Two questions for today: First, why read poetry? I mean, really—who cares? Who has the time, not to mention coin, when you could be reading tremendous novels and stunning essays? And second, what is great poetry?
Wouldn't it be great if one of the world's best travel writers, after
60 years and fortysome books, went back through her work and notes and
plucked out hundreds of haunting, revelatory, shimmering moments— brief
encounters that "have been sparks of my work," she might say, "if often
only in glimpses—a sighting through a window, a gentle snatch of sound,
the touch of a hand . . . fleeting contacts [that] have fuelled my
travels down the years, generated my motors, excited my laughter and
summoned my sympathies."
The second son, having made the school baseball team, Informs his startled father that they are underequipped In the matter of bats—sticks, hammers, the implements Of destruction, the tools of the trade, the thunder lumber, As the salesman says cheerfully. There is a dense forest Of bats against the wall, gleaming graphite and brilliant Maple, aluminum in every conceivable shade and sheen, And the father gets absorbed in the names, the Torpedos And Thunderclubs, Phantoms and Cyclones, the Patriots And Nitros, Magnums and Maxxums, Rayzrs and Ultras, And, rivetingly, the Freak, which comes in thirteen sizes, Which makes you wonder. The father, a terrible baseball Player as a boy, admires but does not say anything about The extraordinary lean loveliness of the ash bats hanging Lonely at the far end. The boy chooses a bright red metal Hammer, takes a few swings, waggles it a bit, hoists it up On his shoulder, says this'll do, and the sacramental hour Passes, as all holy moments must. But they do happen, as Fast and terrifying as a baseball fired right at your noggin. The batter's job, the second son says, is to identify a pitch As soon as it leaves a pitcher's hand. Seeing is everything, He says, and for once we are in complete and utter accord
Sat by the river for a long time making sure it was still working. There’s a pile of finches in the currants stuffing themselves silly. This one finch slurped so many berries he could hardly get aloft. He sort of lurched off the branch and lumbered into the holy air. It seemed like the other finches were razzing him but maybe not. He fell toward the river like a huge currant covered with feathers. You have to grin at the greedy green thrilled persistence of it all, You know what I mean? Because there are finches in the bushes, Exactly so. What could ever be a more eloquent prayer than that?
Rarely do you get to use sweeping words like epic and masterpiece and staggering, or to say that a book will be in print in America as long as there is an America, but here I fling these claims around with confidence.
Why do we expect more than one terrific book from a writer? Isn’t one superb book enough? Razzing Frank McCourt for making cheerful, thin books that aren’t Angela’s Ashes and ragging Ken Kesey for all the later muck that wasn’t One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest—isn’t that unfair?
The work of Mary Oliver is one of those rare and lovely convergences. She is a lyric artist with a riveted eye and an enormous heart, one of the nation’s great spiritual sentinels. She was also graced for more than 40 years with the love of her life, the late photographer Molly Malone Cook.
They can laugh about foxhole religion but every front line soldier embraces a little religion and are not ashamed to pray. When you face death hourly and daily you can’t help but believe in Divine Guidance. My faith in God has increased a thousand fold. He has pulled me thru when nothing else could.”
There are some writers—a handful, a very few—who by looking intently and penetratingly at one place reveal piercing things about all places and all people, and so paradoxically they are the very antithesis of regional writers. Among them: Faulkner on Mississippi, Walker Percy on Louisiana, Steinbeck on California—and Alice McDermott on Irish Catholic New York.
Let’s cut to the chase here. David Duncan, who is best known for his exuberant novels The River Why and The Brothers K, is one of the finest writers of spiritually minded essays in these United States.
You enter through a door in the back where a big sign says All Prisoners Must Be Shackled. New prisoners are admitted at seven in the evening. There are seven men waiting by the door tonight. Five are white and two are brown. The youngest might be 20, the oldest 60. Four have plastic grocery bags with their personal effects, and one has a brown paper bag.
Let us briefly recount the career of one of the most interesting and spiritually minded of American writers. Nine books of fiction, including a searing arrow of a novella, The Shawl, which ranks with Primo Levi’s haunted memoirs when we talk about books on the Holocaust.