I bent over the worksheet on my desk and followed the outline of the leaf with an orange crayon, and the acorn with a brown one. Then I filled in the body of the leaf and acorn, lightly stroking the crayon back and forth. I remember how I admired my artwork in third grade. Below my colored oak tree was printed a poem, the last two lines I still remember: “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.” I thought about that poem this morning marveling at the colorful ash tree in my front yard turning with autumn. These days pop culture has little use for poetry, but a century or two ago poetry was all the rage. For me, certain poems are so unforgettable they’ve come to define each step of my life.
Most people are familiar with Robert Frost’s poetry and particularly his most famous, “The Road Not Taken.” When I was in high school I won second place at the Indiana State Forensic competition reciting this poem. I remember slowing the final lines down for dramatic effect: “And I? I took the road less traveled by—and that has made all the difference.” The desire of my youth was encompassed in that line. At seventeen I longed to be unique and make my own mark in the world in my own way. Now, at the other end of the life cycle, “Birches,” another Frost poem, rings more true. Frost writes how as an adult he misses his carefree youth:
“So was I once myself a swinger of birches
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood…”
In college I became a cynic and lost all faith in God. It was the Viet Nam era and over 58,000 young men and women were fated to die. In 1972 my first grade crush, Dennis Collins, would become a paraplegic fighting in that war. The banality of weekly death counts numbed me. I eventually turned to art to reignite my passion for life and living, and joined the college drama program. I directed my fellow actors in a short performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” I asked the players to paint their faces white and wear black turtleneck tops and pants as they took turns reciting: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”
When I was newly married a relative of mine, someone I cared for very much, “came out” and told me she was gay. I remember castigating her because I felt this was a lifestyle choice, and she didn’t understand what she was getting into. To support my argument I referred to the memoir of poet May Sarton, and the struggles she experienced as a lesbian. It took a few generations before my thinking, and the thinking of the culture at large, shifted. This attitude change was expressed well in Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese”:
“You do not have to walk on your knees a hundred miles through the desert repenting…
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
Eventually I raised my family and began a mid-life career teaching high school English. I tried all kinds of imaginative ways to make poetry more palatable to my students: a poetry unit using rock music; lessons on dating and romantic poetry; an awards ceremony for the most funny or creative poetry my students could find or create. Some years I began the class discussion on poetry with Billy Collins’ clever, “Introduction to Poetry”: “I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide…but all they want to do is to tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it…”
When I finally retired from education, I had more time and became more civic-minded and politically active. Again poetry encapsulated in just a few stirring words my worst fears and best hopes. Poet William Butler Yeats wrote with such profound insight, several lines of his poem, “The Second Coming,” have been used for numerous book titles: “…Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity…”
Just this past week I glanced at British poet, Sheenagh Pugh’s, fall poem:
“Sometimes things don’t go, after all, from bad to worse. Some years Muscadel (grapes) face down frost…
A people sometimes will step back from war; elect an honest man; decide they care…”
As time marches inexorably on, I’m beginning to mourn the loss of friends and family members. Soon it will be my turn, and the thought of leaving this life is fearsome indeed. I find it oddly comforting to consider all the great people who’ve gone on before, Shakespeare for example. I carry the great poesy’s words close to my heart at this age, and it seems a fitting way to end this meditation on my life’s poetry:
“That time of year thou may’st in me behold when yellow leaves…do hang upon the boughs…
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong—to love that well, which thou must leave ere long.”
Image Credit: Diana Hooley Image Credit: May Sarton
4 thoughts on “Poetry and Electing an Honest Man”
Beautiful Diana. I’ve always wanted to understand and appreciate poetry. Your article helped me in doing that. I’ve always loved the line, “The center will not hold.” Now I know the context and the author.
Thanks for reading Carolyn!
Thanks for sharing Diana. You clearly have not retired from teaching. I hope all is well.
Yes, I guess once a teacher always a teacher. Nice to hear from you Travis.