2 Dead Poets

The first poetry reading I ever attended was by the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz . He died this week at the age of 93. Milosz read his poems in both Polish and English in a small chapel on my undergraduate college campus. At the end of the reading, he gave the audience a deep namaste-type bow, palms pressed together. My sense of his bow was this: he really meant it. I saved a poster from the reading, and it’s archived in a box in my garage.

My other favorite association with Milosz comes from a story my friend Charlie told me. Years ago he taught 4th graders through Writers in the Schools (WITS). He led a lesson that he introduced with a poem by Milosz. In order to embrace the poet deeply in a way that made sense to them, the children renamed the poet Coleslaw Meatloaf. The kids referenced their buddy Coleslaw for the rest of the school year. You have to leave behind great poems to transcend a story that silly. I think he’ll do just fine.

Another poet I’ve read for many years, Donald Justice, also died this week. In his poem, Variations on a Text by Vallejo, he predicts that he will die in Miami in the sun. The actual details and circumstances were slightly different; he was in a nursing home in Iowa City. But the third stanza hits it on the head: Donald Justice is dead.

Justice did visit the Iowa Writers Workshop while I was studying there. He had been many of our teachers’ teacher so they arranged for him to lead workshops for anyone who wanted to attend. That meant everybody; we all participated, even our teachers. He gave “homework assignments” that no one understood. I remember him as smart, aloof, eloquent, a little impossible. Let’s put it this way. He was not the type of man you could please by trying to please him.

Here’s the last section of his poem, “The Man Closing Up”:

There is a word for it,
A simple word,
And the word goes around.

It curves like a staircase,
And it goes up like a staircase,
And it is a staircase.

An iron staircase
On the side of a lighthouse.
All in his head.

And it makes no sound at all
In his head,
Unless he says it.

Then the keeper
Steps on the rung,
The bottom rung,

And the ascent begins.
Rung after rung.

He wants to keep the light going,
If he can.

But the man closing up
Does not say the word.

How to Stay Curious

I’ve been considering the possibility of starting a blog about all-things-poetry for many months now. It’s not that I think I have the answers. Or even the questions. I’m not looking for a soapbox. But I am interested in the blog as zocolo, as town square, a place of exchange and conversation.

I attended two grad programs in creative writing, and the thing that struck me then and now is that the conversations both in class and outside of class were sensational. I can remember sitting in the private room at the Brown Bottle (Iowa City) listening to my friends Stephanie Brown and Jeff Hamilton talking about Lester Bangs, People magazine, and the new formalists all at the same time and thinking, This is really something. Twenty years later I feel exactly the same way.

Great conversations are getting rare. In her book, turning to one another, Margaret Wheatley argues for a renaissance of the conversation. She outlines the norms that must exist for honest conversation to take place. My favorite one is, “We must stay curious about one another.”

There’s so much to talk about. Let’s begin the begin.