Saturday, April 4, 2009

National Poetry Month

April is national poetry month. And these first few days of April also mark the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first examination of the heavens with a telescope. What a remarkable experience that must have been! Suddenly to see the shadowy edges of craters on the moon and canals on Mars! Even today, when you consider the fact that there’s a huge ball of dust and dirt circling the earth, and an even larger one off in the distance (to put it mildly) warming us with its thermonuclear heat—when you stop to think about it, it’s really quite remarkable.

And then you see the fuzzy tips of the magnolia tree opening in response to the increasing light, and the mallards bobbing their heads in a timeless mating ritual.

We passed two mallards engaging in this activity on the south end of Lake Harriet yesterday. The lake is still largely covered with ice, though it’s getting pretty gray and thin. A hundred yards down the way we spotted a second mallard—a male—floating idly in the water a few feet some shore, all by himself. I knew just what he was thinking. The same thing Hank Williams was thinking when he wrote:

Somebody else stood by your side,
And he looked so satisfied,
I can’t help it, if I’m still in love with you.

Poetry erupts, perhaps, when we stop to think about it. The awesomeness of the universe or the painfulness of our own loneliness and dejection. In either case it’s a matter of sizing up a situation in which we stand apart yet recognize something very valuable, very beautiful, lying just beyond our reach. This is an art worth cultivating, I think. It gives us pleasure, it gives us perspective, it allays our anxieties—and it doesn’t cost anything.

I was thumbing through a book of poems this afternoon by a Kashimi-American poet named Agha Shahid Ali. Though they often had the clear simple voice and short sentences that I like, I was not entirely enthralled by them. Too many moons and deserts and long phone calls home to the folks in the mountains ten thousand miles away, perhaps. But a remark in the introduction did strike my fancy. When asked what his philosophy was, Ali once replied, “I don’t have a philosophy, I have a temperament.”

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