…I was hooked on the undulant ballet
of the pattern offense, on the set play
back-door under the basket, and, at times,
even on the auctioneer’s pace and elocution
of play-by-play man. Now I watch
the Lakers, having returned to Los Angeles
some years ago, love them even more than
the Seattle team, long since broken up and aging.
The Lakers are incomparable, numerous
options for any situation, their players
the league’s quickest, most intelligent,
and, it is my opinion, frankly, the most cool.
Few bruisers, they are sleek as arctic seals,
especially the small forward
as he dodges through the key, away from
the ball, rubbing off his man on the screen,
setting for his shot. Then, slick as spit,
comes the ball from the point guard,
and my man goes up, cradling the ball
in his right hand like a waiter balancing
a tray piled with champagne in stemmed glasses,
cocking his arm and bringing the ball
back behind his ear, pumping, letting fly then
as he jumps, popcorn-like, in the corner,
while the ball, launched, slung dexterously
with a slight backspin, slashes through
the basket’s silk net with a small,
sonorous splash of completion.
Garret Hongo is a Japanese-American Pulitzer-Prize winning poet and academic.
I was in graduate school when I heard my first “sports poem,” (besides the obligatory “Casey at Bat.”) Being a typical literary snob, I had low expectations when a fellow student got up to read a “poem about baseball” he’d written. Instead, I was transfixed and transported to a game in media res (in the middle of the action). Since that time, I’ve always kept an ear out for good sports poems and when it comes to sports poetry, the ear is key. To be fully appreciated, it must be experienced out loud. Give it a go with the poem above, and watch how the rhythm and cadence bring the action to life. Sports poetry is the best – bar none – at using onomatopoeia. (Of course that’s just a fancy word for saying that the word sounds a lot like the sound the word is describing. Listen for it in the lines above!)
I gravitated towards “Silk,” since I grew up watching Lakers basketball in its heyday, the “Showtime” Hongo describes in this poem. It is one of the strongest associations I have with my dad: his devotion to NBA basketball and the Lakers in particular. Magic, Kareem, Worthy, and Byron felt like friends who could have dropped by for dinner any night and I still recall classic lines from Chick Hearn, their play-by-play man. In the time before DVRs, Netflix and a TV in every room, my Dad would commandeer the family room and whether we were paying attention or not, we would be captivated by the smack of a blocked shot, the screech of rubber soles on the varnished floor, the thump of the dribble, the swish of a perfect shot, the shrill whistle of a ref’s call , or even the silent flash of Magic Johnson’s enormous grin. This poem reminds me of the countless hours I spent watching a sport I loved, but never had the skills to play. (For the record, my dad did. His ability to still dunk in his forties gave me all sorts of street cred on the playground.)
We often associate poetry with love, vulnerability, and softness, but it wasn’t always that way. All the first poets were men, writing about war and violence, immortality and tragedy. Remember The Iliad and The Odyssey, the epics we were supposed to understand in high school? I’m glad the genre expanded, but I’m also glad that sports poetry carries on, highlighting the beauty and grace of bodies in competition.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
(In this stanza, the narrator is asking for standard funeral conventions of his time to be followed.)
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
(Here he is asking for over-the-top, impractical public displays of grief.)
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
(And here he reveals what the deceased truly meant to him.)
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
(Finally, he articulates the depth of his grief and his vision of what a world without his beloved should look like.)
W.H. Auden is 20th century English poet and literary giant, someone who might show up as an answer to a Jeopardy question. I don’t often relate to his work, but this poem is the exception.
I thought of “Funeral Blues” when I was writing about John O’Donohue, but reading it again brought to mind my many friends who have lost important men in their lives: husbands, fathers, sons. This poem perfectly captures the grief I’ve witnessed in their faces, bodies, eyes, lives. For the most part, their losses were unexpected and so too was the level of disorientation that affected them for months, and sometimes even years, afterwards. The loss of an essential loved one causes us to lose something essential within ourselves as well. How could it not if we share hearts, history and sometimes even DNA?
How does life go on and anyway, why does it?
It takes a long time to answer those questions and each of us must come to our own conclusions. We have to navigate our own way through the unfamiliar topography that is our life after a great loss. Who knows their way around a world with starless nights and sunless days, an oceanless shore and treeless woods? Sometimes, poetry is our best map and guide in those liminal spaces, when we exist between two worlds and find our home in neither of them. What a blessing to have good friends like Auden and O’Donohue, Rilke, Rumi and others to help us find our way.
This poem was brought to widespread popularity by its use in the movie, Four Weddings and a Funeral. If you want to hear a dramatic reading of the poem by Scottish actor, John Hannah, tune in here.
On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.
And when your eyes
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.
When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.
John O’Donohue, an Irish poet, theologian, philosopher and author, passed away in 2008 at the age of 58.
“Beannacht” is the Irish word for “blessing,” but it can also mean goodbye, which is fitting. One would offer a “beannacht” to a loved one as they headed out the door. Our “Bon voyage,” and “Safe travels” pale in comparison to this farewell, but they carry the same sentiment. Unlike our current understanding of a “blessing” as a gift bestowed by God on some and not on others, this is the more ancient practice of offering a “blessing” as a prayer and a sending forth. I’m sorry we’ve lost that tradition, but grateful O’Donohue reclaimed it.
Like any good poet, he uses images, taken from the reality of his daily life and that of his readers, one for each stanza. For whatever befalls you, O’Donohue paints a picture of something in the natural world arising as a corrective to it: clay earth dancing, bright colors flying, yellow moonlight leading. Who wouldn’t feel safer in the world with these hopes wrapped around you? And he rewrites the Irish blessing so many of us are familiar with: “May the road rise up to meet you/ May the wind always be at your back… “, so we can hear anew how the power of the natural world is always at hand to help us on our journey.
It is all beautiful to me, but of course, the end is my favorite part. The true magic of any blessing is the love with which it is given and the open-heartedness with which it is received. Without love, they are empty words; with love, every goodbye is a blessing and every hello, a reunion of hearts.
I have a thing for Irish poets, especially their lilting, lyrical voices, so all the Irish poets I include this month will include a link to the poets reading their poems. I highly encourage a listen! You can listen to John here.
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was a Bengali poet, playwright, musician and essayist, who wrote about everything from spirituality to politics to science. He was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The first time I read this poem, it shattered me, like the mirror it held up so I could see myself. In Tagore’s words, I saw my inevitable posture toward God – hands stretched out in supplication. Though it has been many years and I’ve made a real effort, not much has changed. Though grateful for my blessings, I am often aware of a perceived lack, that little extra “something” that would make my life better. Sometimes it is material, but often it is just a change in circumstance for me, my family, or the world. When I read this poem, I could weep with shame at my greed and blindness. Though healthy, educated, happily married with three children and the means to support them, surrounded by friends and family who love me, living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, I still want more. More youth, more opportunity, more security, more excitement, more clarity. You name it, I’ve probably desired it.
To me, this is a poem about the privilege of having more than we need, more than we’ve earned, more than we can use and still believing that it’s not enough. Blame biology, culture, or consumerism, but our automatic response is to ask for more. This poem reminds me that my “scarcity” is a farce, my “gratitude” is lip service, and that what I truly need is ultimately right here with and within me.
This poem convicts me, but finally ends on a hopeful note. I believe the Presence will come and deliver the gift of itself. After all, it has been waiting to be asked for just that all along.
even better place – half-asleep – where the world,
spring, summer, autumn, winter –
flies through my mind in its
hardy ascent and its uncompromising descent.
So I just lie like that, while distance and time
reveal their true attitudes: they never
heard of me, and never will, or ever need to.
Of course, I wake up finally
thinking, how wonderful to be who I am,
made out of earth and water,
my own thoughts, my own fingerprints –
all that glorious, temporary stuff.
The poet Mary Oliver, or “Moliver” as she is affectionately referred to around our house, is someone you will see pop up a few times this month. She is one of my favorites and there is a theme in her writing I’d like to explore with all of you: the sacrament of Nature, of being present in the moment however it arises and recognizing it for the holy gift it is.
I think this poem is a great start. Meditation and its companion, mindfulness, are buzzwords these days. They are offered as a remedy for everything from stress to chronic pain, as relief from anxiety and exhaustion. They will help us lose weight, sleep well, and even become better “team players” at work and home! Ugh! It kind of drives me crazy, because developing a meditation practice for those things is like taking a prescription drug for its “off-label” side effects. We might experience a relief of our symptoms, but it’s not what it was made for and it’s definitely not going to cure the underlying cause.
But I think Mary’s version of meditation might be just what the doctor ordered, in its gentle and holistic approach.
Lie down somewhere beautiful and let your mind drift. Don’t cling to what you think you’re supposed to do, or feel, or experience. Let life pass you by for a moment, or two and see yourself in the midst of things, where “distance and time” have “never heard of me, and never will, or ever need to.” From that place, we might wake refreshed and perhaps even “cured” of what ailed us in the first place. We might even find ourselves grateful to be in our own bodies and a part of this beautiful world.
Let this poem inspire you! It’s Spring! Go find a tree, a little patch of sunlight, a place where the breeze can kiss your face. Close your eyes and in the words of Rumi, allow yourself “to be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love,” which I hope is yourself and this beautiful, suffering world we live in.
Post Script: I recently acquired a copy of “Moliver’s” newest book, Devotions, as a gift from Tim. I had been on the waiting list at the library for so long and when I finally got my hands on a copy, the weeks just flew by. On the last day it was in my possession, he caught me taking pictures of page after page on my cell phone. (Desperate times call for desperate measures! It took me months to get my hands on it the first time and I didn’t know how long I’d have to wait again.) However, two days later, it was in my mailbox. Though Tim generally supports my book-buying restraint, in this case, it deserved an exception. I highly recommend you put your name on the waiting list at your local library, or maybe even treat yourself to a copy!
From Rumi, a 13th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic.
If you ask anyone who knew me as a child, they will admit I was a late bloomer. My dad’s nickname for me was “Bumper;” I was always running into walls and doors. With the amount of spills I took running across the street, riding a bike, or even just walking down the hall, it sometimes seemed like a struggle just to stay on my own two feet. I’m guessing that’s why I am drawn to this poem.
So often, we dismiss the “lame goats,” the ones who bring up the rear and seem to be in their own world, but this poem reminds us that when we do, we may not have the right perspective. It takes time, and patience to see the whole picture and those are two things most of us have in short supply. The concrete visual imagery of this poem is a powerful reminder to have some patience and faith in the people and things that take a little more time. This is even a lesson we can apply to ourselves when we find ourselves falling behind! Everyone has value and everyone is ahead of the curve somewhere and at some time.
So have pity on the “lame goat” who lags behind, including this writer, who agonized about choosing such a silly poem for today! I wanted to offer something a little lighter than “The Last Supper,” but hope you don’t find it underwhelming. Tomorrow, we’ll get back to some more serious literary work!
It’s one of the few “forced” days of rest. For the most part, you couldn’t go to work, hit the gym, or the local mall.
How did you receive this day?
With joy and relief, or with dread for the too-many-hours set aside for something “special” that maybe didn’t even happen?
However you spent your day, it’s also the beginning of National Poetry Month.
Last year, I joined the poetry experience half way through and shared a poem a day and reflection on Facebook, but this year, I thought I’d celebrate NPM with all of you.
Welcome to Day One.
I have always loved poetry, as a reader, student and teacher.
I am captivated by the diversity, musicality, and creativity of poets across the ages. I love the turns of phrase that surprise, enlighten me and sometimes confound me. It doesn’t bother me to think, “What in the world does that mean?” I actually enjoy the surgical precision it takes to dissect a difficult poem, line by line.
I realize that puts me in the minority when it comes to casual poetry readers, but that’s part of what National Poetry Month is about: spreading the “good news” about poetry far and wide, just like the Apostles did during Easter. (I’m taking the confluence of the two events as a happy accident.)
So for the next thirty days, you’ll receive a “Poem of the Day” from me in your inbox. I know it’s a heavy reading load, so feel free to delete if you aren’t interested, or enjoying them, but please don’t unsubscribe! I’ll be back to my infrequent posting schedule soon enough. And if you find a poem that strikes your fancy, feel free to share it by email or on Facebook, using the links below.
More Love = More Poetry
And without further ado, here is our first poem.
“The Last Supper”
They are assembled around him, troubled and confused.
He seems withdrawn,
as if, strangely, he were flowing past
those to whom he had belonged.
The old aloneness comes over him.
It had prepared him for his deep work.
Now once again he will go out to the olive groves.
Now those who love him will flee from him.
He had bid them come to this last meal.
Their hands on the bread
tremble now at the words he speaks,
tremble in sudden silence
as a forest does when a gun is fired.
They long to leave, and they will.
But they will find him everywhere.
–Book of Images, Ranier Maria Rilke
With Easter landing on the first day of National Poetry Month, this poem by Ranier Maria Rilke seemed an obvious choice. It spans the last few days of Jesus’ life from the Last Supper to the Resurrection (though that event is referenced only obliquely in the last line.) On Holy Saturday, we read the poem aloud as family a few times and I asked them what metaphor, or turn of phrase they noticed, or if there was a line that confused them.
One liked the metaphor of the gun in a forest. He knew exactly what that felt like, the eerie stillness that lingers after a shot, like everything is holding its breath, before it exhales in safety again. Another was struck by how sad it was to think that all the disciples were already on their way out the door, how they “long to leave” and will at the first sign of trouble. I was taken by the description of Jesus “flowing past/ those to whom he had belonged.” It’s a strange image, but one we can probably all relate to.
There have been times in all of our lives where we experience a “dislocation” from our peers. It’s almost a universal experience and it could be anything really – a medical diagnosis, a depression, deep grief after a loss, a shameful mistake we’re not sure we will be forgiven for. Though we try to participate in our communal life, it’s as if a barrier has been set between us, unseeable, but impenetrable nonetheless. I’ve never liked the experience, but rereading this poem, it is revealed as a holy space too, where deep work can be done.
And finally, Easter. Though the disciples were fleeing Jesus, they will “find him everywhere,” just as I do to this day, sometimes where I’m looking, but most of the time, where I’m not. This poem doesn’t offer the big “Alleluia” we’re used to on Easter Sunday, but ecstasy like that never lasts for long anyway. It’s the showing up time and time again that ultimately counts.