A running joke in my family, is that our daughters were traumatized when they were young, by my reciting poetry in the family van. As daughters K and L tell the story, their childhood was scarred by my reciting portions of poems as I drove them to dance classes, school events or on family vacations.
To show that the trauma wasn’t too great and that their humor remained intact, the daughters in their teens, graced me (for Father’s Day) with a home made anthology of my favorite poets. The booklet was entitled ‘from the back of the van’ (in lower case a nod to ee.cummings).
The introduction written by L my eldest daughter reads: ‘A collection of acceptable poetry. Please, please, please do not feel like we are giving you permission to read this to us. Love your darling daughters.’
Best Father’s Day gift, ever. (Okay, second best, the best was L and K gifting me with Red Sox tickets, 10 rows from third base, with me sitting between my daughters).
Where did my love of poetry come from?
It came out of the blue. For much of my life I’d found poetry too sugary or too abstract. What I heard I didn’t like or didn’t get.
A kayak trip to the Tongass Wilderness in Alaska changed everything. It was summer of 2002 and I was on a Zen meditation Kayak trip in the primal wilderness of the Tongass. A deep, dark, beautiful old growth forest indented by the bracing blue waters of Tebenkof Bay.
Kurt Hoelting our guide, welcomed each morning by reciting a poem. He channeled the words of the poets Mary Oliver, David Whyte, William Stafford, Wendell Berry. Their words weren’t syrupy or abstract. They were real. They reflected and amplified the wisdom of this wilderness.
Poems spoken from the heart spoke to mine. It was an epiphany.
For the first time, I heard and received as a gift, this poem by Mary Oliver:
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 your 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.
Kayaking on Tebenkof Bay, paddling the inlets as doorways into the wilderness, I let the poem wash over me…announcing my place in the family of things. This poem, as others have done, opened my heart, mind and imagination to the beauty and mystery that was in, with and all around me.
Years later, during a health crisis, Mary Oliver’s poems would settle and sustain me on a different journey. Mary and William Stafford (the poet laureate of Oregon) and others, became my travelling companions through the varied seasons of living.
So, you can see why I couldn’t help but share my love of poetry. Even when our daughters were buckled-in to their car seats and had little choice.
My children, now grown, have forgiven me my poetic excess. Their long ago gift of a homegrown anthology was their way of saying ‘all was forgiven’.
And, it gets even better. K my journalist daughter recently invited me to participate in a book club for a radio show she produces. The book? ‘Delights and Shadows’ by Ted Kooser, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.