I have two major fears about speaking for five minutes.
First, since the subject is my great love,
it would be easier for me to speak for five hours than five minutes.
Like all lovers, I cannot guarantee I would make any sense,
but I can guarantee I would fill the time.
Second, I have the same fear every poet has when their time comes at an open mic:
What I say will be your sole impression of who I am, and it will be wrong.
If I go all philosophical on you, you will think I am a philosopher.
If I decide to read something funny, you will think I am a comedian.
The same sort of misimpression can be created with the poets in the room as well:
whatever my choice of technique and style, they will assume I am an advocate.
I am all of those things and I am none of those things,
but I have just one opportunity to demonstrate this to you.
Teaching Poetry to Third Graders
Mrs. Stickler wrote the poems on the right side
of the green board. Beautiful cursive. Every month,
a new poem. And the class would recite, together,
“The Twenty-Third Psalm,” Wordsworth’s “Daffodils.”
And as we memorized it, she would roll the map
of North America down [over the poem] a little more each day.
After one week, “I wandered lonely as a cloud,
that floats on high, o’er vale and hill,” was
miraculously transformed into the southern tips
of Florida and Texas. Then, the entire South
would materialize, concealing “beneath the trees,
fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” When, at last,
Wordsworth was on his couch, we had made it
to Canada and—well, you know the rest. Poem
after poem morphed improbably into our entire
continent. When we started Fourth Grade
with Mrs. Thompson, we had a comprehensive
understanding of rhetoric and simile: Alabama,
the yellow of “a host of golden daffodils,” Wisconsin,
green as the shepherd king’s lakeside pastures.
I know my experience is not unique in this regard.
I am willing to bet every person in this room
has song lyrics and poems stored away in their heads,
words that have faithfully served them from the day they learned them
as a child, as a teen, or as an adult.
Poetry is the rightful domain of everyone:
men and women, children and adults, politicians of every stripe,
of humans out of “every nation and tribe and people and tongue.”
Like a good friend, it tells us the news, comforts us, makes us laugh,
acknowledges our anger, fears and horror;
it gives form to our moments of silliness, passion and despair,
and IT GIVES US HOPE.
In a great poem from India [The Mahabharata],
the poet turns to the young boy he’s telling his story to and gives him a little advice.
“Pay attention to fools AND wise men,” he says.
“You can learn different things from both of them, SOMETIMES;
but I guarantee you, they will both, ALWAYS, be entertaining.”
If you come away from this evening thinking that I’m either a wise man OR a fool,
you’re mistaken. Just like you, I am both and I am neither,
but I hope that you will ALWAYS find me entertaining.