Today’s poem, another new poem from an old favorite, is a counterpoint to yesterday’s poem. Instead of two people learning how to communicate, these two, grandmother and granddaughter, hold their feelings inside. They deny the love they feel for each other and the connection between them, missing, perhaps deliberately, the coded messages in our common parlance. One wishes to strengthen their bond; the other is afraid of losing it: “neither of them ever/said what they meant” (ll. 16-17). Did they understand each other anyway? Do we understand each other?
One of my students chose “The Telephone” by Robert Frost for her poetry book. It is new to me, and I love discovering new poems by old favorites. This poem is both touching and inspirational. The beauty of the flower and the (super)natural communication between the two seems both innocent and pure. We could use more of that these days. Here’s the poem in its entirety:
“When I was just as far as I could walk From here to-day, There was an hour All still When leaning with my head against a flower I heard you talk. Don’t say I didn’t, for I heard you say— You spoke from that flower on the window sill— Do you remember what it was you said?”
“First tell me what it was you thought you heard.”
“Having found the flower and driven a bee away, I leaned my head, And holding by the stalk, I listened and I thought I caught the word— What was it? Did you call me by my name? Or did you say— Someone said ‘Come’—I heard it as I bowed.”
“I may have thought as much, but not aloud.”
“Well, so I came.”
There is story in these few lines. Perhaps the two had had a fight or disagreement, for he had walked “just as far as [he] could walk” away from her, yet their connection did not sever. Instead, he gave himself the time to be “all still.” And then, in the stillness, he hears her; he hears her heart. And he listens to it despite the possibility that she might still be angry. He forestalls her possible protestation that she did not call him; “Don’t say I didn’t, for I heard you.” And she seems unwilling to admit she called him and to contradict him and say she didn’t. There is hesitancy and tenderness. Perhaps this couple will make it because they are learning to communicate. Perhaps one day I will write this story in its fullness…
I know National Poetry Month has come to an end, but I cannot help still sharing poetry as I read and grade my students annual poetry anthologies. This poem, “Failing and Flying” by Jack Gilbert is new to me, and it hooked me from its first line: “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.” Isn’t that the truth? His fall from the sky is the focus of the myth and so many references to it. We so easily forget the moments of success before a project or passion came to an end. The focus is solely on the outcome, but our lives are made up of all the experiences that come before it.
Can we apply this same lens to the work of a writer/actor/singer/artist whose work we admire but about whose personal life/beliefs we learn some unsavory facts. Does the work, like Icarus’s flight, exist separate from its creator’s fall from grace? I don’t know. I’d like to think so, but it is so much harder when the person is living in our own time rather than in times past. We cannot excuse the prejudice to historical blindness. We also become loathe to financially support a person through the buying of his/her art if that person has made statements that are anathema to us. Yet still, the work on its own soars. Or maybe this is a reversal; the art is the outcome that soars, and the experiences of the author that sour.
Perhaps this is something we can only apply to our own experiences. Perhaps we can use this idea to separate the art and the artist. In any event, read the poem and enjoy at least your own moments of flight regardless of the quality of the landing.
I do not like to get political here on my blog, though the argument can be made, as Orwell did, that all writing is political. Yet, a news alert about the Supreme Court’s leaning to strike down Roe vs. Wade impels me to recommend a couple of novels set in a United States, or subsection thereof, where that same has happened.
This 2011 novel by Hillary Jordan follows the story of Hannah, a woman convicted of murder for having had an abortion, who is not incarcerated, but rather “chromed,” that is her skin is genetically dyed red to announce her crime to all around while she tries to survive both the stigma and the emotional and mental strain her world, her actions, and her beliefs put on her. Well written and engrossing, this novel, to paraphrase This is Spinal Tap, goes to 11. I read it when it first came out, and I’m still thinking about it. If I had a class set, I’d teach it alongside The Scarlet Letter.
If you haven’t heard about The Handmaid’s Tale, well, then you’re probably not reading this blog either. I’ll admit that I haven’t watched the series, but I read the book a few years ago after hearing rave upon rave from several English teacher friends. Several claim it to be their favorite book. I’ll admit that I didn’t “LOVE” it as I’ve heard so many others speak of it, but that is because it horrified me. Which it is what it should do. The ease with which the people of Gilead accepted the total subjugation of women is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever read. Yet Atwood, like Jordan, is not didactic; they both tell stories that tell us something about ourselves, and these are things we don’t want to know, but hopefully, if we can confront the ugly in fiction, we can avoid or at least ameliorate it in real life. (For a bonus, check out my 2019 review of The Testaments, Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.)