A touch of the poet

Poems have been leading us to our feelings forever

BRATTLEBORO — William Wordsworth is one of my literary heroes. Love the guy. Bet you didn't think you'd be reading that today, right?

Wordsworth has been there for me whenever I've been pressed to frame a beautifully compelling or compellingly beautiful thought and my own words didn't seem up to the task (alas, too frequently).

How often I've found my voice in the gorgeous poetry crafted by this man, whose very name says it all. Sort of like calling in a pinch hitter. (“All right, Wordsworth.... Off the bench and into the game!”)

Writing for public consumption is like stepping up to the plate, bat in hand, with all eyes upon you. And although as a writer you'll do anything to not let the team down - indeed, you're out there on your own - there are those eyes and those fans, and you want to hit it out of the park every time.

You want to feel that proverbial pat on the butt and hear, “Good column, dude.”

* * *

So how did we get to this game talk today? Why am I calling this romantic, lyrical gentleman to the plate?

Among myriad Wordsworth works to which I thrill is “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” in whose 10th stanza is found the haunting:

§What thou the radiance which was once so bright

§Be now for ever taken from my sight,

§Though nothing can bring back the hour

§Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;

§We will grieve not, rather find

§Strength in what remains behind[...]

Elia Kazan's cinematic telling of Splendor in the Grass, William Inge's story of two high-school kids coming of age in small-town Kansas in the late 1920s and early '30s, ranks right up there among my favorite movies of all time. Kazan took Inge, who'd mined Wordsworth, mixed in a hunk of Warren Beatty, tempered it with the top note of a wondrous, perennially coming-of-age Natalie Wood, and forged a key to my heart.

As it is for most, high school was sort of a thorny journey for me. So when later on I watched Wood's character, Deanie Loomis, crack when called on to interpret that Wordsworth stanza in front of her English class, I felt for her. No matter who'd broken her heart, it was a poem that led her to her feelings.

Poems have been doing that to us forever. Why, then, when we're in love, are the words we allow to accompany our songs the stuff of poetry, found anywhere along the melodic spectrum between “How do I love thee?” and “Roses are red”?

* * *

I learned too late that April is National Poetry Month, so I went a-Googling, in search of the top poets of all time.

First, of course, I had to know where my hero, William Wordsworth, stood. And then my other favorites, too, like Coleridge and Eliot and Frost and Byron and Dickinson and Neruda and Rumi.

My eagerness turned to full-tilt alienation when I read that Maya Angelou had been ranked number one. In popularity? In mattering?

Really. Are we to believe that despite the five or so centuries the world has been reading Shakespeare, that in the course of maybe some 30 years, Dr. Angelou has eclipsed the Bard of Avon? Too much poetic license for my taste.

And my Wordsworth shows up as number 29 out of the top 50?

Really. Can I accept that a Sylvia Plath can eclipse this man? Who is this Sylvia, anyway?

I just realized that I've chafed about two women superseding two men, and I don't mean anything gender-biased by that. Were Emily Dickinson not to have been given her due, my cries for poetic justice would have been heard loud and clear. Were Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Edna St. Vincent Millay to have been ignored, I'd have wept.

As have so many of us, I have turned to poetry when, like Deanie, I've needed to face the feeling. Poets like Torquato Tasso and Matthew Arnold and W.H. Auden and Sara Teasdale and, yes, William Shakespeare just never let a body down.

These masters of a universe of words give shape to our thoughts, energy to our deeds, and inspiration to build our dreams, and for that we owe them at least a read now and then.

* * *

About a year ago we learned that Smithsonian magazine had made the brilliant decision to include Brattleboro on its very first list of the 20 Best Small Towns in America. At number 11, we sit at the table with such communities as Great Barrington, Mass., Durango, Colo., Red Bank, N.J., and Naples, Fla. Yup, The One and Only Brattleboro's in excellent company!

Here's the way the Smithsonian's editors describe the rationale behind these choices:

“There is, we think, something encouraging about finding culture in small-town America. Fabled overseas locales, world-class metropolises - you expect to be inspired when you go there. But to have your horizon shifted in a town of 6,000 by an unheralded gem of a painting or a song belted out from a band shell on a starry summer night, that's special. It reinforces the truth that big cities and grand institutions per se don't produce creative works; individuals do. And being reminded of that is fun.”

Again, individuals produce creative works. Isn't that what we've been talking about here? And isn't it fun to be reminded of that?

Especially when the reminders remind not only their readers but us what we have going on. The magazine and book lists of “top” this and “best” which have included Brattleboro have one thing in common.

Call it arts. Call it culture. By whatever name, it all comes down to people creating. And to the sheer poetry of their gifts to our community.

Those of us who have the time or inclination, or who, like me, are paid to jump into the stream of discussion about what makes our town our town, must remember that widgets in some towns are words in another.

And that we are our poets - who live among us, stand with us in line at the market, who drive too slowly in the fast lane, who buy the last scone or New York Times, who borrow the library book we'd long anticipated taking out, who beat us to the stamp window at the post office, who grab that aisle seat we so coveted. They tell our stories for the ages with their mastery of that universe of words which are all we have.

So as National Poetry Month fades from memory, let us belatedly honor our poets: every one of our literate local heroes, including our school kids, with gratitude for the stories they tell.

Oh, allow me to step out of the bubble here. Thank you, William Wordsworth - always and forever.

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