Autumn 1977 brought dancing, prancing leaves into my life. It was my senior year in high school and I was seated in Mrs. Tankard’s humanities class, which had the reputation of being the most difficult course offered at Chantilly High School. Twice now she had attempted to remove me on the grounds I was not cut out for the academic rigors of the class. And twice my Aries stubbornness kept me glued to my seat, in spite of the nightmares I was having about Sartre, Camus and Shakespeare.
On this particular day though, my world changed.
We were analyzing Edwin Morgan’s poem Strawberries. As usual, Mrs. Tankard first insisted we arrange our desks in a circle. It was an intimidating act since it meant none of us could escape the gaze and critiques of our classmates.
After giving us several minutes to read and ponder the poem, Mrs. Tankard cleared her throat. “Okay, what is this poem about?”
No one spoke or raised a hand. I glanced around the room. Everyone was staring intently at his book, desperately trying to find a clue. I made the mistake of looking at Mrs. Tankard and when I did, our eyes locked. I blushed.
“Steve. What is this poem about?”
Crap. I hung my head and didn’t say a word.
“I know you know,” she persisted. “Say it.”
I finally gave in and whispered, “Ahhhhhh, the poem’s about two people making love.”
The classroom exploded with laughter, and I turned six shades of red. Beads of sweat lined my forehead. I wanted to crawl under the desk and die.
The room went dead silent as 30 pairs of eyes quickly scanned the poem for evidence of sex. For the remainder of the class, I described how Morgan erotically used the summer heat, glistening strawberries and thunderstorm to represent lovemaking. To me, it was all so very clear. Comic book clear, in fact. I didn’t understand why no one else could see it.
While that particular day didn’t earn me an A+ in Humanities (I believe I ended-up with a B), it did accomplish two other things. First, I was an immediate hit with the girls in the class. They figured I must be a romantic if I could understand a poem about lovemaking. (As the axiom states, it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for!) And second, the proverbial “Spirit of the Poet” stepped forward in my life and made me see things in a new, creative manner.
April is designated by the Academy of American Poets as National Poetry Month . Its purpose is to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture. Among this year’s many programs – ranging from poetic tweets to an iPhone app – there is one in particular I would like to bring to your attention in the hope you will participate.
Known as “Poem in Your Pocket,” it designates Thursday, April 26th as the day to carry a favorite poem in your pocket to share with friends. (I suspect you know which poem I’ll have!) If you can’t think of a poem, you can download one of 53 poems from the Academy that is designed to fit in a shirt pocket.
This April also marks my maternal grandfather’s 111th birthday. Ross had a profound impact on my life, encouraging me to dream big and pursue them regardless of the obstacles that appeared. He was a physician and renaissance man who enjoyed literature. Indeed, one of his prized possessions was a thin book Poems, autographed with a personal note from its author George Seferis, winner of the 1963 Nobel Prize for Literature.
After my grandfather’s death in 1985 I wrote the following poem in a life-curve format (set on its side) in his honor. It subsequently appeared in the Odessa Poetry Review, Suwanee Review and Hieroglyphics Press.
months since he
inhaled his last?
Odd, I’m holding his
eighty-four years between
lips and fingers; remembrance
resuscitation. Four months, eh?
He was a “Shrewd Jew” to enlighten
me (at the very budding age of twelve)
to those wonts of Antonio Y
Cleopatra: we yet possess
fifty levees and umpteen
smokey breaths together.
For as long as just
one cigar lasts,
And, in case you’re curious: Three of my grandfather’s unsmoked cigars remain safely stashed away. I don’t want to ever risk losing his company or quiet encouragement. §