Shel Silverstein: the Little Library Where the Sidewalk Ends and Jennifer Johnson

A few years ago, in an attempt to be a cutting-edge, high-tech institution, the powers-that-be decided that the school I teach in didn’t need a library. The library is superfluous, they claimed. Students have all the information they need on their phones in their hands. (As if information was all that students need.) And so, quickly, the library was gutted, the librarian dismissed, and the books were donated, destroyed, or “disappeared,” From its ashes rose a Maker-Space and a Learning Commons. (If you are not currently involved in modern education, don’t ask.)

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“The Library Where the Sidewalk Ends” on Valentine’s Day

A few colleagues and I couldn’t imagine a school without a library, so we built our own. A “little library” it was, and ones like it appear in neighborhoods, towns and cities throughout the U.S. (I once was at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for such a library on the porch of a bar in Key West, although it was much more of a Key West celebration than a library opening.)

Anyway, the library thrived with people taking and leaving a variety of books, CDs, and even art works.

The library itself was located in an odd place in the middle of campus. There was a cement sidewalk that jutted into a swatch of grass and then just ended. When I would announce new additions to the library, I would refer to it as “the library WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS.”

where the sidewalk endsAnd every student and every adult knew what I was referring to: the delightful first collection of poems by Shel Silverstein that every student had loved as a child and every adult of a certain age remembered reading to his or her own. The poems in Where the Sidewalk Ends are silly, irreverent, charming, and knowing. It’s the silly irreverence that children most love: as if the adult Silverstein—unlike other adults in their world— was clued into the fears, the joys, the silliness, the incomprehension, the absurdity with which they view the world.

Yet, Silverstein was more than a children’s poet. He began as a cartoonist, and a successful one. It was his cartoons that prompted his publisher to suggest a book of poems. He was also a playwright–David Mamet called him his best friend–with over 100 one-act plays under his belt.

And he was a prolific songwriter. He had a number of hits with what could be called novelty

Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein

songs: “On the Cover of the Rolling Stone,” “Sylvia’s Mother,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and the “Unicorn” song ( you know,           “green alligators and long necked geese… .”) But he also had a solid stable of songs recorded by a slew of people: Dr. Hook and his Medicine Show, Loretta Lynn, Bobby Bare, Belinda Carlisle, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Marianne Faithful, Johnny Cash among others. I remember the first Judy Collins’ album I ever bought featured a rousing protest song called “Hey Nelly Nelly.” I didn’t recognize the name at the time, but it was written by someone named Shel Silverstein.

And so it comes to a song I have recently rediscovered. I was buying tickets to see Todd Snider in concert and was looking for the one Todd Snider album I own. I couldn’t find it. So instead I pulled out a Robert Earl Keen album West Textures which features a charming Shel Silverstein song, “Jennifer Johnson and Me.” (Snider mentions a Robert Earl Keen song in one of his own songs which is what originally had driven me to this album.)

Anyway, the song tells the story of a man who finds in an old suit jacket pocket a black-and-white photo (‘three for a quarter”) from an arcade photo booth. The picture is of him and an old girlfriend, Jennifer Johnson. The singer is well into adulthood now, and the photo is of him when he was in late adolescence, sitting with Jennifer Johnson.There is a sweet nostalgia in his memories of their innocence, their hope, and the belief in “forever.”

It’s a sweet song, and I opened up with it on Saturday. I think I will keep it in my set list. Here’s the tune, by Robert Earl Keen:

Seeing Things and then “Seeing Things”

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“Fish” by jpbohannon, 2017

One of Seamus Heaney’s later collections of poetry was entitled Seeing Things, and indeed the Irish poet was a master of detailed observation.  His career was built on seeing and noticing things.

Seeing Things

Andrew Barker, in his on-line lecture on Heaney’s early poem “Digging,”  comments on the phrase “seeing things,” saying that we usually mean one of two things when we say it.

The first is what he is emphasizing in Heaney’s poems, the art of closely observing detail: in the case of “Digging,” the sound of a spade sliding through gravel, the squelch of the turf being sliced from the bog, the coolness of potatoes fresh from the ground.

But, Barker points out, there is also another meaning of someone “seeing things”– where it does not refer to someone with keenness of perception, but to someone who sees things that are not there. “He’s seeing things” quite often means that someone is seeing things that are not visible to others, someone who is delusional or fantasizing.

And then Barker names the poet William Butler Yeats as one who sees things that are not there.

I’ve let that percolate in my mind for a while.  And then I thought of Yeats’ poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” perhaps my favorite poem of all and one that I can recite at will.

The poem goes like this:

The Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread.
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
  
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name.
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
  
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Apart from the subtle rhymes (“wand” and “wood” or “moon” and “sun”) or the beautiful images of “moth like stars” and “a glimmering girl/with apple blossom in her hair,” the poem is notable because Yeats is seeing things that are not necessarily visible.

(Do I need to mention that a silver trout transforms into a human female as the speaker turns to “blow the fire a-flame.”)

And yet there is a larger truth sitting on that cottage floor and running out the door. A larger truth that has the speaker spending his lifetime chasing that vision–and believing that he will catch it.

I used the word “vision” purposefully,  for it is in that unseen vision that Yeats reveals a truth, a truth about passion, aspiration, dreams and goals. It is the dream of what one wants and the dedication of following that dream, of chasing that dream “till time and times are done.”  For it is in chasing the dream–not in catching it– that a full life resides.

Yeats saw that truth…and saw it in a way not visible to most. (Never mind, that Yeats actually spent much of his life chasing after his “glimmering girl,” Maude Gonne.  That’s beside the point!)

Certainly, we are all not going to fully realize our dreams; we will not all achieve what we set out to do. And often times not attaining what we thought we wanted may be the best thing to happens to us.  But the chase must continue –and it defines our lives.  If we are not looking forward–through “hollow lands and hilly lands”–if we have given up on that “glimmering girl,” then we are merely alive.

As I have said, this is one of my favorite poems–and it has often been put to music. If you search YouTube for “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” you will find scores of versions done by everyone from Christy Moore or The Waterboys to Dave Van Ronk and Judy Collins. Donovan did a version, as did Don MacLean on banjo.

Anyway, below is my favorite version, by Christy Moore.  Give it a listen…

Rumi on Figs

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Figs 

The Ripe Fig

Now that you live here in my chest,
anywhere we sit is a mountaintop.

And those other images,
which have enchanted people
like porcelain dolls from China,
which have made men and women weep
for centuries, even those have changed now.

What used to be pain is a lovely bench
where we can rest under the roses.

     A left hand has become a right.
A dark wall, a window.

     A cushion in a shoe heel,
the leader of the community!

    Now silence. What we say
is poison to some
and nourishing to others.

    What we say is a ripe fig,
but not every bird that flies
eats figs.”

― Rumi, The Essential Rumi

Video Poem #3: “Ca’ the Yowes” by Robert Burns

Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes
By Robert Burns

Ca’ the yowes to the knowes,
Ca’ them wha the heather grows
Ca’ them wha the burnie rows,
My bonie dearie.

Hark! the mavis’ evening sang
Sounding Cluden’s woods amang,
Then a-fauldin let us gang,
My bonie dearie.

We’ll gae down by Cluden side,
Thro’ the hazels spreading wide,
O’er the waves that sweetly glide
To the moon sae clearly.

Yonder Cluden’s silent towers,
Where at moonshine midnight hours,
O’er the dewy-bending flowers,
Fairies dance sae cheery.

Ghaist nor bogle shalt thou fear;
Thou ‘rt to love and Heaven sae dear,
Nocht of ill may come thee near,
My bonie dearie.

Fair and lovely as thou art,
Thou hast stown my very heart;
I can die—but canna part,
My bonie dearie.

I first became interested in Robert Burns’ poetry as a young man. My father—who was not a particularly “learned” man but who was an
inveterate reader—would often recite snippets of his poems when I was a child, particularly “To a Louse”  and “To a Mouse,” two of Burns’ more famous poems besides “Auld Lang Syne.”

robertburns

Robert Burns

I often have taken to heart my father’s repeated phrase “O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”  And, of course, he loved to reassure us that “The best-laid plans o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.”

My next encounter with Burns was at university, in a wonderful seminar on 18th-century British poetry. It was then that I discovered his full range, his politics and his romanticism, his life and his career, his Scots poems and his English poems.

And then he kept cropping up in a different facet of my life.  Playing in a “Celtic folk band” for several decades, I kept encountering Burns’ poems set to music and recorded by some wonderful performers such as The Corries, Dougie MacLean, and Mary Black.  (When I would perform a Burns’ song–usually “Green Grow the Rashes-o” or “Auld Lang Syne,”  I often would introduce it by stating the many parallels that existed between my life and his, although mine was not quite as “rollicking.”)

I try to teach him in my Advanced Placement course, but I don’t think my enthusiasm is as contagious. Oh well. Maybe they’ll discover him when they are ready.

And so here is my third Video Poem.  The first came from a published poem of mine, the second from a poem I have not even sent out yet, and now this by a canonical poet from the 18th century.  Enjoy

Video Poem #2: “To a woman watching Desk Set while making mushroom soup”

I saw a friend of mine whom I rarely see anymore.  We used to work closely together and were in each others’ company continually throughout the workday. I had an office next to hers, a class across the hall from her, and, at one time, a homeroom within her clay studio.

But times change, careers take different paths, and schedules get more and more hectic. And so, I rarely see her at all, maybe three or four times a quarter.

But I saw her a few weeks ago and she told me that she had spent that Sunday–a lovely, rainy fall day– making mushroom soup while the television in front of her ran the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy film, Desk Set.

The  combination of the two intrigued me. And so I came up with the title “To a Woman Watching Desk Set while Making Mushroom Soup.” I loved it. I had nothing else but the title, but I loved the contrast of a fog of steam from a soup pot and the clarity of Hepburn and Tracy (in their first color film together.)

I played with the title for a while and then with the idea.  I combined soup recipes with snippets from the film and with my own take on that legendary Hollywood couple.

I had my poem where I thought I wanted, and so I decided to make a film.

So here it is, enjoy. It is a work in progress in a technique that I am completely new at. (But I am enjoying it madly.)

 

 

 

Billy Collins … and how to think better of poetry

Billy Collins

Billy Collins

The other night I went to see the poet Billy Collins deliver a lecture. It was a pretty fancy event–I’d been given the tickets– held in the  beautiful Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. As Billy Collins remarked, it is like standing inside an enormous cello.

Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, PA

Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, PA

Anyway, I don’t know a lot of Collins’ poetry, except maybe two or three poems, but I always use his poem “Introduction to Poetry” at the beginning of any course I teach in poetry.  In it, Collins claims:

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

It is those last five lines that are important. They describe why poetry is met with such an “ugh” from people whose only experience with it has been in classes where the well-intentioned teacher urged them to “find the meaning.”

I tell my students that human beings are innately wired to respond positively to poetry (think infant lullabies, toddlers’ picture books, nonsense riddles, jump-roping songs). It is the English teachers who teach students to dislike it. To think of it as something to fear and dread.

And that is a shame.

For last night, Collins (who repeated what I said about poetry being innate) was as entertaining as could be. He told the audience a bit of his life and his term as Poet Laureate of the U.S.  He spoke of his influences and literary influences in general. He spoke of the death of humor in poetry–he blames the Romantics who he said “replaced sex and humor with landscape.” And he spoke of the difficulty for some people used to hearing formalist poetry to hear the acoustics of what is commonly called free verse. (He doesn’t like the term.)
He also read several of his poems, although half of what he read came from others. Here is a wonderful two line poem by Howard Nemerov called “Bacon and Eggs”:

The chicken contributes,
But the pig gives his all.

See it’s good to laugh.  And have fun in poetry.

And so he spoke of the importance of humor and used a poem by Ruth L. Schwartz to demonstrate how humor can be used as a transition point, moving from light to darkness (or vise versa). He got a laugh on the line “look at that DUCK,” which is how he wanted it to be:

The Swan at Edgewater Park

Isn’t one of your prissy richpeoples’ swans
Wouldn’t be at home on some pristine pond
Chooses the whole stinking shoreline, candy wrappers, condoms
in its tidal fringe
Prefers to curve its muscular, slightly grubby neck
into the body of a Great Lake,
Swilling whatever it is swans swill,
Chardonnay of algae with bouquet of crud,
While Clevelanders walk by saying Look
at that big duck!
Beauty isn’t the point here; of course
the swan is beautiful,
But not like Lorie at 16, when
Everything was possible—no
More like Lorie at 27
Smoking away her days off in her dirty kitchen,
Her kid with asthma watching TV,
The boyfriend who doesn’t know yet she’s gonna
Leave him, washing his car out back—and
He’s a runty little guy, and drinks too much, and
It’s not his kid anyway, but he loves her, he
Really does, he loves them both—
That’s the kind of swan this is.

But the most effecting poem that he read was the one that he read last. It is his beautiful poem about the love between a mother and son–told with sweet humor:

The Lanyard
by Billy Collins

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.