Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A POET’S LIFE

Emily Dickinson has been one of my favorite poetesses for a long time, but I had never seen the video of Julie Harris performing in THE BELLE OF AMHERST and recently rented the video made in 1976. It was a riveting performance, and I could relate to the way Dickinson went into voluntary isolation in order to entertain her Muse. I once visited “The Homestead,” Dickinson’s family home in Amherst, and remember standing at the window in her small bedroom, looking out at the Fall sunlight, thinking of her lines, “I’ll tell you how the sun rose, --a ribbon at a time.” A tiny white dress draped the dress form in one corner of her bedroom, and I thought about her description of herself as a “small wren.” Julie Harris’s performance about Emily’s life was filled with pathos, and it was difficult to tell whether the poet or the performer gave the finest performance.

Here in this glorious Spring, I can imagine the delight Emily felt when she reveled in her flower garden. She actually collected, pressed, and classified 424 flower specimens, and was partial to peonies, daffodils, and marigolds, three plants that also grow in my yard here at Sewanee. As a poet who appreciates the rejection of Emily’s poetry, I feel deep sadness that she composed 1800 poems, and only five of them were declared good enough to publish! All the hoorah about “slant lines” and eccentric punctuation has long since died down, and the eminent critic Harold Bloom dubbed her a major poet of the 19th century. Now on the “other side,” she must feel some gratification that she made a distinguished contribution to the body of literature in the world.

In 1986 when I visited Amherst and Emily’s home, one evening I saw an ad in the Amherst newspaper about a poetry reading scheduled in the Jones Library. The reading was to honor Robert Francis, another New England poet who has often been compared to Robert Frost. I knew nothing about Francis but decided to attend the program and when I arrived, I found that the noted poet Richard Wilbur was slated to introduce Francis and announce his birthday. Francis recited, without notes, from his latest book of poetry, much of it written in the minimalist style and delivered with wry inflection. Following the reading, televised by a Boston station, I returned to my room and wrote a poem that later appeared in my chapbook entitled AFTERNOONS IN OAXACA. The cover of this chapbook is my favorite abstract painting by my brother Paul. You can tell more about what went on at the Amherst reading from the content of the poem:

ROBERT FRANCIS READS ON HIS 85TH

Robert Francis, New England poet,
asked to be reminded of apples,
named and no-named, on his 85th,
and in the resonant voice
poems dropped from apple orchards
guarded by scratched door jambs,
the gates of an old library
celebrating a wry old poet.
His gray hair clung thin on narrow skull,
brown spots patched his cheek,
some color of experience,
as he wobbled up to read.
He advertised the perfect man,
one who owned freedom and leisure
to write words unpausing,
words uncompromised,
to be as God,
an intentional philosopher,
Creator of apples.
Robert Francis placed a finger
with far-reaching nail
against his downy chin,
a forgotten pasture of stubble,
and waited to shake the apple tree,
to cause the sudden fall of fruit.
People stood up to give him ovation,
the air rained apples,
enchanted poems,
Robert Frost came out of the night
and peeled a deep russet one.
That evening of celebration,
Francis reminded me that apples made poems,
light filtering through tree limbs,
a harmony of red fruit
rendered just ripe,
are some men’s gifts.
He reminded me
when doubting the mind’s retreat
into its own falsity,
poets see beyond,
are more ancient than scars
on a library stair rail,
flesh made word, word made flesh,
not metaphor and mood, but vowels
crisp as fine apples dropped,
and broadcast to heal…
disturbances of spirit.
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