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Of Poems and Pockets

Today is Poem in Your Pocket Day—a celebration for which, according to the Academy of American Poets, everyone from schoolchildren on up must fold up a poem and secrete it somewhere about their person. Wherever did this arcane tradition come from? The year was 2002. The mayor of New York City was Michael Bloomberg. It was he who, in partnership with the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, first lit the Poem in Your Pocket Day torch, which has been burning as the brightest star in the National Poetry Month firmament ever since. But this is 2014, a time of electronic tablets and rewired reading habits. Data is gushing around, being intercepted and monitored and leaked. Google Glass is available to anyone on eBay. And poets, stuck in the dark ages, are still asking us to fold a piece of paper? Wherever the day takes you, and whatever else you’re carrying, here are six powerful poems that can fit in any pocket.   You’ve got a good luck charm:   Luck Sometimes a crumb falls From the tables of joy, Sometimes a bone Is flung. To some people Love is given, To others Only heaven. —Langston Hughes   A road map scrawled on the back of a bar napkin:   Solitary Observation Brought Back From a Sojourn in Hell At midnight tears Run in your ears. —Louise Bogan   A hand raised in greeting:   To You STRANGER! if you, passing, meet me, and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you? —Walt Whitman   A few odds and ends of string:   Variations The still waters of the air under the bough of the echo. The still waters of the water under a frond of stars. The still waters of your mouth under a thicket of kisses. —Federico García Lorca (translated from the Spanish by Lysander Kemp)   A love note that’s been folded and unfolded many times:   You Say, “I Will Come” You say, “I will come.” And you do not come. Now you say, “I will not come.” So I shall expect you. Have I learned to understand you? —Lady Otomo No Sakanoe (translated from the Japanese by Kenneth Rexroth)   And an old coin, worn by many hands:   Graduation He told us, with the years, you will come to love the world. And we sat there with our souls in our laps, and comforted them. —Dorothea Tanning   Photo courtesy of Wikimedia CONNECTS_Walt-Whitman

by Beatrice Conselyea

Apr 24, 2014

The Poet Who Got Away

I’ve gotten old and cranky enough that I mostly don’t read new poetry anymore, or even old poetry that’s new to me. But at the Brooklyn Book Festival last September, I stopped by the Academy of American Poets booth and, without thinking, signed up for its Poem-a-Day service, which emails you a different poem every morning. At first, I consigned this torrent to Trash. But one day I decided to read the newly arrived poem, and gradually a daily devotional was established. Of course, cranky old me doesn’t always like what the academy dishes up—so slight, ill made, obscure—and my prejudice against the new frequently gets comfortably reupholstered. But, occasionally, I have the stuffing knocked out of me. It’s happened now a dozen times, with poems I didn’t know by the redoubtable likes of Dorothy Parker and Countee Cullen—and, yes, even some poems by young poets I’d never heard of. Just a couple weeks ago, I was bowled over by a beautifully reckless little poem called “Company,” by Karen Leona Anderson—like something Plath might’ve written had she only been blessed with a sense of humor. And then a teaser in that same email led me to another poem in the Poem-a-Day archive: “This Was Once a Love Poem,” by Jane Hirshfield. I didn’t know Hirshfield, either, though I ought to have: She’s been publishing for decades. From that one poem, I knew it was time to fall in love again, and I immediately ordered her latest book, Come, Thief. Hirshfield was born the same year as I was, and she can be just as unhappy about aging, as evidenced by these lines from “Three-Legged Blues”:

What almost happened, won’t now. What can be lost, you’ll lose.
Bitter wisdom aside, Hirshfield is the most skillful poet I’ve encountered in an awfully long time. Like other poets I hold closest (e.g., Cavafy), Hirshfield is a poet of memory—its salves as well as its hurts. And she’s wonderfully suspicious, attending to the visible and audible world, but always with eye and ear trained on what lies beneath, or beside, or between what can be clearly seen and heard. A shadow can reveal more than a so-called solid form; a wrinkle more than a familiar feature; an empty hand more than what it gave up holding. Hers is an attitude born of experience, and of knowing that experience can’t rescue you from the final jam. Which is not to say experience is totally worthless. Nor, it turns out, are those pesky Poem-a-Day emails, which led me against my cantankerous will to this new, Novemberish romance. Image courtesy of Wikimedia CONNECTS_Jane-Hirshfield

by James Waller

Apr 23, 2014

The 50th Anniversary of the New York World's Fair

The 1964 New York World’s Fair probably wasn’t the worst of its kind. At least the serial killer H. H. Holmes didn’t terrorize fairgoers with his booby-trapped hotel, as he did at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. At least a fighter jet didn’t crash into a residential neighborhood during the opening ceremony, as happened at Seattle’s Century 21 Exposition in 1962. And at least people showed up—unlike in 1984, when attendance in New Orleans was so low its fair went bankrupt after six months. Still, as we commemorate the 50th anniversary today, you can’t say the New York World’s Fair was an unmitigated success. Things ran less than smoothly from the get-go. The urban planner put in charge was none other than Robert Moses, but somehow even the legendary power broker failed to receive recognition from the Bureau of International Expositions. Because the fair was never an official World’s Fair, many major nations refused to support it financially. But Moses pushed forward. He calculated that as long as approximately 70 million visitors came to the exposition, the fair would remain solvent. Unfortunately, Moses, a man of prim sensibilities, did not accurately gauge his audience, commissioning straitlaced shows such as “Dick Button’s Ice-Travaganza.” Much more popular was the risqué puppet show “The Dolls of Paris.” After just a few months, three of the fair’s most expensive spectacles, including the Ice-Travaganza, had closed, and Moses was $7 million in the hole. He installed bars and go-go dancers, but the damage was already done. Ostensibly a World’s Fair, with its smorgasbord of spectacles, innovations and customs, is a place for peoples from all over the world to better comprehend one another while eating snow cones. But this spirit of learning and intelligent discourse quickly turned into thinly disguised corporate advertising. Walt Disney and General Motors were the giants of the day, pedaling their products from the expos. Even the fair’s motto—“Peace Through Understanding”—seemed insincere, as the U.S. government entered the early stages of steady, year-upon-year escalation in the Vietnam conflict. The fair received well under the needed 70 million visitors and just narrowly avoided bankruptcy during its two-year run. Today, the skeletons of the extravagant pavilions and structures are mostly overgrown or vanished entirely, though the observation towers did play a key role in Men in Black. But the fair’s vision of a technological future struck a chord with writer Isaac Asimov, as he stood in line at GE’s robotic exhibition. Asimov speculated that in 50 years, people would drive jet-powered cars, scoot along motorized sidewalks and talk to moon colonists by way of laser beams, and that robots would scramble our eggs. Mankind will become a “race of machine tenders,” he wrote, that “will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better.” Fifty years later, we tend our computers and cell phones, and withdraw into the realms of Facebook and Candy Crush. But still we have to scramble our own eggs. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia CONNECTS_1964-NY-Worlds-Fair

by Griffin Hanna

Apr 22, 2014

We Need to Talk About Columbine

Yesterday marked the 15th anniversary of one of the darkest days in American history, the shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Clad in black trench coats and armed with propane explosives, semiautomatic rifles and pistols, students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 classmates and one teacher, and injured 21 others before killing themselves. The massacre sent shockwaves across the country, sparking a national debate in which talking heads spent years passing blame for the attacks, looking for motives in everything from bullying to the music of Marilyn Manson. Questions were raised with few answers, and shootings of similar scale have become all too commonplace in the years that followed. In the aftermath, the fear of bodily harm and even death has become part of the high school experience, as well as pop culture narratives that try to chronicle that experience. Such films as Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, based on Lionel Shriver’s novel, center on school shootings. Jim Shepard’s Project X even imagines the plotting and violence of a Columbine-style shooting from the perspective of its perpetrators. Then there’s the infamous episode of Glee, in which the members of the glee club find themselves in a state of lockdown after shots are heard in the hallway. The students cower, weep, record goodbyes to their families, make amends for past wrongs and fear for their lives. But the show pulls its punches: In the end, it’s revealed that the gunshots were simply misfires, accidentally discharged by a student with Down syndrome who’d brought a gun to school because she was nervous about graduation. Though the episode garnered praise from some critics, who believed that a light musical comedy was brave for tackling such a difficult topic, others panned its sentimentality. Notably, the A.V. Club gave the episode an F and called it “cheap,” “exploitative” and “trash.” Currently the subject is being more fruitfully explored onstage in The Library, a new play by screenwriter Scott Z. Burns and filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. The set consists of blank walls and five wooden tables, like the ones you’d find in a public school library, and the action begins in the moments after a school massacre. The play deals exclusively with the fallout: Who do we blame? How do we grieve? What’s the role of faith? How malleable and fallible are our memories? The shooting itself is stirringly evoked in the final scene, through the use of simple but jarring light and sound design, as the cast unemotionally recites the minute-by-minute details of the police report. We are spared the carnage, but the scene is no less of a gutpunch. The power lies in the audience’s ability to fill in the holes, to sketch a fully realized scene within the boundaries of this bare set. We may not see the gunman, the victims, the gore, but we’ve become so accustomed to similar images in the media—students fleeing from besieged schools, parents waiting in stunned silence for news—that seeing these scenes onstage would’ve been superfluous. Which raises the question: Do we even need to choreograph Columbine’s violence now that school shootings have become an indelible part of our national identity? Image courtesy of STEWART COOK/Rex USA/Everett CONNECTS_School-Shootings

by Nicholas DeRenzo

Apr 21, 2014