At my library, we have a yearly program called Orem Reads. We pick a book (one year it was To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee sent us a letter!) that community members can get for free at the programs we have that relate to the book. This year, our book was Singing School by Robert Pinsky. This is an anthology of poems collected not by theme or topic but by what I think of as writerly quality. They are all excellent poems that also help you learn something about writing poetry. There is a thoughtful introduction and then the poems, some old, some contemporary, all introduced with a brief idea meant to make you think—how could I write something that is like this but also mine?
I was excited about this because I used Pinsky’s work quite a bit when I was teaching. His Favorite Poem Project was a tool I used to help my students learn that regular people read poetry. (That was one of the goals I had as a teacher, in fact: that my students leave my class knowing that poetry isn’t only for English majors.) When I was teaching, I always felt a little bit…frustrated, I suppose, but the limits of time and of my students’ desire. There are so many good things in literature to show them! I was always looking for models to follow, an apprentice looking for experts, and Pinsky was one of them.
But when I found out he was actually coming to our library? The word “excited” hardly covers it. I tried to explain to Kendell, who is decidedly not a poetry fan, just how big of a deal this was for me. Pinsky is big. He’s done important work bringing poetry to people. He’s won awards and was the poet laureate. Having him come to our little, small-town library is like, I don’t know…having Michael Jordan show up at your junior high basketball practice.
I looked forward to the program for months.
Then, wouldn’t you know, I told Kaleb’s scout leader that sure, I could bring treats to pack meeting. Not putting together that it was the same day. The same day as the Pinsky reading, and I have all of this guilt wrapped up in scouts and whether I go or not got, so instead of just dropping the treats off and going to the reading, I went to scouts with Kaleb, and then I rushed over to the library (with Kendell!) and I caught the last ten minutes.
All motherly guilt aside, I should’ve just gone to the reading.
But what I did get to see was pretty damn good.
Once you’ve been a teacher, you immediately recognize when you’re listening to someone who is a really good teacher, and that was what I took away from my ten minutes with Robert Pinsky: he knows how to teach. Good teachers don’t only teach about their subject, they bring it into the world; they show how knowing about something helps us to understand the world better.
Whenever I go to a reading, I always try to take notes in the book I’m going to have the writer sign. I do this so it is all in one place, the writer’s words, my thoughts, and his or her real, ink-and-paper scrawl. I only had time to write down two thoughts during those ten minutes:
“We always sentimentalize what we oppress”
“Iambic pentameter is a secret weapon”
It isn’t a lot. But it is something: a thought to continue thinking about, an idea to help my writing improve.
After the reading, I was the second person in line for this signing. (Not only because I was all fan-girly about talking to Robert Pinsky but because we also had to go to Costco that night.)
I was determined to actually talk and maybe sound intelligent, so I told him how grateful I was for his favorite poem project, and how it had helped me as a teacher. He asked why I wasn’t teaching, and I gave him the short answer, and then he told me about a meeting he sometimes has in Boston, with his other poet friends, where they discuss their favorite poems. Sharon Olds was mentioned. (Another of my favorite poets.) I was calmly talking to him but in my head I was like How is this happening? I’m having a conversation with Robert Pinsky!)
Then he wrapped it up, finished signing both of my books (I also had his book Gulf Music), and Kendell and I left.
To go to Costco.
Which is sort of fairly awesome, because really: poetry is something that normal people read. (I realize I might be making a big assumption by placing myself into the “normal people” group, but let’s just go with it.) I know many people don’t read poetry, but people do. And then we go to Costco. Because poetry isn’t outside of anything. Not real poetry. It is inside the world, about the world. It can interact with your life if you let it.
I like what he says in this interview on NPR: “For a lot of people, well-meaning teaching has made poetry seem arcane, difficult, a kind of brown medicine that might be good for you that doesn’t taste so good. So I tried make a collection of poetry that would be fun and that would bring out poetry as an art rather than a challenge to say smart things.”
An art, rather than a challenge to say smart things.
I left the reading full of a sad yearning: I wish I could teach again. That is a crazy thought for me, because the actuality of teaching was sort of devastating, both to me and to my family. I couldn’t be a good mother and a good teacher at the same time. But I also loved teaching. I loved having an opportunity to share good poems with people.
I miss that.
But I also still have poetry. Maybe we are a dwindling tribe, the poetry readers. But we exist. We’re here, reading poems. I am here, reading poems.