Posts Tagged ‘literature & poetry’

fledglinghuntingWhen despair for the world grows for me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake rests,
in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things,
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief,
I come into the presence of still water,
and I feel above me the dayblind stars,
waiting with their light,
for a time, I rest in the grace of the world,
and am free.

(”The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry)

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We all remember that special teacher who inspired us to learn or better ourselves.
This human interest story from the Chicago Tribune finds the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple connecting with his aging English teacher:

    Their friendship: Pure poetry
    Verse by verse, ex-student leads retired teacher out of darkness after stroke
    By Manya A. Brachear
    Tribune reporter
    Photo by Chris Walker, Tribune
    August 31, 2009

    In the well-appointed drawing room of an Evanston retirement home one recent afternoon, Rev. Philip Blackwell sat beside his former teacher George Ariffe, poring over volumes of poetry that were dog-eared, creased and yellowed by the passing of time.
    Ariffe tapped a page, prompting Blackwell to begin reading Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” with a cadence the teacher instilled in his pupil decades ago:

    Ah, love, let us be true

    To one another!

    for the world, which seems

    To lie before us like a land of dreams,

    So various, so beautiful, so new,

    Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

    Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

    Ariffe, who has great difficulty speaking and cannot read or write because of a stroke, listened intently, nodding his affirmation when Blackwell read the closing stanza.

    Many of us have that teacher who left an indelible mark on our lives. For Blackwell, pastor of Chicago’s First United Methodist Church, that hero is Ariffe, his former high school English teacher.

    Rather than merely read John Milton and William Shakespeare, Ariffe made his students memorize lines, believing they could draw value from the verses later in life.

    In the days immediately after the stroke on April 13, the 85-year-old teacher struggled to find his words and the will to live. When Blackwell visited his former teacher for the first time four days after his stroke, Ariffe uttered only one sentence that Blackwell could comprehend: “I want to die.”

    “This was one of those teachers that changed your life because they opened worlds you hadn’t imagined,” Blackwell said.

    So he set out to do the same for his teacher, using the poetry they both treasured. “What I was looking for was a language he and I could share that was … significant,” Blackwell said.

    Blackwell bought a copy of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” at a secondhand bookstore and read the verses when he returned to his teacher’s bedside on May 6.

    There lives more faith in honest doubt,

    Believe me, than in half the creeds.

    “It’s not my job to tell people whether they want to die or not,” Blackwell said. “I wanted him to know he was not outside the faith if he wanted to die and still had grand questions about why things are the way they are.”

    It was the least Blackwell could do for a teacher who had encouraged him more than four decades earlier.

    In 1960, Ariffe’s classroom was a sanctuary for Blackwell, the new kid at Libertyville-Fremont Consolidated High School, trying to establish an identity of his own.

    “My junior year was really an awkward year,” Blackwell recalled. “There was an in-group, and I wasn’t in it.”

    In Ariffe’s classroom, Blackwell memorized passages from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” and Milton’s “On His Blindness.”

    “I would say that George’s class helped to place me,” Blackwell said. “Having read all that Shakespeare and learned those poems and gone to see ‘Antigone,’ his class opened up some options for me that I went back and claimed.”

    The following year, half the students at Libertyville-Fremont, including Blackwell, became the first senior class at Mundelein High School. Blackwell played trombone in the marching band, served on the student council and played football and basketball. He credits Ariffe for enabling him to memorize a script and star in the school play. He also graduated as valedictorian.

    Meanwhile, Ariffe had embarked on his own adventure, taking a sabbatical to co-edit four volumes of English literature from the 5th to 20th Centuries. After helping to select what he believed were the quintessential works of English literature, he wrote commentaries and biographies of the authors.

    Three days before Easter in 1967, Blackwell visited his favorite teacher to fill him in on his progress and his plans. A first-year student at Yale Divinity School, Blackwell was headed to England for an internship.

    Ariffe presented him with a goodbye gift — autographed copies of his opus. Volume I had the longest inscription: “Very best wishes to my good friend and favorite clergyman, Phil.”

    Though Blackwell was not yet ordained, the inscription assured him that his teacher approved of his career path. This year, the gift sparked a new chapter of their friendship.

    On May 11, Blackwell unearthed the collection from his library and carried it to the Presbyterian Home in Evanston where Ariffe lay recuperating. Ariffe could not articulate his thoughts, but Blackwell would remind him that he once did by reading those words back to him. He started with Milton’s lament “On His Blindness,”composed before Milton wrote his masterpiece, “Paradise Lost.”

    When I consider how my light is spent,

    Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

    And that one talent which is death to hide

    Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

    Ariffe seemed consumed by a darkness similar to Milton’s. Still insisting he wanted to die, he had refused food since entering the hospital.

    “I’d always been struck both by the pathos of an artist who lost his capacity to create and then also the affirmation that you can serve even when you’re mute or inactive or sidelined in some way,” Blackwell said.

    That following Sunday, May 17, Blackwell preached on the New Testament’s John 15, in which Jesus invites his disciples to be his friends. Blackwell told his congregation about his friend and beloved teacher.

    The Preacher & The Teacher

    The Preacher & The Teacher

    “True friendship,” he said, “is abiding, not fleeting; it is deep, not shallow. It includes giving of one’s self to another and receiving what another person has to give to us.”

    When Blackwell arrived by Ariffe’s bedside later that day, he learned the patient had started to eat. The pastor read Gerald Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” a poem about the persistent presence of God despite humanity’s failures to do right by him.

    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

    And though the last lights off the black West went

    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs

    Blackwell continued to note a shift in Ariffe’s personality, a determination to recover that Blackwell had not sensed before. The new fighting spirit inspired him to read “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas on May 25.

    Do not go gentle into that good night,

    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    “I thought: ‘George does not have access to his vocabulary, but he and I share vocabulary in large part because he gave it to me — these poems,’ ” Blackwell said. “If I read back to him his vocabulary, not only might there be some meaning in it, it might be a technique for him to retrieve some capacity to speak.”

    As the world outside has transformed from spring to summer toward fall, the poems have evolved too. Robert Browning’s “Prospice” was the first poem Blackwell read to Ariffe in May with the future in mind.

    O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again,

    And with God be the rest!

    Since then, words have slowly returned to Ariffe. Short simple sentiments occasionally roll off his tongue. But he frequently trips on the phrases “I wonder” and “I want,” never quite completing the thought after an hour of trying. A booklet of pictures and labels helps him communicate.

    Blackwell and Ariffe don’t need that picture book. Ariffe recently surprised Blackwell with a hardcover copy of his anthology returned from his parents’ estate and inscribed to “Mom and Pop.” Blackwell now reads from that edition when he goes to see Ariffe.

    One afternoon this month, Ariffe looked at the reporter in the room and clasped his hand to his chest. He had tried unsuccessfully for an hour to convey an important point. But now what Ariffe had to say rolled right off his tongue.

    “This one’s the best,” he said, gesturing toward Blackwell. “I’m so glad.”


    Copyright © 2009, Chicago Tribune

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Taste the Love (From the Meaty Poetry Dept.)

anne lamott
Love (III)
by George Herbert,
Anglican priest and a poet for the ages

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”:
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

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(For Adam McKay)

Holy holy holy Lord
holy holy holy

for everything that lives is holy
everything that is, is holy
in its early innocence
as a clear and shining stream
a child or lamb at play in the early sun;
in wholeness too of honey
lovely leaning earth
or father welcoming a long-lost son

Holy holy holy Lord
holy holy holy
World is full of glory
Praise Praise

Blessed are those who love the turning earth
who celebrate the sun and air
and seek a true creative god

Blessed are those who find each other’s good
who share and generate their joys
and care, through pain and weakness

Blessed are those who strive for justice, peace
who keep the fires of hope alight
in a world of dark and danger

Blessed are those who transcend fear
who live abundantly in face of death
and look for the life to come

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2008-2-8-mary-oliver-hi-resWild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

© Mary Oliver

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the hour
and the bell; grant me, in your mercy,
a little more time. Love for the earth
and love for you are having such a long
conversation in my heart. Who knows what
will finally happen or where I will be sent,
yet already I have given a great many things
away, expecting to be told to pack nothing,
except the prayers which, with this thirst,
I am slowly learning.

— Mary Oliver, Thirst,

“Little Summer Poem Touching The Subject Of Faith”
Mary Oliver

Every summer
I listen and look
under the sun’s brass and even
into the moonlight, but I can’t hear

anything, I can’t see anything —
not the pale roots digging down, nor the green
stalks muscling up,
nor the leaves
deepening their damp pleats,

nor the tassels making,
nor the shucks, nor the cobs.
And still,
every day,

the leafy fields
grow taller and thicker —
green gowns lofting up in the night,
showered with silk.

And so, every summer,
I fail as a witness, seeing nothing —
I am deaf too
to the tick of the leaves,

the tapping of downwardness from the banyan feet —
all of it
beyond any seeable proof, or hearable hum.

And, therefore, let the immeasurable come.
Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine.
Let the wind turn in the trees,
and the mystery hidden in the dirt

swing through the air.
How could I look at anything in this world
and tremble, and grip my hands over my heart?
What should I fear?

One morning
in the leafy green ocean
the honeycomb of the corn’s beautiful body
is sure to be there.

“Morning Poem”

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

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There is a community of the spirit.

Join it, and feel the delight

of walking in the noisy street

and being the noise.

Drink all your passion,

and be a disgrace.

Close both eyes

to see with the other eye.

From Essential Rumi
by Coleman Barks

Cathedral Rock

Cathedral Rock

Moving Water

When you do things from your soul, you feel a river

moving in you, a joy.

When actions come from another section, the feeling

disappears. Don’t let

others lead you. They may be blind or, worse, vultures.

Reach for the rope

of God. And what is that? Putting aside self-will.

Because of willfulness

people sit in jail, the trapped bird’s wings are tied,

fish sizzle in the skillet.

The anger of police is willfulness. You’ve seen a magistrate

inflict visible punishment. Now

see the invisible. If you could leave your selfishness, you

would see how you’ve

been torturing your soul. We are born and live inside black water in a well.

How could we know what an open field of sunlight is? Don’t

insist on going where

you think you want to go. Ask the way to the spring. Your

living pieces will form

a harmony. There is a moving palace that floats in the air

with balconies and clear

water flowing through, infinity everywhere, yet contained

under a single tent.

From The Glance
Translated by Coleman Barks

About Rumi, from Wickapedia:
According to Shahram Shiva, one reason for Rumi’s popularity is that
Rumi is able to verbalize the highly personal and often confusing world of personal/spiritual growth and mysticism in a very forward and direct fashion. He does not offend anyone, and he includes everyone. The world of Rumi is neither exclusively the world of a Sufi, nor the world of a Hindu, nor a Jew, nor a Christian; it is the highest state of a human being — a fully evolved human. A complete human is not bound by cultural limitations; he touches every one of us. Today, Rumi’s poems can be heard in churches, synagogues, Zen monasteries, as well as in the downtown New York art/performance/music scene.
According to Professor Majid M. Naini, Rumi’s life and transformation provide true testimony and proof that people of all religions and backgrounds can live together in peace and harmony. Rumi’s visions, words, and life teach us how to reach inner peace and happiness so we can finally stop the continual stream of hostility and hatred and achieve true, global peace and harmony.
In other verses in the Masnavi, Rumi describes in detail the universal message of love:

Lover’s nationality is separate from all other religions,
The lover’s religion and nationality is the Beloved (God).

The lover’s cause is separate from all other causes
Love is the astrolabe of God’s mysteries.

Rumi’s major work is the Spiritual Couplets, a six-volume poem regarded by some Sufis as the Persian-language Qur’an. It is considered by many to be one of the greatest works of mystical poetry.
Rumi’s other major work is the Great Work. orThe Works of Shams of Tabriz; named in honor of Rumi’s inspiration and Master, the great dervish Shams, and comprising some forty thousand verses. Several reasons have been offered for Rumi’s decision to name his masterpiece after Shams; some argue that since Rumi would not have been a poet without Shams, it is apt that the collection be named after him.

Rumi’s universality
It is often said that the teachings of Rumi are universal in nature. For Rumi, religion was mostly a personal experience and not limited to logical arguments or perceptions of the senses. Creative love, or the urge to rejoin the spirit to divinity, was the goal towards which every thing moves. The dignity of life, in particular human life (which is conscious of its divine origin and goal), was important.

I searched for God among the Christians and on the Cross and therein I found Him not.
I went into the ancient temples of idolatry; no trace of Him was there.
I entered the mountain cave of Hira and then went as far as Qandhar but God I found not.
With set purpose I fared to the summit of Mount Caucasus and found there only ‘anqa’s habitation.
Then I directed my search to the Kaaba, the resort of old and young; God was not there even.
Turning to philosophy I inquired about him from ibn Sina but found Him not within his range.
I fared then to the scene of the Prophet’s experience of a great divine manifestation only a “two bow-lengths’ distance from him” but God was not there even in that exalted court.
Finally, I looked into my own heart and there I saw Him; He was nowhere else.

All day and night, music,
a quiet, bright
reedsong. If it
fades, we fade.

Never be without rememberance of Him,
for His rememberance
gives strength and wings
to the bird of the Spirit.
If that objective of yours
is fully realized, that is
“Light upon Light”…
…But at the very least, by
practicing God’s rememberance
your inner being
will be illuminated
little by little and
you will achieve
some measure of detachment
from the world.

— Jelaluddin Rumi

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Wendall Berry

Wendall Berry

From enotes.com: About Wendall Berry
American poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and translator.

In his poetry and prose, Berry documents the rural lifestyle of his native Kentucky. He often draws upon his experiences as a farmer to illustrate the dangers of disrupting the natural life cycle and to lament the passing of provincial American traditions. Like Henry David Thoreau, with whom he has been compared, Berry is also regarded for his pragmatic and even-tempered approach to environmental and ecological issues.

Biographical Information
The son of an attorney, Berry was born and raised in a rural area of Kentucky. He attended college at the University of Kentucky, receiving his graduate degree in 1957. After a few years teaching at Georgetown College, he received a Wallace Stegner fellowship for fiction in 1958-1959. In 1961 he was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, which took him to Italy and France. After briefly holding a teaching position at New York University, he followed the five previous generations of his family and began farming in Port Royal, Kentucky. It was not long before he rejected modern agricultural methods and farm machinery in favor of more traditional and conservational means; this concern for the land is a defining theme of his poetry and prose. He began teaching at the University of Kentucky in 1964, eventually resigning his position to work on his farm full-time. He now works as a contributing editor for New Farm Magazine, a periodical devoted to small farming.

Major Works
In his verse, Berry utilizes conventional stylistic techniques to demonstrate how the ordering and healing qualities of nature should be allowed to function in human life. In such volumes as The Broken Ground, Openings, Farming: A Handbook, and Collected Poems, 1957-1982, he often adopts an elegiac tone to convey his agrarian values and appreciation of traditional moral concerns. Furthermore, he explores recurring themes such as the beauty of the countryside, the turning of the seasons, the routines of the farm, the importance of marriage, the cycle of life, and the dynamics of the family. In his collections Sabbath and Sabbaths, 1987-90, Berry underscores the spiritual connection between man and the wilderness, perceiving nature as a place of meditation and rebirth for man.

Critical Reception
Although a few reviewers deem Berry’s poetry antiquated and moralistic, most applaud his versatility and praise him for his appreciation of nature and ecological concerns. His poetry and prose appeals to a variety of readers, including environmentalists, but scholars often debate his emphasis on the relationship between “culture” and “agriculture.” Some commentators classify Berry as a regionalist poet, in the sense that his work is deeply rooted in the concerns and cadences of his native Kentucky; however, his interest in ecological conservation and familial values are universal and topical themes. Berry is considered an eloquent and influential voice in twentieth-century American poetry.

Here’s a sampling of Berry’s poetry . . . . .
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

“Spiritual Journey”

And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles,
no matter how long,
but only by a spiritual journey,
a journey of one inch,
very arduous and humbling and joyful,
by which we arrive at the ground at our feet,
and learn to be at home.

I go among the trees and sit still.

All my stirring becomes quiet

around me like circles on water.

My tasks lie in their places where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Then what is afraid of me comes

and lives a while in my sight.

What it fears in me leaves me,

and the fear of me leaves it.

It sings, and I hear its song.

Then what I am afraid of comes.

I live for a while in its sight.

What I fear in it leaves it,

And the fear of it leaves me.

It sings and I hear its song.

After days of labor,

mute in my costernations,

I hear my song at last,

and I sing it. As we sing,

The day turns, the trees move.

“On Earth Day: Song in a Year of Catastrophe”

I began to be followed by a voice saying:

“It can’t last. It can’t last.

Harden yourself. Harden yourself.

Be ready. Be ready.”

“Go look under the leaves,”

it said, “for what is living there

is long dead in your tongue.”

And it said, “Put your hands

Into the earth. Live close

To the ground. Learn the darkness.

Gather round you all

The things that you love, name

Their names, prepare

To lose them. It will be

As if all you know were turned

Around within your body.”

And I went and put my hands

Into the ground, and they took root

And grew into a season’s harvest.

I looked behind the veil

Of the leaves, and heard voices

That I knew had been dead

In my tongue years before my birth.

I learned the dark.

And still the voice stayed with me.

Waking in the early mornings,

I could hear it, like a bird

Bemused among the leaves,

A mockingbird idly singing

In the autumn of catastrophe:

“Be ready. Be ready.

Harden yourself. Harden yourself.”

And I hear the sound

Of a great engine pounding

In the air, and a voice asking:

“Change or slavery?

Hardship or slavery?”

And voices answering:

“Slavery! Slavery!”

And I was afraid, loving

What I knew would be lost.

Then the voice following me said:

“You have not yet come close enough.

Come nearer the ground. Learn

From the woodcock in the woods

Whose feathering is a ritual

Of fallen leaves,

And from the nesting quail

Whose speckling her hard to see

In the long grass.

Study the coat of the mole.

For the farmer shall wear

The furrows and greenery

Of his fields, and bear

The long standing of the woods.”

And I asked: “You mean death then?”

“Yes,” the voice said. “Die

into what the earth requires of you.”

I let go all holds then, and sank

Like a hopeless swimmer into the earth,

And at last came fully into the ease

And the joy of that place,

All my lost ones returning.

Wendell Berry, The Selected Poems of (New York: Counterpoint)

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The Bible in 50 Words (from Christian Poetry web site)

God made
Adam bit
Noah arked
Abraham split
Joseph ruled
Jacob fooled
Bush talked
Moses balked
Pharaoh plagued
People walked
Sea divided
Tablets guided
Promise landed
Saul freaked
David peeked
Prophets warned
Jesus born
God walked
Love talked
Anger crucified
Hope died
Love rose
Spirit flamed
Word spread
God remained.
(And Jitter Bugged!)

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Screech Owl

All night each reedy whinny
from a bird no bigger than a heart
flies out of a tall black pine
and, in a breath, is taken away
by the stars. Yet, with small hope
from the center of darkness,
it calls out again and again.
Delights & Shadows.

Paul David Mckay | Create Your Badge
Paul David Mckay

Been reading some of the very engaging poety of Ted Kooser, the Pulitzer winner and poet laureate.

If you’re not familiar with him, here’s a blurb that NPR (National Public Radio) did on him in 2005, and a sample of his poetry:

October 19, 2005 (From NPR)

When Ted Kooser sits down to write a poem early each morning, he knows that the chances are low that he’ll find true inspiration.

“I’ve got an armchair down in the living room where I prop a cup of coffee on one arm and set my notebook on my lap,” he says. “And I just sit there under the floor lamp early in the morning and work and see what happens. Nine days out of 10, nothing good comes of it at all. Maybe on the tenth day, if I’m lucky, some little thing will start a poem.”

Some of those poems, written in Kooser’s home in rural Nebraska, turn out pretty well. Kooser is in his second year as the nation’s poet laureate, and won the Pulitzer Prize this spring.

“I feel that I’m really fortunate if at the end of a year, after writing every day, I have a dozen poems I care about,” he says. “That’s plenty. I don’t have great expectations for what happens in those morning sessions. But, you know, if you’re not there writing, it’s never going to happen.”

Kooser grew up in Ames, Iowa, and moved to Lincoln, Neb., for graduate school in poetry.

He worked for life insurance companies for 35 years as an underwriter, and an executive. He’d write poems before dawn, before he left for the office.

Six years ago he retired. But at age 66, there’s still no time to fill his day with writing.

The business of being poet laureate has him traveling the country to conduct workshops and readings to broaden public interest in the art of poetry. He’s started a free weekly column for newspapers that introduces works written by contemporary American poets.

Over the course of this next year, NPR will have more conversations with Kooser about the craft and the pleasures of poetry.

Read some of his stuff:


“There’s never an end to dust
and dusting,” my aunt would say
as her rag, like a thunderhead,
scudded across the yellow oak
of her little house. There she lived
seventy years with a ball
of compulsion closed in her fist,
and an elbow that creaked and popped
like a branch in a storm. Now dust
is her hands and dust her heart.
There’s never an end to it.

from Sure Signs, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980


What once was meant to be a statement—
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise
on a bony old shoulder, the spot
where vanity once punched him hard
and the ache lingered on. He looks like
someone you had to reckon with,
strong as a stallion, fast and ornery,
but on this chilly morning, as he walks
between the tables at a yard sale
with the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt
rolled up to show us who he was,
he is only another old man, picking up
broken tools and putting them back,
his heart gone soft and blue with stories.

from Delights & Shadows, Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA 2004


Today you would be ninety-seven
if you had lived, and we would all be
miserable, you and your children,
driving from clinic to clinic,
an ancient fearful hypochondriac
and his fretful son and daughter,
asking directions, trying to read
the complicated, fading map of cures.
But with your dignity intact
you have been gone for twenty years,
and I am glad for all of us, although
I miss you every day—the heartbeat
under your necktie, the hand cupped
on the back of my neck, Old Spice
in the air, your voice delighted with stories.
On this day each year you loved to relate
that the moment of your birth
your mother glanced out the window
and saw lilacs in bloom. Well, today
lilacs are blooming in side yards
all over Iowa, still welcoming you.

from Delights & Shadows, Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA 2004


At the Cancer Clinic
She is being helped toward the open door
that leads to the examining rooms
by two young women I take to be her sisters.
Each bends to the weight of an arm
and steps with the straight, tough bearing
of courage. At what must seem to be
a great distance, a nurse holds the door,
smiling and calling encouragement.
How patient she is in the crisp white sails
of her clothes. The sick woman
peers from under her funny knit cap
to watch each foot swing scuffing forward
and take its turn under her weight.
There is no restlessness or impatience
or anger anywhere in sight. Grace
fills the clean mold of this moment
and all the shuffling magazines grow still.

from Delights & Shadows, Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA 2004


She was all in black but for a yellow pony tail
that trailed from her cap, and bright blue gloves
that she held out wide, the feathery fingers spread,
as surely she stepped, click-clack, onto the frozen
top of the world. And there, with a clatter of blades,
she began to braid a loose path that broadened
into a meadow of curls. Across the ice she swooped
and then turned back and, halfway, bent her legs
and leapt into the air the way a crane leaps, blue gloves
lifting her lightly, and turned a snappy half-turn
there in the wind before coming down, arms wide,
skating backward right out of that moment, smiling back
at the woman she’d been just an instant before.

from Delights & Shadows, Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA 2004

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Dr. Paul Farmer in Rawanda

Dr. Paul Farmer in Rawanda

Dr. Paul Farmer has often been described as the Albert Schweitzer of the 21rst century.
He’s an amazing man and overachiever, and was the subject of Tracy Kidder’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer: A Man Who Would Cure the World.”
If any mere mortal can save the entire world and cure all the diseases that ail it, it’s Farmer, an unpretentious, and truly humble physician who has brought world-class, first class health care to the poorest of the poor in the most ravaged corners of the world.
He began his renowned medical career by figuring out where the poorest place in the world is–which turned out to be Haiti–and going there to start a hospital.
Sort of like Dr. Schweitzer did when he dropped out of mainstream life as a great musician and theologian and preacher and went to one of the poorest corners of Africa and started practicing medicine.
Kidder’s book about Farmer still stands as the best book I’ve read in at least 10 years–and I only got around to reading it a couple of years ago. I couldn’t put it down, so fascinating is Farmer and the incredibly eccentric but productive and morally high-minded life he’s led and continues to lead.
He’s also very religious, though not in the churchy kind of way, as far as anybody can tell. But he considers himself a practitioner of liberation theology. (Liberation theology, like any theology, is too complicated and often controversial to be summed up in a few words, but the short take on liberation theology is that it takes the view that the Bible contains and bespeaks God having a “preferential option for the poor.”)
Farmer–who’s also renowned as an anthropologist, has been the recipient of, among other honors, a MacArthur Genius Grant.
You’d simply have to read Kidder’s book to believe the childhood he had, but we’ll share some of that story with you in the weeks ahead in this, Dr. Paul Farmer Appreciation Month.
For starters, here’s a portion of an an interview that historian and social comentator Mark Klempner had with Tracy Kidder, Farmer’s biographer

“Tracy Kidder was tired and a bit slaphappy. We laughed often and digressed frequently, though in the interview that follows I’ve mostly cut what was superfluous. It so happens that Kidder had hung out with Paul Farmer two nights before and was still recovering. “That guy — he did it to me again,” Kidder intoned with mock irritation of the globetrotting doctor who only sleeps about two hours a night.
Farmer is the subject of Kidder’s 2003 bestseller Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure The World, the very book I wanted to talk about with him. More than any other of Kidder’s distinguished titles, it revolves around issues of social justice and faith.

Based on Kidder’s voluminous notes from having traveled with and researched his subject for three years, Mountains Beyond Mountains details Farmer’s astonishing accomplishments, starting with his graduating near the top of his class from Harvard Medical School after having barely attended classes because he was already spending most of his time in Haiti trying to bring health care to the poorest of the poor.
With a career that begins like that, the reader wonders what will become of him, and as the answers unfold they evoke incredulity, excitement, and often a resounding “Bravo!”

The good doctor goes on to form an organization, Partners In Health, which is determined to redress the inequitable distribution of health care throughout the world. He and his associates proceed to do just that in a myriad of creative and ingenious ways. Begun on a shoestring in 1987, the organization was receiving multi-million dollar grants by the time Kidder finished the book, and best of all, Farmer and his friends were still doing things their way. Their “whatever it takes” approach, influenced by liberation theology, affirms that each human life is precious and equally deserving of care.

Kidder confided to me that he thinks Mountains Beyond Mountains is his best book. Considering that he has produced one book since, and six previously — for which he has received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Robert F. Kennedy Award — I found this self-assessment interesting. Perhaps an author cannot help but feel at a zenith when he has, as Kidder puts it in the interview, “stumbled onto something extraordinary:” A subject that challenges him to muster all his authorial skill to do it justice.
In Kidder’s case, that involved bringing Farmer’s own pursuit of justice for the poor to life on the page. The result is an absorbing multi-layered narrative in which Farmer emerges as a kind of postmodern Albert Schweitzer whose humanitarian ambitions are as limitless as the starry Haitian sky under which he works.

Mark Klempner: What made you want to devote a book to Dr. Paul Farmer and his organization, Partners In Health?

Tracy Kidder: I had met him in 1994 and found him intriguing, but I think the decisive moment was when I saw his health center in Haiti for the first time in 2000.You travel from the airport along this horrible road where you mostly notice the absence of things: Electricity, arable land, even trees. And after three hours of witnessing unremitting misery all around you –people without food, without shoes– you come to this verdant citadel that provides high-quality medical services to everyone for miles around, regardless of their ability to pay. I remember feeling that if it was possible for this to be here, then anything was possible.

MK: In your previous books, you portrayed people who were close to home, such as the teacher in Among Schoolchildren who was based not far from where you live in Western Massachusetts. But Farmer is mostly based in Haiti, and while you were researching the book, he was rapidly expanding the work to other far-flung places.

TK: As a way of getting to know him, he invited me to come along with him for “a light month of travel.” And as he was sketching out to me where we were going to go, I inwardly gulped. It did turn out to be a lot of travel, with many flights starting before dawn and ending after dark, but I felt it was a privilege to be around him. A priest friend of mine who once said to me, “When you cross the path of a certain kind of person, you ought to really pay attention.” Farmer was one of those persons. But even at the time, I didn’t fully realize the significance of what I was seeing. For instance, he and his staff were developing protocols to treat multi-drug resistant tuberculosis that ended up being adopted all over the world.

MK: One of my favorite sentences in the book is when you have tagged along with him to an important panel on international health, and you write: “It’s easy to drift away on the voices, imagining colors in the accents — pinks and purples from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent, black and white from Japan — and forget that what is really going on is the writing of prescriptions that may affect the lives of billions.”

TK: Yes, the scope of this book was much bigger than any I’d taken on before, and somehow felt more important.

MK: There is also a lot of religion and spirituality in Mountains Beyond Mountains, though it is presented in an understated way.

TK: That parallels Farmer, who is also understated when it comes to religion. Yet his personal history vis-à-vis religion struck me as really important. It took me a while to realize that, and to begin to try to get at it. It is very important to him, but initially I think it was very important because it was so important to his patients. But then something took hold.

I don’t go to church very often, but I came away from this project with a real respect for religious beliefs. The most important conversation I had with him along these lines was the one that comes at the end of the book when he talks about “the long defeat,” a phrase he probably picked up from reading Camus. But his rendering of its meaning struck me as fundamentally religious. You do things as confidently as possible, you try to win your victories, but you’re making common cause with the losers: The poor, the destitute, the vulnerable. So inevitably some of your efforts are going to fail, or maybe most of them, or maybe all of them. But you don’t quit because of that; you don’t change sides because of that. So it points back to why you do what you do in the first place, and the answer has got to have something to do with faith and justice.

I think we’re living in the most meretricious age ever –I mean ever. And Mountains Beyond Mountains is about a man whose values differ radically from those that currently prevail. That might be one reason why tons of colleges have inflicted this book on their incoming freshmen. (laughter)

MK: I can see how students would find Farmer’s gutsy idealism exciting. The appeal of Mountains Beyond Mountains is such that secular readers can get into it, impressed by his medical and humanitarian accomplishments; religious progressives like me get knocked out by it; and even religious conservatives can engage with it, saying, “He’s healing the sick, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and visiting the prisoners.”

MK: After reading the big picture of what he’s trying to do, I came away from the book wanting Farmer to win, I was cheering for him, and I can see how by writing a check I’d be connecting myself with someone who is doing something really vital. As a religious person, I would have to say that what he’s doing is holy work.

TK: And he’s living a life that is pretty free of hypocrisy. Religions command us to do these things, but we don’t. And he does. He showed me more reasons for despair than I had ever seen before, or had ever imagined. And yet, being around him, and the whole crew, was exhilarating. Because I got to see with my own eyes what this small group of people were able to do.

MK: His willingness to devote all his resources and abilities to helping the poor and the sick –usually the same thing, when you look at the world picture– has prompted some people to call him a saint.

TK: The problem with describing a contemporary as a saint is that it can be a way of dismissing a person. If you’re set apart by God, you really aren’t like us, and so we can just stand apart and admire you. And any thought that we can do the same thing goes out the window.

The truth is that what he’s doing was really hard to do at the beginning when he had almost no support and the whole body of conventional wisdom among the international health community was against him. But it’s somewhat different now, and people like Farmer, and the others — Ophelia Dahl, Jim Kim, Tom White — have made it a little easier.

For instance, treating multi-drug resistant tuberculosis in poor countries was almost impossible when they started, but now that Partners In Health has driven the prices of the drugs down by more than 90 percent and they’ve developed protocols for how to treat it . . . I don’t know how many countries it is now, maybe thirty or forty countries, who have adopted those prescriptions. The staff of Partners In Health not only told people how to do it, and proved that it could be done, but they also made it possible for much larger numbers of hospitals to try to do it. So things have opened up now somewhat, and the notion that he’s some kind of saint whose efforts cannot be replicated — because he puts too much love and personal attention into what he is doing — has proven to be false.

MK: The classic archetype of the hero is someone who faces great adversity and overcomes it, and Farmer certainly fits the bill there. But in tales of saints, the protagonist usually overcomes great temptation and it strikes me that Farmer, as portrayed in your book, doesn’t seem to know temptation. For example, when he won the MacArthur “Genius” grant and was awarded $220,000, he just signed the check over to the accountant at Partners In Health to start a new research arm of the organization, and it didn’t seem to occur to him to spend any of it on himself.

TK: Only early on, when he first left the jury-rigged houseboat in the bayou on which he and his family had been living and started attending Duke University did he seem tempted by the idea of wealth and status for a short time. He isn’t very interested in things that interest most people. He doesn’t care about not having a car. He likes comfort and a good meal when they occasionally come his way, but he doesn’t need or crave them. He doesn’t see money as an end in itself, but just as a means to get things done.

I sometimes wondered if the adoration of the Haitians tempted him to some sort of pride or grandiosity, such as when those he was treating would call him a god. But he’s too good an anthropologist to not understand that they’ve been systematically deprived of modern medicine, and when you come along and give them pills that make them well, that’s the way they’re going to react.

So you’re right: he doesn’t seem to have faced any major temptations. But if I were to write his life as a novel, I would slip some vivid temptation scenes in there. (laughter)

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