I live for simple pleasures like this. A day warm enough to hold class outside, laughing loudly enough to disturb everyone  in the classrooms inside. An afternoon at the farmer’s market, chatting with the rosy-cheeked, suspendered Amish (Mennonite?) vendor about the absence of GMOs in the food he gives his chickens. And he shows me their picture: fat, glossy and smug, strutting around among patches of bright emerald-green grass. A simple meal of fresh, local, organic food in season. And a tree so beautiful on my afternoon walk it takes my breath away.

Spring took forever to get here, but today made it worth the wait. Well worth it.

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Never the Twain shall meet

I can’t stand George Eliot and Hawthorne and those people. I see what they are at a hundred years before they get to it and they just tire me to death.” – From a letter written by Mark Twain

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m saying it now:

Samuel, Samuel, Samuel. Sometimes you need to know when to shut up.

This from someone who has been a lifelong fan of Mark Twain’s writings and pithy sayings. I love his books. I love his short stories. I love his little bon mots that have been duly passed down by generations of admirers.

Come see the softer side of Twain

I love repeating his famous bits of wisdom like this one:  “Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.”

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

And of course, this oft-repeated classic: “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

There are even times when he borders on lyricism and beauty. His book Adam’s Diary, a little gem that in my opinion gets far too little attention, ends with this tender line about Eve:  “Wherever she was, there was Eden.”

Aaaaahhhh.

But spare me the venom

Sometimes, however,  Twain can be a little too much like the MTV character Daria.

For those who aren’t familiar, Daria is an animated TV series created by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn for the teen-to-young-adult audience of MTV. The series features Daria Morgendorffer,  a sharp, acid-tongued and decidedly antisocial teenager whose wry observations about the people around her expose the follies and hypocrisies of popular culture and suburban life.

At first, her relentless cynicism is entertaining and makes her sound edgy and sharp, maybe a little smarter than the rest of us. But after a while, you just want to smack her and tell her to get over herself. Knee-jerk cynicism isn’t really any more intelligent than rank sentimentality … and given the choice, I’d rather be friends with a sentimental fool.

In praise of happy endings

I say this because Twain’s scathing dismissal of Nathaniel Hawthorne feels particularly harsh to someone who, as a teenager, found redemption and hope in Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter. Like his main character Hester Prynne, I felt publicly branded and stigmatized for sins that  were of other people’s making. The oppressive condemnation and ostracism from self-righteous Christians that I experienced in small (and small-minded) backwater towns felt remarkably similar to that of the Puritans in Hawthorne’s tale. 

The novel ends with a happy ending of sorts:  evil is exposed, the guilty are punished, and the heroine finds genuine forgiveness and peace … and even a measure of respect from the townspeople who once shunned her.

It was good news for me

Maybe a worldly man of Twain’s maturity and experience could see where that story was headed. But to a 15-year-old girl who could barely hold her head up for all the shame that was heaped on her, it was a revelation of astounding proportions that a respected man of letters and man of God might actually be on the side of the tainted woman.

So with all due respect to Twain’s undeniable wit, given the choice between a sharp-tongued cynic or a compassionate if sentimental fool, I’ll take the sentimental fool any day, hands down.

Because if we writers truly have the power to shape the world around us, then I want to be on the side of the ones who offer mercy and hope. Seems to me that’s a much happier ending.

And when you get right down to it, don’t we all, deep down, want happy endings?

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Poem for April 25

For today’s Writer’s Digest prompt, Robert Lee Brewer invites us to take the phrase “Everyone (blank),” replace the blank with a word or phrase, make the new phrase the title of a poem, and then, write the poem. Possible titles he suggests: “Everyone Thinks I’m Crazy,” “Everyone Knows the World Is Round,” “Everyone Needs to Leave Me Alone,” or whatever it is that everyone is doing (or not doing).

Here’s my response. It was the first idea that popped into my head, so I just decided to go with it and see where it went.

everyone lived in an ugly cow town

everyone lived in an ugly cow town
(with dull unthinking so many knows down)
birth youth age death
they shouted their  isms they flung their hate
 
women and men (and children too)
circled the wagons to keep not-us out
they oiled their other they drove out their strange
city suburb village grange
 
some people guessed (but only a few
and down they forgot as upward they grew
age death birth youth)
that no one remembered untruth by untruth
 
late by never and why by why not
she always remembered yet never forgot
rake by august and heaven by hell
was anyone’s way to talk but untell
 
somebodies married their no ones-but-him
they nothinged their chatting they danced their undid
(sleep wake work and then) they
said their farewells and unstood by the door
 
stars rain sun moon
(and only the chaff can seem to explain
how no one remembers and many regret
with dull unthinking so many knows down)
 
one day nobody died i guess
(and nobody wept to unmourn the unloss)
all were too busy to stop for a look
nothing by nothing by hook or by crook
 
shallow by shallow and none too deep
and less by less they undream when asleep
someone and no one betwixt by between
and nothing at all can appear if it’s seen.
 
women and men (both worth and unworth)
youth age death birth
unreaped as unsown, they unplayed their game
sun moon stars rain
 
 

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We all know someone like this

“For today’s [poetry] prompt,” writes Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest, “write an auto poem. Auto could mean automobile, automatic, automaton, or any number of possibilities.”

My offering today is a senryu. A senryu, as Brewer defines it, is like a haiku with fewer restrictions and different subject matter. It’s a 3-line poem with a traditional 5/7/5 syllable (or sound) pattern, and the poem typically deals with the human condition. “In fact,” Brewer observes, “many people who claim to write haiku are already writing senryu.”

Guilty as charged.

Autocracy

In his rule of one
No one else has any say.
“My way or highway.”
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Poem for April 23

Today’s poetry prompt from Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest is a Two-for-Tuesday prompt. “In fact,” he writes, “this is one I include with every challenge.” Here are the options he offers:

  • Write a love poem.
  • Write an anti-love poem.

And mine is a single poem that does both.

’Twas The Beast Killed Beauty

Last night she dreamed she was in love with King Kong.
A big hulking brute of a beast he was,
Who petted and scorned her by turns.
He built her a shelter of sorts in the air,
Perched high on his haunches where no one could reach her.
He made it of sticks and mud and promises,
The ephemeral flora of the forest.
And from the outside
And from the ground
And from a distance
It looked solid enough.
 
Inside was all she needed:
A bed, a mop, a stove,
And one tiny window to let some outside light filter in,
But none of hers out.
And although he often squeezed her too tight,
And, truth be told, it did scare her some
When he pounded his chest or threw things,
She was
 
Happy.
 
No, really.
 
‘Till one day he lowered his great hairy hindquarters
To reach for some low-lying fruit,
Where, finding her feet on solid earth,
She tremblingly crept toward the palm-shaded window
And leaning her elbows upon the sill,
Stood looking and looking out.
 
 

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Poem for April 22

For today’s prompt, Robert Lee Brewer suggests writing a complex poem. “Complex is a complex word,” he explains, “that can refer to mental state, apartments, difficulty of a situation, and so many other complex situations.”

My response:

Têteà-tête

She thinks she is manic-depressive, she says, using
The language of a generation ago to describe
What I saw every day:
The bursts of creativity, the beautiful melodies,
Whole programs taking shape in a single flash of insight.
These she juxtaposed among the late nights she dragged me out of bed
She said to shore her up
But really just to pull me down and down into her nightmare realm.
 
Did she have a choice?
I say she did.
 
There were those lucid moments when she knew,
When she could see the wreckage in her wake,
But it was too easy to make it someone else’s choice:
Her husband, her friends, her family all gave her the easy out
(And themselves, too, no doubt),
All said she could not help herself,
And therefore I must.
 
Which left me with a choice:
To follow suit, or to chart a different course.
I preferred Plan B,
Which despite its many pitfalls and uncertainties,
Has mostly worked out rather well.
 
Especially for her granddaughters.
 
She pauses, fork poised with the next bite,
Waiting for … what? I’m not sure. Disbelief? Evidence to the contrary?
Reassurance that she is fine
And everyone else is nuts? Yes. Probably that one. That was always my job.
But instead I laugh, my years of anger and misery long since passed.
 
“No,” I say, meaning yes.
“Do tell.”
 
 

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Poem for April 20

For today’s poem, my usual source at Writer’s Digest challenges us to write a beyond poem. “The poem could be beyond human comprehension,” Robert Lee Brewer writes. “It could be from the great beyond. It could be from beyond–another city, country, planet, solar system, dimension, etc. Don’t be afraid to go above and beyond with it.”

For my offering, I am reconstructing from memory a poem I wrote in third grade as a school assignment. My teacher was so impressed (I believe she used the word “precocious” several times), she had the principal read it over the loudspeaker. My mother was so unimpressed she immediately threw it away. I’ve tried to be faithful to the original as I wrote it; however, with the passage of time, some of the lines have faded from memory. I’ve had to reconstruct those as best I could. Others, however, are recorded here exactly as I wrote them.

A few people may wonder how a third-grade child could possibly possess such a vocabulary. Here’s the quick answer: I come from a long line of educators, I read constantly as a child while my classmates were busily developing their athletic and social skills, and I was always the classic bookworm: painfully shy, slightly nerdy, and infinitely more savvy about how to diagram a sentence than how to hang upside down by the knees on the monkey bars.

That’s how.

First, then, the assignment, which probably every school child in America has done at some point: First we read the famous poem “Nancy Hanks” by Rosemary Benet. Then we read the response by Julius Silberger. Our assignment was to write our own response to Nancy Hanks. Mine, titled “Beyond Your Wildest Dreams,” appears immediately below.

Nancy Hanks

Rosemary Benet

If Nancy Hanks
Came back as a ghost,
Seeking news
Of what she loved most,
She’d ask first
“Where’s my son?
What’s happened to Abe?
What’s he done?”
 
“Poor little Abe,
Left all alone
Except for Tom,
Who’s a rolling stone;
He was only nine
The year I died.
I remember still
How hard he cried.”
 
“Scraping along
In a little shack,
With hardly a shirt
To cover his back,
And a prairie wind
To blow him down,
Or pinching times
If he went to town.”
 
“You wouldn’t know
About my son?
Did he grow tall?
Did he have fun?
Did he learn to read?
Did he get to town?
Do you know his name?
Did he get on?”
 
*  *  *

A Reply to Nancy Hanks

Julius Silberger

 
Yes, Nancy Hanks,
The news we will tell
Of your Abe
Whom you loved so well.
You asked first,
“Where’s my son?”
He lives in the heart
Of everyone.
 
 *  *  *

And here was mine:

 

Beyond Your Wildest Dreams*

 Ann Louise Graham, age 8

 
If indeed Nancy Hanks were among us today,
What news would I give her? What words would I say?
That her son grew up tall, and he learned how to read,
And his work saw a nation’s oppressed people freed.
“What’s happened to Abe?” Nancy asks. “What’s he done?”
He’s a lasting example to most everyone.
With his words on our lips, in our minds and our hearts,
His ideal never falters, nor ever departs.
You questioned us, Nancy, for news of your son.
Yes, Abe Lincoln got on, Nancy Hanks. He got on.
 
*a reconstruction
 

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