Poetry Thursday--Inspiration

Last year around this time I became a little inspired by my students. It was an odd kind of inspiration, and I’m not sure I’m fit this morning to put it into words, but since I’m here I’ll try.

I’ll begin like this: When I was in college, I typed out passages of stories or poems I liked and taped them to my walls—really, I papered my room with them. I memorized “The Emperor of Ice Cream” and “To Elsie” and most of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I leaned a picture postcard of Raymond Carver against my computer screen, and for a good while, I read "A Clean Well Lighted Place" every night before I went to bed.

But besides these writer-ly things, I also went over to the house where J.C. lived with a few friends of hers the first time they tried to make focaccia bread. We may or may not have had flavored coffee that night. Nutmeg. I couldn’t believe coffee could smell like that. It blew me away. And, sometimes, I’d stay up all night, reading William Gass or Don DeLillo or Nathanael West, or listening to R.E.M. or Radiohead or Bob Dylan and I’d think about the smell of flavored coffee and what focaccia bread tastes like when dipped in pesto. And sometimes, when I wasn't in the mood to sit around the house all night, I’d get in the car and just drive, without direction, to see where I wound up.

Time, though, passes. Fast forward eight or nine years, and I’m sitting in my office listening to students tell me about books they’re nuts for, or about road trips they’ve taken, or how they’re trying to bake the perfect gingerbread cookie or knit scarves for their closest twenty friends. I’m listening to them tell me what’s on their iPods and about the art installations they’re working on, or how they’re trying to learn Korean in their spare time.

Last year, listening to my students, I couldn’t help but wonder when I stopped doing some of the things they were doing, when I stopped craving new experiences, going in search of them.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not long to be twenty again. The typical student I’m talking about, though bright and utterly interesting, tends to be cynical, even, at times, less than empathetic. I’ll remain thirty, no problem.

But I made a little vow to myself to get back to being young again in certain ways—and I began by deciding to memorize a poem every now and then. The first poem I chose was James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” (which is, I suppose, appropriate as a response to both this post and the imminent season):

Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.
* * *
For more poetry head this way.


Left-handed Trees... said...

I loved your reflections about your students, as I'm also teaching some cynical nineteen to twenty-somethings myself. Why do we drop the things we love? Is it a thirty-something thing to come back around to them again? I'm doing the same thing right now...and here I am thinking I was "original" when really, maybe, I'm just thirty-one. James Wright is unbelievable (though my favorite is "A Blessing"...a poem that ends, "Suddenly I realize that if I stepped out of my body I would break into blossom," just can't be touched.

Anonymous said...

If you were going to throw a party with the theme of "I'm 20 and I Want to Be a Writer"-- what would people wear, listen to, eat or drink that would signify different eras or sensibilities? What would they say and do that would be universal? What would be annoying? What would be inspirational?

Lisa said...

I like your musings. And it's funny, the walls of my basement office at home are papered with favorite poems -- and I put them up during the year I was 45. So, all is not lost, ha ha. But of course I can relate to what you're getting at. It's icky to lose the sense of -- what is it? possibility? -- that makes you sort of not do things outside the routine, or not have a sense of the wondrousness of it all. I'd been caught in that kind of rut for a while, then I discovered food blogs and started one, and I got more excited about that than I'd been about anything for a long time. Kind of got me up off my butt. To some extent, anyway!

Southern Writer said...

My office is an ode to my lost youth. The blacklight posters have been replaced with artsy b & w Ilford calendars from the 80's, the dried corsages have been replaced with flowers from funerals, and the ticket stubs are from concerts where no one stood holding a lighter aloft the whole time they sang along, swaying to the music. I still have a wall covered with photos of the people I loved then, in all their long-haired, pot smoking, tie-dyed splendor. I suppose I do miss the passion and commitment we had back then, but mostly I miss experiencing things for the first time and seeing the world with new eyes.

Enjoyed the poem.

twitches said...

I looooove James Wright. "The Branch Will Not Break" is one of my all-time favorite books of poetry.