I begin each April–designated in the U.S. as National Poetry Month–with all kinds of grand ideas. I will organize students into a poetry festival, we will stage poetry slams, another teacher and I will do readings together, we will invite celebrated, fascinating (and inexpensive) guests to speak. And then before I get any of it done, May comes around and I’ve done nothing.
This month the most I did was organize a festival for the following year and set out to go to Philadelphia Stories’ “Party Like a Poet” benefit. I made my way down to the location (a subway and a bus trip away), got there far too early, and talked myself out of it — I returned home before it started. Not very poetic, I guess.
But what I did do–not very celebratory or communal–was read a lot of poetry. And I mean a lot.
Some of the titles were by veteran poets such as Mark Doty and Edward Hirsch and others newer names such as David Livewell and Catherine Barnett. They ran the entire gamut of poetic offerings–free verse and formal verse; confessional poetry and nature poetry; poems about love, loss, sex and death; poems about animals and insects, planets and hardwiring. They were collections that I bought, that were given to me as gifts, and one that was sent to me by the Academy of American Poets. Mark Doty’s was a National Book Award Winner, Catherine Barnett’s was a James Laughlin Award winner, and David Livewell’s was T.S. Eliott Poetry Prize winner.
And they were each unique and very different from each other.
And so in celebration of April “the cruelest month,” each day I’ll give a quick run down of one of those titles that have come across my path in the past month or so.
Shackamaxon by David Livewell was fun because he is a talented local poet and his work is situated in the places and neighborhoods I am very familiar with. (How fun is that when in a movie you recognize a street, a diner, a department store, a park?!) The title “Shackamaxon” was the Native American settlement where William Penn made his famous treaty with the Leni Lenape tribe and began establishing what is now the city of Philadelphia.
Livewell’s work is gentle and honest and gritty and searing and, to a large degree, nostalgic, as he captures his blue-collar environs, the families, the struggles, the personal milestones and the larger changes over time. Looking back at the hardscrabble neighborhoods where he was raised, he elevates his urban experience–both memorable and familiar–into art. My favorite is “Summer Elegy,” a nostalgic piece that reminds me of my own father and his generation–loyal to their perennially awful baseball team–and of the passions they passed on to their children. Here is a short piece of it:
On the front step my Grandpop strained to hear
Harry and Whitey* call the Phillies game
from a crackling Philco hung on the wrought iron railing.
He’d grind his teeth and move a toothpick left and right
the way that on-dck players swung at air,
a rhthym to Harry’s baritone
and Whitey’s softer quips between the crowd
noises and vendor calls. He seemed to wait
on possibilities that hung like pop flies.
Gramps would tisk at strikeouts, whistle for homers,
and often blurt “About damn time!” or “Bum!”
And all around the neighborhood were men
from other families catching the baseball game…
(from “Summer Elegy”)
* beloved announcer (Harry) and color-man(Whitey) of the Philadelphia Phillies