A Facebook exchange made me remember. A friend posted a line that went:
“Jerry Grillo is filled with fantastic terrors never felt before. Maybe this is a good day to take opium and bury someone alive.”
Most of the people who responded got it. It’s a line from “The Raven” by Poe. It just may be my favorite line of poetry because of its brilliant alliteration: “And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain, thrilled me, filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before.”
When I was young, Tuesday night was Family Night at my house. The seven kids (two came later and never knew the wonder of Family Night) were supposed to memorize a song or a poem and recite it for the fam. I memorized “The Raven,” because it was long and I thought it would impress my parents. My dad was a serious Poe fan. Many of you remember the piece I wrote upon his death, in which I recalled him sitting in the hall outside our bedrooms as we were going to sleep, singing songs (“On The Road to Mandalay,” “Go Tell Aunt Rhodie,” “Sleep, Kentucky Babe”) and reading poems (mostly Poe, including “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee,” but also “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “She Walks in Beauty”).
So I memorized “The Raven.” And Eliot’s “Macavity the Mystery Cat,” which played a significant part in “Cats,” the musical.
Oddly, several days ago, when Atlanta was having a cold snap and a rash of water main breaks, I was called by a reporter from WABE (I am the spokesperson for the City of Atlanta Department of Watershed Management. When something bad happens, I am on the air.). The reporter said, “Just talk for a few minutes while I do a sound check.” So I started, “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore. While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping as of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door…” I got to this part before the reporter said, “Do you know that whole damn thing?”
For a long time now, when I am in a meeting and bored, and I want to appear as if I am paying attention, I will drag out my computer and type, “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary…”
Or the Byron poem, “She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies. And all that’s best of dark and light meet in her aspect and her eyes.”
Or the Robert Louis Stevenson poem with the line that’s engraved on my brother’s tombstone, “Under the wide and starry sky, dig the grave and let me lie. Glad did I live and gladly die, and I laid myself down with a will. This be the verse that you ‘grave for me: Here he lies where he longed to be. Home is the sailor, home from the sea and the hunter home from the hill.”
Once when we were driving from Tampa to Fernandina, we ran into a swarm of butterflies. And my dad, who loved poetry said, “Look! Kamikaze butterflies!” Then he turned to me and said, “You can make a poem out of that. Kamikaze butterflies.”
I took out the pad and pencil from the glove compartment, and for three hours I worked. I would say, “Can we stop and get a Nehi?” and he would say, “Do you have a poem yet?”
Finally, we were about 20 miles from Fernandina, when I said, “I have it!” He said, “Read it to me. If I like it, we’ll stop at the Dairy Queen.”
I read it, and I remember it to this day:
Kamikaze butterfly into my windshield crashed,
And like a raindrop left its mark where other bugs were smashed.
Little did I know that when I started on my ride
My car would be the means of some poor bug’s strange suicide.
I do not know the circumstances leading to his fate.
But someone ought to call his wife and tell her not to wait.
I’d like to stay and write more, but I’d best bid a goodbye,
I have to wash my car now, Kamikaze butterfly.
It was a 13-year-old’s attempt at poetry, but my dad remembered it, virtually word for word almost to the day he died. Poetry, he told me once when he and I were sitting on the back porch at his house, is the way we say what we want to say in a pretty way. He never liked free verse or blank verse. Poetry has to rhyme, he said, or it isn’t poetry. I argued with him to no avail. My mother’s best friend, Nola Perez (https://www.pw.org/content/nola_perez_1) is a published poet. Her poetry does not rhyme, although I think some of it is very nice.
But Jerry Grillo’s Facebook post made me think how little we care about poetry nowadays.
Is it, as my sister, Dot, said, that poetry has become music? Were the poets of our generation Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, Springsteen and Steve Earle? I’d have to agree that their lyrics, sans music, qualify. But that’s the whole point. Their lyrics are lyrics. They’re not poetry. Poetry is lyrics without music. To say, as I have on numerous occasions, that Simon and Garfunkel are the poets of our generation belittles Simon and Garfunkel AND the poets, like Maya Angelou and Allen Ginsberg.
But are Maya Angelou and Allen Ginsberg going to be the kinds of poets that people 10 years from now can quote with the ease that we can quote Byron?
I did a little experiment last night. I called three kids I know: my neighbor’s daughter, Sophie, who goes to Inman Middle School; my niece, Mary Alice, who goes to school in Fernandina; and my goddaughter, Caroline, who goes to Paideia. Sophie says she likes poetry; Mary Alice could quote a few lines from “Annabel Lee;” and Caroline, who is studying Shakespeare’s sonnets right now, could quote a few lines from “Death, Be Not Proud.” Will they be able to quote these poems 10 years from now? I don’t know. I doubt it.
Will they be able to quote any poem? I hope so. But I am not sure. I’d hate to think that poetry is a dying art form. Will Poe and Byron and Shakespeare die out from lack of use? I don’t know, but I am not feeling good about their chances.