The Atlantic

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The Most Precious Gift: Declamation

These days, gift-giving is too much about cursors and clicks to cart. Material goods bought with plastic shipped to porches by UPS.

You don’t need to be a poet, however, to give a better gift to someone you love: declamation. This came to mind while reading the May 2020 issue of The Atlantic. In a piece called “Being Friends with Philip Roth” by Benjamin Taylor, the latter mentions Roth’s 74th birthday party.

Apparently Roth turned to the assembled guests and, casual as all get-out, asked if anyone cared to recite a poem from memory. As if that was still done. As if each guest had brought a poem gift-wrapped in their brain pan.

To kick things off, Roth recited a Mark Strand poem: “Keeping Things Whole.” According to Taylor, Roth “then looks at me as if to say, ‘Your serve.'” Luckily, Taylor was able to return volley. He recited Robert Frost’s lesser known poem “I Could Give All to Time.”

Roth was so impressed that he brought it up on the phone the next morning: “Those rhymes!” he said to Taylor. “It’s as if nature made them.”

And, at the time, I thought, how cool. Shouldn’t this happen more often? Not just between writers of poetry, but between readers of poetry, too?

Anyway, it was enough to set me to the task of memorizing both, starting with the easier—the Strand piece. So here’s to Philip and Benjamin.

Oh. And Mark and Robert, too!


Keeping Things Whole
Mark Strand

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.


I Could Give All to Time
Robert Frost

To Time it never seems that he is brave
To set himself against the peaks of snow
To lay them level with the running wave,
Nor is he overjoyed when they lie low,
But only grave, contemplative and grave.

What now is inland shall be ocean isle,
Then eddies playing round a sunken reef
Like the curl at the corner of a smile;
And I could share Time’s lack of joy or grief
At such a planetary change of style.

I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.

News Flash: Poetry Matters Again!

The September 2018 issue of The Atlantic — a bit briny as usual — just beached itself in my mailbox and lo, there was a feature article on poetry in it! What’s more, it’s headline proclaimed (“Dewey Wins!”-like) “How Poetry Came to Matter Again.” Which means, in case you haven’t been paying attention, that poetry hasn’t really mattered at all. Up until now, I mean.

For full appreciation, you should read Jesse Lichtenstein’s article yourself. I can sum up its main points, however. The Pearly (Very, Very White) Gates have been stormed. Like Lazarus, poetry has been brought back to life, most probably by a dark-skinned, female, transgender Jesus.

Meaning: We owe a debt of gratitude to the very people our wonderful president Donny (and president of vice, Mikey) have little use for: immigrants, minorities, LGBTQ, and females.

This should come as no surprise to people peddling their poetry. In their submission write-ups, many markets make special points of soliciting work from these writers. This article clarifies why. New blood. New life. New voices. All good, especially if it makes poetry appealing to young readers and listeners, all but forgotten by poets of the past.

Also getting shout-outs in Lichtenstein’s article? Spoken word and performance poetry. Old-school types may be writing their poetry under bushels, sharing only with each other in the shadows of their critiquing covers before sending poems out along the traditional poetry highways to poetry magazines and poetry publishers, but the new schoolers are taking the road more digitally traveled.

They’re taking their poetry public to ITube, YouTube, and WeTube; to podcasts, Instagram, and open mics. They’re truly out there. Self-promoting, self-proclaiming, self-advocating. As Exhibit A, I need only say two words: “Rupi” and “Kaur” (or, as she is known in some poetry circles: “best” and “seller”).

Me, I am new to the poetry-writing world and have found it very tight indeed. Protective circles, the higher you go. Fellow back-scratchers. M’s, F’s, and A’s, sprinkled with teacher-poet’s pets who promote their proteges.

This does not make me a minority in the classic sense. It just makes me a (ahem) “seasoned” white guy who only merits the title “minority” as an “outsider.”

That’s OK, though. I took heart that this article promoted a renewed acceptance of the pronoun “I” and how new voices are unabashedly embracing it. I’ve written about the pronoun “I” and poetry before, if you’re a pronoun fan.

It’s also important to remember that, no matter what our backgrounds or identities, we are all similar in our humanity, though separate in our unique mortal coils, each built by unique histories.

In that sense, we are all immigrants to the world, all conscripted against our wills to our finite lives, all capable of speaking to readers no matter what their age, race, sex, or gender identity.

I like to think, at least.

So the lesson of the article is this: Poetry is not an ivory tower, it is a big tent. Poetry belongs to the people, and the people can be reached in new and unique ways.

What’s more, poetry does not and should not belong to select cliques. This includes poetry pecking orders. They should be toppled like statues of Stalin. Yet poets, young AND old, talented and published, still stick to promoting only their friends and writers they consider their equals.

If you want to write for yourself, that’s cool. For me, though, poetry without readers is like speakers without listeners. A supreme form of solipsism.

As JFK might have put it, then: Ask not what poetry can do for you; ask what you can do for poetry. Audiences are out there and waiting.


Our Yawning Need for Boredom


What is it with people’s fear of being alone (as in, not only by yourself but without any technological binkies like a cellphone)? A famous study by a team of psychologists stated that “two-thirds of men and a quarter of women would rather self-administer electric shocks than sit alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes,” which leads one to the question: What on earth could their thoughts look like that they’d prefer self-torture?

In the June Atlantic, Jude Stewart takes a quick look at many of studies surrounding “boredom” and being alone in her article “Make Time for Boredom: The Surprising Benefits of Stultification.” To a writer, the short piece is both surprising and not-so-surprising.

First the not-so-surprising: Stewart’s conclusion is that boredom is an accomplice to creativity. “By encouraging contemplation and daydreaming, it can spur creativity,” she writes.

(Editor’s Note: Whoa. News flash! You’re more creative when you’re alone!?)

Here’s the surprising part: boredom, defined as “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity” is linked to such behavior issues as “mindless snacking, binge-drinking, risky sex, and problem gambling” (all the equivalent of self-administered electric shocks, I guess). What the article misses is the human element. Boredom cannot exist unless people who don’t know what to do with themselves let it exist.

Here’s where artists come into the picture like cavalry riding over the hill. Artists embrace what others might call “boredom” because the conditions necessary for “boredom” to take root are the same as those necessary to create art, whether it’s a poem, a novel, a musical composition, a painting, or a sculpture.

To put it a better way: Bored people are lonely. Creative people are alone. But both are breathing the same air.

Truth be told, I can think of nothing better than an approaching weekend where I have nothing planned — no social engagements, no domestic tasks, no nothing. Why? Because it means I can both feed the well (by reading) and draw from it (by writing).

If that be one man’s (or many’s) idea of boredom, bring it on. Some of my best work has been thanks to the beautiful gifts of boring silence and boring nothingness.