Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Rain”

Although I liked a lot of the poems in Naomi Shihab Nye's Words Under the Woods, it's only 157 pages long, so I thought I would just cite one more poem, one that seemed particularly poignant to me after 30 years of teaching and provides ample evidence that William Stafford was right on when he was quoted on the back cover as saying, "In the current literary scene one of the most heartening influences is the work of Naomi Shihab Nye. Her poems combine transcendent liveliness and sparkle along with warmth and human insight. She is a champion of the literature of encouragement and heart. Reading her work enhances life."

Rain

A teacher asked Paul

what he would remember

from third grade, and he sat

a long time before writing

“this year sumbody tutched me

on the sholder”

and turned his paper in.

Later she showed it to me

as an example of her wasted life.

The words he wrote were large
as houses in a landscape.

He wanted to go inside them

and live, he could fill in

the windows of “o” and “d”

and be safe while outside

birds building nests in drainpipes
knew nothing of the coming rain.

I taught high school, not the third grade, but I can still identify with the poem, even if I can't identify with the teacher who saw Paul's paper as an "example of her wasted life." Hopefully, she was the "sumbody" that touched Paul on the shoulder providing him with the feeling that someone cared for him, though she seems too out of touch to have been the one that did that.

As a converted caseworker, it was precisely students like Paul who inspired me to turn to teaching in hopes that I could help people before they ended up on welfare. As it turned out, that was a lot harder to do than I ever imagined, and I failed a lot more than I succeeded in helping them to succeed. While that failure makes it easy to believe that I "wasted" my life trying to help students like Paul succeed, there are more important things than "book learning." The most important thing you can do as a teacher is to make students feel good about themselves, no matter what skills they may or may not have.

Having been a caseworker and been married to a caseworker for 17 years, I was always aware that some of my students lived unimaginably hard lives, ranging from abuse to neglect, never knowing what was coming next in their lives. Before they can move on they need to feel safe, not like "birds building nests in drainpipes."

The Anti-Trump

It's either been too cold, too wet, or too cold and wet to get out birding recently, so I've finally used up all the pictures I've taken. Hopefully, I'll get out shortly, but until I do I either have to write about the many books I've read recently but haven't had the ambition to organize my notes into a rational statement or read some new poetry books and comment on them.

For now I decided to do the latter and began by reading Naomi Shihab Nye's Words under the Words: Selected Poems. published in 1995. I actually commented on Nye's Fuel in 2002 but had almost forgotten about her in the intervening years. Luckily, I was reminded of her poetry recently, for it seems like a perfect antidote to the constant barrage of Trump news that has filled my Facebook page and my news feeds.

Tell, me can you imagine Trump, or his supporters, for that matter, ever reading, much less writing, a poem called "Kindness."

Kindness

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Colombia

For better or worse, I've never lost all the things Nye mentions in the first stanza, though I suspect losing my faith in the American Dream after serving in Vietnam probably made me kinder, and less self-centered, than I might otherwise have ever become. I know it inspired me to become a caseworker instead of a banker or businessman which, in turn, forced me to see just "how desolate the landscape can be." Afraid I would end up staring "out the window forever," I left casework to become a teacher where it seemed more likely that I could actually help people.

I've never seen where an "Indian in a white poncho/lies dead by the side of the road," but I'm still haunted by fellow officers who died in Vietnam pursuing their dreams. Though I'm not sure seeing those bodies made me kinder, I do know it made me realize just how precarious life really is, that there are never any assurances that things will "turn out for the best."

I've certainly experienced my share of sorrow, and at times felt overwhelmed by it and empathized with the sorrow of others who haven't been as lucky as I've been. The Buddha had it right when he said, “What is the noble truth of suffering? Birth is suffering, ageing is suffering and sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering.”

The Buddha's answer to that suffering was "compassion," or, in Nye's words, "Kindness." I suspect some of us are going to need all the kindness we can muster to get through the next four years and a President who tries to bully and belittle anyone who opposes his ideas. Though I've already managed to fly off the handle at some Trump supporters, I would consider myself a better person if I could manage to empathize with them while still standing up for what I believe in myself. After all, kindness would seem to demand that we treat all people, and not just those who agree with us, the best we can.

Favorites from The Clouds Should Know Me By Now

Without a doubt my favorite poems in The Clouds Should Know Me By Now are those “From Stones and Trees: The Poetry of Shih-shu” translated by James H. Sanford. For me, the poems in this 32 page section are worth the price of the book, especially since I haven’t been able to find a selection comparable even after considerable searching.

Even the introduction to the section stands out and provides a vital understanding of the context of the poems. Perhaps the reason I liked the poems so much is best explained by”: “… Shih-shu —typical of his era perhaps — seems as much Taoist as Buddhist, more a lay hermit than an entempled monk. … Further, as a Buddhist, he is clearly of the ‘samsara is itself nirvana’ variety; for him, the world is far more a realm of enlightenment than a prison-house of sorrow. Indeed, at times he even seems to approach the tantric view of esoteric Buddhism and its watchword ‘the passions are themselves enlightenment.’”

There’s hardly a poem in the section that I didn’t like, but these two might resonate with me the most. This first one sounds a lot like my sentiment since I finally retired.

134

against the gently flowing spring morning
the arrogant rattle of a passing coach
peach blossoms beckon from the distant village
willow branches caress the shoulder of my pond

as bream and carp flash their golden scales
and mated ducks link embroidered wings
The poet stares about; this way, then that—
caught in a web beyond all speaking

That opening image contrasting the noisy coach passing by and the gently flowing spring seems surprisingly contemporary, even if we don’t have coaches anymore. We’re all too busy to sit around and enjoy nature, even Spring’s beauty. Only the poet “stares about” and finds himself caught in a “web beyond all speaking.”

Most of all, I love the imagery in this poem which almost makes that last line superfluous, at least for the reader who has identified with the imagery.

This next poem doesn’t rely on imagery as much as the previous poem, or even as much as I usually like, but the message rings true to me and sometimes that’s enough, too.

70

as flowing waters disappear into the mist
we lose all track of their passage
every heart is its own Buddha
ease off; become immortal

wake up: the world's a mote of dust
behold heaven’s round mirror
turn loose: slip past shape and shadow
sit side by side with nothing—save Tao

The idea of going with the “flowing waters” which disappear into the unseen and unknown also seems very contemporary, if not just plain “New Age,” but it is also a good metaphor for the Tao, for the Taoist Way, and one that appears throughout the Tao Te Ching.

Combining it with the idea that “every heart is its own Buddha” is a little more striking as is the line “sit side by side with nothing —save Tao.” Hanging on to things too long is the source of many sorrows, but, of course, it’s not easy to “turn loose.”

Jane Kenyon’s “Otherwise”

I've already mentioned that Jane Kenyon, like many artists, was bipolar and the darker side of her condition seems to dominate her poetry, which serves to make poems like "Otherwise" stand out in contrast.

Otherwise

I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise. I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach. It might

have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know,

it will be otherwise.

Some readers might argue that this, too, is a "dark" poem, and they would not be wrong to read the poem that way. After all, the poem certainly ends on a dark note. Bur dark days and the end of days are inevitable, aren't they? There's no denying that. Some lucky people are able to ignore that inevitability and focus on their happy moments, living just in the moment, but that's not the only way to get the most out of life.

There's also something to be said to savoring those happy moments precisely because they are short-lived and because sorrow is an inevitable part of life. The Japanese call this feeling mono no aware, an appreciation of the beauty in things by their very impermanence.

One could also argue that the poet's ability to transcend this knowledge of the "alternative" by doing "the work I love," by transforming that sense of impending sorrow into pure art is precisely what makes her poetry so meaningful, so valuable to us.

Kenyon’s Highs and Lows

When I was an undergraduate and devoted to poetry, I used to wish I could see the world with the kind of “romantic” extremes my favorite poets did. I knew that wasn’t to be, though, when I was introduced to Aristotle’s Golden Mean in a freshman philosophy class. I knew immediately that that was the guiding principle in my life, a realization confirmed in later life with my fondness for Taoism’s Yin and Yang and Buddha’s Middle Way. That doesn’t mean that, at times, I don’t still admire poets who can see the world in all of its extremes in ways I can barely imagine.

Though Kenyon’s poetry tends to see the world through the darker side of her bipolar vision more often than the light side, she is still capable of allowing the reader to literally see the bright side of life.

Philosophy in Warm Weather

Now all the doors and Windows

are open, and we move so easily

through the rooms. Cats roll

on the sunny rugs, and a clumsy wasp

climbs the pane, pausing

to rub a leg over her head.

All around physical life reconvenes.

The molecules of our bodies must love

to exist: they whirl in circles

and seem to begrudge us nothing.

Heat, Horatio, heat makes them

put this antic disposition on!

This year’s brown spider

sways over the door as I come

and go. A single poppy shouts

from the far field, and the crow,

beyond alarm, goes right on

pulling up the corn.

There is a natural ease about this poem that seems impossible to deny. We’ve all felt free and easy on a warm summer day. My favorite image in the poem, probably because I would never in a million years have thought of using it, is “The molecules of our bodies must love/ to exist: they whirl in circles/ and seem to begrudge us nothing.” Such joy is not just in our mind; it pervades us a the molecular level. We can’t help but be happy.

Rain in January is much more typical of Kenyon’s poetry as a whole, and is a poem I can identify with living here in the Pacific Northwest where we are in the midst of two weeks of unusually heavy rain, likely to extend into mid-June.

Rain in January

I woke before dawn, still
in a body. Water ran
down every window, and rushed
from the eaves.

Beneath the empty feeder
a skunk was prowling for suet
or seed. The lamps flickered off
and then came on again.

Smoke from the chimney
could not rise. It came down
into the yard, and brooded there
in the unlikelihood of reaching

heaven. When my arm slipped
from the arm of the chair
I let it hang beside me, pale,
useless and strange.

I’ve been known to let extended rainy periods get me down and force me to make cynical pronouncements, but luckily I have only felt as bad as the narrator when I’m befallen by thyroid cancer, throat cancer, prostate cancer, or serious bouts of pneumonia. Which is to say that, despite my generally optimistic view of the world, I can, unfortunately, still identify with the poet’s condition. As I suppose most of us can.

I suspect it was not just the smoke that “brooded there/in the unlikelihood of reaching/heaven.” It’s bad enough to feel alienated from heaven, but it’s much worse to be alienated from your body, from a “useless and strange” arm.

Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems

I finished reading Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems awhile ago, but haven’t found time to write about it, perhaps because it is one of my favorite “new” (to me, at least) poetry books of the last ten years and I didn’t want to just gloss over it.

I loved her early poems (published in 1978), which reminded me of William Carlos Williams’ imagistic poetry.

Finding a Long Gray Hair

I scrub the long floorboards
in the kitchen, repeating
the motions of other women
who have lived in this house.
And when I find a long gray hair
floating in the pail,
I feel my life added to theirs
.

It’s amazing how much these straight-forward images convey. Almost everything here could be conveyed in a two-minute video, black-and-white, of course. It’s the last line, though, that raises this to a poem since there’s no easy way to express that joining visually, much less convey whether having her “life added to theirs” is a good thing or a bad thing, though I did enough janitorial work while attending college to conjecture that it’s not entirely a good thing.

At first glance “The Clothes Pin” seems more optimistic than many of her poems, but its impossible to ignore the underlying sadness conveyed in the third line.

The Clothes Pin

How much better it is
to carry wood to the fire
than to moan about your life.
How much better
to throw the garbage
onto the compost heap, or to pin the clean
sheet on the line
with a gray-brown wooden clothes pin.

Sometimes you can forget the sadness in your life by focusing on what has to be done as Kenyon seems to imply here, but in the end you probably need to do more than carry firewood, throw out the garbage, or hang clothes on the clothesline to find happiness.

A little later, her poems reminded me of Theodore Roethke’s poetry. Kenyon was bipolar, and it is manifested in her poetry the same way it was in Roethke’s poetry. There seem to be an awful lot of bipolar poets, but Kenyon directly alludes to Roethke in several of her poems, as in this one.

Afternoon in the House

It’s quiet here. The cats
sprawl, each
in a favored place.
The geranium leans this way
to see if I’m writing about her:
head all petals, brown
stalks, and those green fans.
So you see,
I am writing about you.

I turn on the radio. Wrong.

Let’s not have any noise
in this room, except
the sound of a voice reading a poem.

The cats request

The Meadow Mouse by Theodore Roethke.

The house settles down on its haunches
for a doze.

I know you are with me, plants,

and cats—and even so, I’m frightened,

sitting in the middle of perfect
possibility.

Kenyon refers directly to Roethke’s The Meadow Mouse but Roethke lovers would certainly see a closer connection to Roethke’s The Geranium. These lines from “The Geranium” seem particularly relevant here: ‘Near the end, she seemed almost to hear me--/ And that was scary--” Almost as scary as “sitting in the middle of perfect/ possibility,” I’d imagine.

Merwin’s The Carrier of Ladders

During our recent remodel I found several more poetry books that I bought while I was teaching and never found the time to read until now. One of them was W.S. Merwin’s Pulitzer Prize Winner The Carrier of Ladders. I know I had to have boughten it quite awhile ago because the University of Washington bookstore sticker price was $5.95.

After trying to finish it for over six months now, I suspect I may have actually started it but put it aside for another of the books I must have bought at the same time since I could never go the University Bookstore without coming away without a stack of poetry books. Truthfully, I prefer Merwin’s later poems more than these early ones, though I haven’t quite figured out why that might be.

I suspect that one of the problems is that he doesn’t seem to have a particular strong “voice,” at least in this collection, and I’ve always preferred poets with a strong personal vision. I wonder if he was so influenced by the many translations he was doing that the found it difficult to develop his own vision. I’ll also have to admit that I have seldom been fond of collections of poetry from different poets; even as a college freshman if I found a poet I particularly like in a survey class I would go buy a volume of his/her poetry and read that instead of reading the assigned poems. Turned out that wasn’t a truly effective way of getting good grades, but grades were never particularly important to me anyway.

Though I might not be the best judge of this particular book of poetry, I did mark several poems for further study. As you can probably guess, I strongly identify with “Kin.”

Kin

Up the west slope before dark
shadow of my smoke
old man

climbing the old men’s mountain

at the end
birds lead something down to me
it is silence

they leave it with me
in the dark
it is from them

that I am descended

This almost sounds like a summary of my retirement years when I finally discovered birding. I suspect it is birding, and perhaps my return to photography, that has even made me fonder of poems that rely on imagery rather than mere words to reveal their vision.

Which, of course, is not to say that I only like concrete, imagist poems, as shown by Merwin’s

THE CHAFF

Those who cannot love the heavens or the earth
beaten from the heavens and the earth
eat each other
those who cannot love each other
beaten from each other
eat themselves
those who cannot love themselves
beaten from themselves
eat a terrible bread
kneaded in the morning shrouded all day
baked in the dark
whose sweet smell brings the chaff flying like empty hands
through the turning sky night after night
calling with voices of young birds
to its wheat

I must admit I don’t really know what this poem means, particularly those last lines from which the poem derives its title, but there is enough truth in those opening lines to make the poem intriguing. Though this poem appears later than the previous poem, it seems to further develop the same idea.