Thursday, September 10, 2009

"I Am So Over All That Midnight Dreary, Pondering Weak and Weary"

For me, the last couple of decades have been a glorious gambol. Sure, a couple of guys broke my heart, and a slew of annoying fine lines started creeping in around my eyes, but, on the flip side, I began investing in more expensive shoes, spooning every night with a man superior to those who previously dented me, and discovering that a full-time salary can purchase heckalotta dark chocolate.

Oh, and I also realized poetry doesn't always have to make me lie down in a darkened room and long for a pretty boy to place a moist cloth upon my brow.

When I was studying English in college, poetry felt like the suck. I was always, "Huh?" and "What the fetzpah?" and "Who said hummanuh?" in class, cowering in the back row, trying to avoid participation--yet ready to blurt out, if called upon, "It's a Christ figure and/or beauty is a means of conveying the truth! And if neither of those, then dusk is imminent death, and every rose has its thorn!!"

My head came to hate poesy.

Being so negative, I was, thus, primed for a dramatic turnabout. Because--who knew?--there is actually a fair amount of kickass poetry in the world. Too bad Them Alls in Charge don't teach it in the stuffy classrooms.

Hey. Wait. I think I may just be one of Them Alls in Charge these days. On occasion, when I've not been able to sidestep it (such as when one-third of the curriculum in my British Lit class focused on The Romantics, and damn my hide but those poncy absinthe-drinking boys only cranked out rhymers), I've had to bring poetry into my own classrooms, which, yes, are literally quite the hell stuffy because my college is ventilation-impaired and likes to take one big classroom, chop it into three smaller ones, and then not actually consider airflow in the new layout, which means that the new classrooms are generally, kid you not, 86 degrees and that--HELLO, PLATO--is not exactly the best path to good education. Seriously, is there any other more stultifying English equation than poetry + 86 degrees + class held after lunch = kill me now?

So, anyhow, for a variety of reasons, I am profoundly appreciative whenever I find a poet who actually keeps readers awake and writes clear sense in real words and doesn't stress out my fluffy brain or cause my armpits to sweat even a tidge more because then those big perspiration circles would reach down to my waist.

The latest find in my continual search for Poetry That Keeps My Humours in Balance came, as so many good things do, over the airwaves of public radio. Some weeks back, I heard an interview with Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, herself an English teacher, but, in the case of her latest volume of poems, more importantly a mother...whose daughter was murdered--strangled by an ex-boyfriend. In Bonanno's recounting, the poems come together to form a narrative of that event and its aftermath.

Clearly, Slamming Open the Door is not low-density reading.


Bonanno's style is accessible, frank, heartwrending. Most refreshing of all, she's one poet whom I'm pretty sure I'd like, were I to meet her. I would like to invite her to come sweat and do a reading in my non-ventilated classroom.

I would bring her a Frappucino. At the end, the students would clap with more than vegetative politeness, for she would leave them sitting up straight, amazed at the power of a words strung together with great deliberation.

Here, then, is an introduction to Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, a woman who will make a true English major of me yet (in this, my 19th year of teaching English). In this poem, she draws upon the experience of her daughter's memorial service and dispenses advice to all mourners, everywhere:

"What Not to Say"

Don’t say that you choked

on a chicken bone once,

and then make the sound,

kuh, kuh, and say

you bet that’s how she felt

Don’t ask in horror

why we cremated her

And when I stand

in the receiving line

like Jackie Kennedy

without the pillbox hat,

if Jackie were fat

and had taken

enough Klonopin

to still an ox,

and you whisper,

I think of you

every day,

Don’t finish with

because I’ve been going

to Weight Watchers

on Tuesdays and wonder

if you want to go too.


Jazz said...


Anonymous said...


I've been reading more and more poetry, getting really into it--there is a whole lot of great stuff out there. Two I've just discovered: I Wish I Had a Heart Like Yours, Walt Whitman, by Jude Nutter; and Becoming the Villainess, by Jeannine Hall Gailey.

Pearl said...

Joce, that was the coolest thing ever. I would attend that class, remain awake, AND ask questions.

Hummanuh hummanuh.


jess said...

Ah ha ha, that picture is TEH AWESOME! Where did you find it? I love the poem, I agree about the romantics. Zzzzz. How do you feel about Billy Collins?

ArtSparker said...

Nicholson Baker's new novel about a stumped poet, The Anthologist, got a very good review from David Orr in the NYT book Review.

Shieldmaiden96 said...

I found myself enjoying Mary Oliver and Marge Piercy in college, even if they caused me to contemplate death, my uterus, and the eventual effect of time and gravity on my then Pert Pair a little overmuch. It was far less uncomfortable than standing in a circle yelling 'Howl' at each other (Thanks, Dr. Jolliff, for THAT particular 15 minutes of yikes.)

monica said...

wow, knowing the pre story of the poem I giggled with a lump in my throat.... I am so sorry for her loss - the world can really be a terrible place...

Becky Cazares said...

Okay, this is weird. My husband (the poet in the family) expounded to me about this book and author just last month and how I should find it for him. Then, this very morning, as I drove past the Poetry Center at school I tried desperately to dredge up from deep recesses a tiny smidgen about either to pop in to the poetry library and pick it up - but couldn't. Now I have both title and author! I'll get it for him tomorrow.

Pam said...

Oh Jocelyn! Kiss kiss kiss. I love poetry. Just love it. I search for it like others search out a great pair of shoes, or fish for that mighty perch. The thrill of the chase, the joy of the find.You have some great poets. I'm on the mailing list for your U.S. Poetryfoundation. It's a great site, and inspiring.Thanks for this post, and all the best with your teaching.It's a mission of mine to prove that you don't have to tolerate poetry fitting like a bad choose poetry that suits.Great post!

Fragrant Liar said...

Okay, ya got me. I'm going to check her out. She rocks.

And so do you, btw, Mz. English Teacher.

Shania said...

I'm always looking for new reading material, so thanks for that!

and I offer you my deepest sympathy for having to teach anything right after lunch.

geewits said...

That's intense. Maybe the WW person was just trying to get her out of the house. But yeah, the timing was really bad.

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

That was a great poem. And I confess I have tried and failed to read olde englishe poetrie with comprehension and appreciation.

But to my credit I'm reading Treasure Island aloud to Mr. T and we're BOTH understanding it, so Yay on that!

Jeni said...

Strangely enough, I've always liked most poetry. (My friends would probably say that is because I am well, just plain strange though.) Granted, I have come across plenty of poetry that also left me really confused and that I didn't have a freaking clue what the hell it was all about over the years. But then, that could often sum up much of my life itself too much of the time.
The book you recommend -one I haven't read (hadn't heard of it till you mentioned it here) does sound like one I would want to read though. And yes, 86 degrees in a classroom -trying to read poetry or anything "olde Englandish" is cruel and unusual punishmnent for sure.

chelle said...

I always tried to get into poetry but it is so not my thing.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Wow. Holy shit. That's poetry. I've never heard of this woman/mother/poet before, so thank you for the introduction.

I always liked Muriel Rukeyser and Paul Engel (creator of the Iowa Writer's Workshop,) both of whom exemplify "real" as opposed to precious, posturing poetry.

Michelle Wells Grant said...

Oh man. Amazing. I was an English major as well but never did anything English-y with it, professionally, that is. (I do write here and there.) I love that you've been teaching for so long! I'll now look for Bonanno. I just discovered Erica Jong as a poet, not realizing that she is aka Erica Mann, the poet who wrote one my favorite poems called Autumn Perspective. I've loved that poem forever, even sent my daughter off to college with it tucked into her suitcase. Never knew they were one and the same. Thought provoking post! Thank you!

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

Incredible. The list of things I need to read is getting mighty lengthy.

Logophile said...

ok, I will admit to being a poetry lover
I have a confession to make;
(lean in a little closer. I'll try not to spit on the 'p's and 'b's)
I have NEVER taken a college poetry class because I KNEW they would spoil it for me.
My sister took a poetry class in her sophomore year of college while I was still in high school (and there I only did a poetry appreciation course) and although we grew up in a home where poetry was loved and often read she HATED the class. I learned from this.

Anyway, I shall be forward just for a moment and suggest you check this out:

Although the front page today is E. Barrett Browning, whom I would bet good money is NOT your cuppa tea but they have also featured Auden, whom I personally ADORE
and then some other, also fun
or touching poems

You can subscribe to the almanac and they will send it right to your inbox and you can listen to Garrison Keillor read it if you like.

lime said...

she has conjured a surreal moment honestly and effectively. and really, isn't that what the very best poets do? capture something honestly.

in an entirely opposite direction and just for a bizarre twist, may i recommend zombie haiku by ryan mecum.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for passing along this recommendation.

You might also enjoy Lisa Zimmerman's "How the Garden Looks From Here" . . .

cathy said...


Midlife Jobhunter said...

Oh, I liked that.

I've always had such difficulty with poetry. Always makes me feel stupid. English major that I am hasn't helped with the understanding. I continue to try.

I think I would like you very much as a teacher. Ventilation or not.

AmyTree said...

Right! I'm buying that book (and the Zombie Haiku that Lime recommended!). I have a darling friend who LOVES poetry and is always looking for something new - thank you!!!!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Jocelyn, I've been trying since yesterday to comment on your sunflower post but there is a large gray square covering the comment link. Is anyone else having a problem?

Logophile said...

OK, all I can say is,
I hope you check for new comments under older posts :p

I couldnt find an email for you but I just found this poem and I LOVE LOVE LOVE it. I didn't want to go stick it in your current comments but I wanted to share.

Courtesy of the Writer's Almanac

And the Cantilevered Inference Shall Hold the Day
by Michael Blumenthal

Things are not as they seem: the innuendo of everything makes
itself felt and trembles towards meanings we never intuited
or dreamed. Take, for example, how the warbler, perched on a

mere branch, can kidnap the day from its tediums and send us
heavenwards, or how, held up by nothing we really see, our
spirits soar and then, in a mysterious series of twists and turns,

come to a safe landing in a field, encircled by greenery. Nothing
I can say to you here can possibly convince you that a man
as unreliable as I have been can smuggle in truths between tercets

and quatrains on scraps of paper, but the world as we know
is full of surprises, and the likelihood that here, in the shape
of this very bird, redemption awaits us should not be dismissed

so easily. Each year, days swivel and diminish along their inscrutable
axes, then lengthen again until we are bathed in light we were not
prepared for. Last night, lying in bed with nothing to hold onto

but myself, I gazed at the emptiness beside me and saw there, in the
shape of absence, something so sweet and deliberate I called it darling.
No one who encrusticates (I made that up!) his silliness in a bowl,

waiting for sanctity, can ever know how lovely playfulness can be,
and, that said, let me wish you a Merry One (or Chanukah if you
prefer), and may whatever holds you up stay forever beneath you,

and may the robin find many a worm, and our cruelties abate,
and may you be well and happy and full of mischief as I am,
and may all your nothings, too, hold something up and sing.