Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Poetry, Take Two

In a survey sponsored by the Poetry Foundation a few years back, researchers discovered the following:
  • 94% of Americans have read poetry at some point in their life, but only 15% read it consistently throughout their life.
  • Almost 85% say poetry is hard to understand.
  • Almost 81% say poetry is boring.
  • Yet more than 70% say poetry helps you appreciate the world around you.

I'm going to connect the dots here and suggest that, based on these statistics, if people understand a poem, chances are they'll enjoy it. That's the premise upon which I based the launch of Your Daily Poem, a website that went live June 1st with the sole purpose of presenting uplifting, easy to understand poetry to people who were not predisposed to like it. And to paraphrase and repurpose Sally Field's worn but fitting cliche, "They like it! They really like it!"

I am tickled pink...or fuschia, if we want to be more poetic....to report that, four months after its birth, the number of subscribers to Your Daily Poem has septupled (is that a word?), poets published and un are submitting wonderful work on an almost daily basis, and people are passing around featured poems like juicy gossip. It's enough to make a poetry lover giddy.

Why bother, you may ask, or who cares? It comes down to this: life's hard most days--especially these days. Whether you're a young mother struggling to make ends meet, a working stiff trying to hang onto your job, a retiree worried about health and Social Security, or a corporate tycoon just having a bad day, we all need something to lift our spirits, make us laugh, stretch our imagination, take us away, or resurrect a fond memory. Poetry can do all that. But for too many of us, poetry got a bad name because someone made us study something awful in a classroom, or we opened a Revered Poetry Journal and were befuddled, repulsed, or bored by what we found inside, or we went to a reading and were embarrassed, offended, or bored by what we heard.

So this is my plea: give poetry a second chance. If you think you hate it, go to Your Daily Poem and click around in the archives. Read Ellen Bass's account of a mid-life couple smooching at an airport. Read the condemnation of little girl's beauty pageants on July 21st ("the stench of pink:" what a great line!). Read about an Elvis sighting in the peanut butter aisle at Shoprite, or the bliss of a perfectly ripe avocado, or the smell of oregano in a grandmother's kitchen, or the feel of your beloved's curls against your pillow.

Believe me, poetry is alive and well at YDP and it's not boring. It's heartrending, and hilarious, and touching, and titillating and--big bonus!--not even remotely connected to health insurance! Come discover poets from around the world whose work will definitely help you appreciate the world around you--one wonderful word at a time.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Our Region's Best: Do You Agree?

What say we start off this shortened work week with something even more controversial than Obama's school speech? According to Oxford American magazine, these are the top ten Southern novels of all times:
1. Absalom, Absalom, by William Faulkner
2. All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren
3. The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner
4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
5. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
6. The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy
7. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
8. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
9. Wise Blood, by Flannery O'Connor
10. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

Now, I'm as big a fan of Faulkner as anyone, but I don't think he deserves to get three of those coveted ten spaces--plus I'm not so sure I might not rank The Reivers ahead of the three on this list.

And there are several on here that are definitely not among my top ten. You cannot have a list of top Southern novels without A Confederacy of Dunces, The Yearling, Gone with the Wind, The Member of the Wedding, Fair and Tender Ladies, Walking Across Egypt, and something by Eudora Welty (though I can't decide which of hers I'd choose). Sorry, Oxford American; your list is a far cry from mine. Let's hear from some of the rest of you! What titles spring to mind when you think of quintessential Southern classics?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Season of Surviving

I know there are still hot days ahead, but yesterday morning, it was bliss to feel the first hint of fall in the air. I am ready for summer to end: it's been a season of sadness as I've watched many friends and family members suffer through serious illness, depression, divorce, death and, of course, economy-related hardships. Bad things happen to good people all the time, but it seems there's been an unfortunate abundance of that in recent months.

I've been accused more than once in my life of being a "Pollyanna," but is it really such a bad thing to find whatever shred of good exists in a situation? I don't call that naive or unrealistic; I call that surviving! Anyone who's lived more than a couple of decades figures out pretty quickly that life is unfair, that being a good person is no protection from bad luck and that, all too often, just when you think things can get no worse, they do. We often hang on to our sanity by a thread, and even the most devout among us can have moments of wavering faith in tough times.

So where do you go for help when life overwhelms? My salvation inevitably comes from words or music. A familiar hymn, a soothing piece by Vivaldi, a beautiful poem, escape into a novel . . . any of those can lift me out of despair and into--at least, momentary--peace. Case in point: yesterday was long and frustrating. My computer was in slow motion, there were a thousand loose ends still untied at the end of the day, my husband and I were at odds, assorted deadlines were looming, and I was malcontent and frazzled. While waiting for that infuriating computer to do what I needed, I picked up a book that arrived unexpectedly in yesterday's mail, a beautiful little chapbook called Carilee's House that contains fourteen poems by NC poet Lynne Santy Tanner. Within moments of reading the first poem, I felt my heart lift. It took another hour for the computer to finish what should have taken minutes, but I just kept reading between key clicks, and by the time I was finally able to shut down my electronic beast and head home, I was smiling. Not simply calmed down, but actually smiling!

Can poetry cure cancer? No. Can sonatas solve the problems of the world? No. Can viewing a breathtaking apricot sunset put money in your bank account? No. But all these remind us that, even in the midst of anguish, there is peace...that even in a cruel, ugly world, there is always something beautiful out there. And sometimes, that's all we need to know to be able to breathe again.

I can't make my childhood friend's cancer go away. I can't make my friend's son walk. I can't heal my girlfriend's marriage. I can't even take them a casserole; I'm too many states away. But I can pray that some song they hear on the radio, some passage they happen across in a magazine, some word offered up by a stranger will be the saving grace that helps them hang on for another day. And, oh, I am praying that fervently.