By Mary Wehner
Like many of my poet friends I have a file of favorite poems by famous and not-so-famous poets. I get these poems from various sources. A good poet-friend David Graham from Ripon College sends a poem he selects every day or so, and another poet from Door County, Ralph Murre, posts poems of regional poets on his blog, http://littleeaglereverse.blogspot.com. I also read poems in various books and journals.
There are many good on-line poetry sources, such as Poetry magazine’s www.poetryfoundation.org filled with wonderful and varied poems, and a great on-line poetry journal based in Wisconsin, Verse Wisconsin at www.versewisconsin.org. Verse Wisconsin also comes in a print version, published in Wisconsin by Madison’s Poets Laureate, Sarah Busse and Wendy Vardaman. I’d encourage you to check out the library and the internet for a sample of many kind of poetry.
Re-reading and copying the poems that have meaning for me is always a pleasure. Poetry means different things to different people. I like to think that poetry is about song, well crafted language, and of course, an emotional component, whether it be simply its musicality or simply its meaning. And, I suggest that poems be memorable in some way, if only for the one or two words or lines that stick.
Recently I read a wonderful long poem by Jim Harrison, in which two lines made me sit down and write a kind of response—not to the poem, but to the line.
Here are the lines from In the Golden Window by Jim Harrison
…seventy days on the river with a confusion between
river turbulence and human tribulation. We are here
to be curious not consoled.”
This is my response:
There is so little consolation on a bleak day
where loud flights of geese and strong winds rise up
like a day made for judgement.
Yet in the gray lakes’ far-off edge there is one
thin settled line of equilibrium
that keeps us breathing.
And speaking of favorite poems, the Foot of the Lake Poetry Collective has a special event every year in a winter month called the “Favorite Poem Project.” It is an idea taken from the project of former United States Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky.
The US Poet Laureate often suggests a project during his or her tenure. Robert Pinsky’s “Favorite Poem Project” took shape in 1997 shortly after Pinsky was appointed the 37th Poet Laureate of the United States. Much to his surprise, his plan, to ask people to submit their favorite poem, was an amazing success. Ordinary people from all over the Country sent in their favorite poems and were recorded for the library of Congress. You can access many of them at www.favoritepoem.org/project.html The first year 18,000 people submitted their favorite poem. It remains an ongoing program.
The Poet Laureate of the United States is chosen every few years by the Library of Congress.
He or she may present a project during the tenure, but is not required to do anything but represent poetry for our nation. It is a long standing position begun in 1937 with the appointment of Joseph Auslander. The current position is occupied by poet, Natasha Trethewey.
Many states and even citys have their own Poet Laureate. Each has different requirements and arrangements. We are lucky to have such an honorable position in Wisconsin. Governor Tommy Thomson in 2000 appointed the first seven person commission to select candidates for the Poet Laureate two year position, with the final selection made by the Governor. Governor Doyle kept up the tradition. Anyone could suggest a name, including poets who wished to be appointed. It was, and still is a careful, lengthy process.
Until recently, the Wisconsin Poet Laureate was given a yearly $2000 honorarium for his or her traveling and incidental expenses, after approval by the legislature. Things have changed. After Governor Scott Walker was elected, he dissolved the position in a move to save money for the state. The Wisconsin Academy graciously stepped in to provide continued stewardship for the Wisconsin Poet Laureateship, but without the ability to provide the much needed funding. The present commission is out beating the bushes to keep our wonderful new poet laureate, Max Garland, on the road. Any contribution is very much appreciated, and can be sent via www.wisconsinacademy.org
Our state has had five Poet Laureates: Ellen Kort, Denise Sweet, Marilyn Taylor, Bruce Dethlefsen and currently, Max Garland, a highly respected and well-known poet from Eau Claire. Each of these poets are included in my list of favorite poets. Here are a few poems:
The Oven Clock Says 4:44
The Oven Clock says 4:44
quick listen to the tick of it
tonight not quite
tomorrow yet my friend
the time will come
when end is ended
the light on the black
and white linoleum
no longer shines
when I am died
and done will finally
rhyme with gone
right now resign to fight
with all your might
the silent clock
To My Neighbor John, Who Is Completely Happy
That midnight warble in the summer dark
is you, John, singing your way home
from the Rehab Center where you work
evenings– one out of kilter chromosome
has never slowed you down. Your nightly whoop
floods the neighborhood with so much bliss
that my Dalmatian springs from sleep
and opens up her throat to harmonize
with you– along with every other canine
in a one-mile radius. Soon the air
is vibrating for blocks with strains
of an unearthly sweetness– prayers
rising from the bottom of the brain,
an ode to joy, with tabernacle choir.
And another poem I recently found and have read over and over by Max Garland who is tirelessly presenting poetry in schools, in libraries and in odd small locations all over the state. Max lives in Eau Claire and is on the road every week demonstrating the value of poetry in our lives.
The water winks open, the loon
is sewn onto the moonlit lake.
The lights of the far shore
could be anyone’s necklace.
Wind rakes a little texture
across the surface. The loon
is the one live thing
on the lake, except the soul
which is debatable, and could
be the fading habitat of God,
or merely like this stain
the moon makes the water wear–
exquisite, migratory. Dive
you want to say
but the loon is light as thread,
far away and whatever you lack
cannot be wished under.
Morrison Park, Lake Monona
Cathryn Cofell, a member of the Foot of the Lake Poetry Collective sent her favorite
Fedoras: Max Garland
They come out of the 1940’s
to be your parents. Their faces
swim and settle into clarity.
The crook of an arm. The fount
of a breast. They come from
the time before your life,
before the things that fill
your life. Before water
sprang from the faucet. Before
television loomed in the corner
and even the house cats gathered
to watch. They come from after
the war, when all the movies
were jubilant, even the sad ones
bloodless. It’s as if you
were handed down to them,
as if you were a pearl
they would polish into life.
From times of great difficulty
they come, though speaking
with a deep nostalgia,
lowering the language to you
like a ladder, rung by rung.
Before you existed, they are,
which is like something
out of the Bible. Out of
their own childhoods they come
to be stricken with this,
to be stricken with time,
of which you are the immediate
symptom. Bringing their jewelry
and shaving brushes, wearing
their fedoras and hairdos,
they come to be your parents.
You have your father’s eyes
someone says. But no, you
have your mother’s face and eyes
is the more common opinion.
They send you wobbling out
like a top in front of them.
The wind could almost bowl
you over. You turn back
and they are dressed
like characters in a movie
or a dream. You turn back
and this is love. Your own name
sinks in and separates you.
Finally, I’d encourage you to come out for the Favorite Poem night at THELMA on Tuesday January 14th at 7 p.m. It’s free, and refreshments are available. Bring a favorite poem to read or just come down to hear our line-up of local Celebrities who will read their favorite poems. It is always great fun. One year our City Manager, Tom Herre recited and sang TAPS, a poem of great depth and emotion, seldom considered a poem. There is poetry all around us. Just slow down and read a couple of lines and you too will become a fan.
Mary Wehner – Foot of the Lake Poets Collective