It’s cold! There will be six more weeks of winter! And of course, ironically, Groundhog Day is marked by a snow day, because there’s a blizzard. Hardly any snow in January, and then things go absolutely crazy, weather-wise. Still, there are poems. And we read them!
February 2, Monday: snow day–no school
February 3, Tuesday: “February” by Margaret Atwood
February 4, Wednesday: “The Coyote” by Alan Feldman
February 5, Thursday: “February” by Jack Collom
February 6, Friday: “February” by Bill Christopherson
February 9, Monday: “Recitative” by A. E. Stallings (because this week I’m reading Valentine’s poems–why not?)
February 10, Tuesday: “Song” by D. H. Lawrence
February 11, Wednesday: “Tutto è Sciolto” by James Joyce
February 12, Thursday: “The Root” by Helen Hoyt
February 13, Friday: “Night of Love” by Paul Laurence Dunbar
February 16-20: February vacation–no school
February 23, Monday:”Late February” by Ted Kooser
February 24, Tuesday: “Ice Men” by James Longenbach
February 25, Wednesday: “Bleak Weather” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
February 26, Thursday: “Dreaming in Swedish” by Philip Levine (because his death, last week, made me very sad)
February 27, Friday: “She Walks in Beauty” by George Gordon, Lord Byron
So that’s February done. This year, despite its being the shortest month and having winter break in it to boot, February felt like the longest, because of the snow and bitter cold. Even today it’s not letting go without a snarl, treating us to sub-zero temperatures. Perhaps that’s why there are so many good poems about February: so we’ll have the words to keep us warm on the dark days. Still, March is coming, and with it, spring. There is hope.
That made me think of another window in particular: the big window of the bedroom I stayed in a couple of years ago, at the B & B on Grange Close in Goring-on-Thames. The view through that window stayed with me, because when I looked out on an incredibly rainy morning, there were three kids walking in the street below. Two girls and a boy, they were wearing school uniforms, laughing as they took turns leaning into a match in cupped hands, lighting their illicit smokes and blowing clouds into the miserable air. The sound of their laughter, overlaid on the hush of the steady rain, was what hung with me, long after they’d rounded the corner and were gone from sight.
I am an easily-frightened person. That morning, I had planned to do something really frightening: I was going into Goring proper, over the railway bridge and to a cafe on the banks of the river, to meet a group of seasoned walkers for a trek to Nettlebed. I knew none of them. I had seen their leader, John Jones, onstage with Oysterband, but that was as close as I had come. They had all walked with him before. I was a stranger in a strange town–hell, in a strange country–planning to go wandering across Oxfordshire with people I didn’t know. In the rain. Standing there in the B & B window, clutching the draperies in my sweaty palms, I was terrified.
I gave myself the coward’s way out. You don’t have to do this. After all, no one knew me, no one knew I was coming…so if I just didn’t, no one would be the wiser. Right? Right? So I stood there, listening to the pouring rain, watching the water run along the road where only the phantoms of the laughing kids remained. Because I didn’t dare. Because I was easily frightened.
Then I thought through all the plans I’d made for this particular England adventure. I’d been in London with friends. I’d been in Bromyard with friends. Then I’d made two nights’ reservation here in Goring, so I could do one day of this week-long walk with the Reluctant Ramblers before flying home. I could have backed out easily at this point, but how stupid would that have been?
So I left the window, and sat on the bed to tie up my walking shoes–new that summer, broken in for just this adventure. I threw on my rain jacket–my hat was missing–grabbed up my pack, and went out into the rain. Still frightened, but still going.
I was already soaked by the time I got to the meet-up point. So was everyone else, from their walk from the train station. They were cheery and especially welcoming: Steve and Lesley, Anne and Paul, the other Lesley, Tom, Colin, Lauren, Tim, Al, Stephen and Trish, Else, Kay, Jane, Helen, John–the lot of them. We turned left and headed up toward the Thames Path, and I had succeeded before the first muddy mile had been walked. I was there, and I was going. And it was good.
I’ve since walked with them again, last summer. I will join the Ramblers at every available opportunity from now on, because my heart follows them.
Even getting lost with these people was fun. At one point, we came out on a road, and the map indicated that the path ran through a briar patch. Anyone bring a machete? Paul asked. I told him the TSA wouldn’t allow me to bring mine on the plane. Then we thrashed straight through.
Back to school after the Christmas break, and the world is frozen and lonely and still. Spring is still a long way away, and somehow, we have to muddle through snow and sub-zero temperatures, through frozen pipes, through all the hard work required to keep the fires burning in the wood stoves.
Fortunately, at school, we don’t rely on wood fires. Still, the building is drafty, and not all the heat is distributed evenly throughout the different wings. I wear my mittens in class sometimes, and do not object if students wear coats and bring cups of hot chocolate. January is a long month, and just trying to stay warm enough is an adventure: trying to stay cheerful is sometimes an impossibility. Still, people write poems about January, about winter, about ice and snow, and we’ll read them when we find them. Here are some we’ve found:
January 5, Monday: “To the New Year” by W. S. Merwin
January 6, Tuesday: “Winter Love” by Linda Gregg
January 7, Wednesday: “Winter: Thirty Below with Sundogs” by Tom Hennen
January 8, Thursday: “Mailboxes in Late Winter” by Jeffrey Harrison
January 9, Friday: “Lines for Winter” by Dave Lucas
January 12, Monday: “In the Shed” by Mary Logue
January 13, Tuesday: “The Wood-Pile” by Robert Frost
January 14, Wednesday: “Walking Below Zero You Tell Yourself” by Debra Allbery
January 15, Thursday: ‘Tinnitus: Thin Rain Becoming Ice” by David Harsent
January 16, Friday: “Arrival” by Heidi Steidlmayer
January 19, Monday: Martin Luther King Jr. Day–not school
January 20, Tuesday: “Winter” by Billy Collins
January 21, Wednesday: “Lines for Winter” by Mark Strand
January 22, Thursday: “Winter Sun” by Molly Fisk
January 23, Friday: “Choices” by Tess Gallagher
January 26, Monday: “A Winter Night” by Robert Burns (because last night was Burns Night, and the NWS has posted a blizzard warning for Tuesday into Wednesday)
January 27, Tuesday: Blizzard day–no school.
January 28, Wednesday: “Snowfall” by Thom Gunn
January 29, Thursday:”January” (from “The Months”) by Linda Pastan
January 30, Friday: “Winter Landscape, with Rooks” by Sylvia Plath
And so January comes to a close, slowly but surely, in the midst of raging snow: Three snowstorms in the last week, but who’s counting? Have I ever mentioned how I hate winter? I hate it because it’s cold and hard and expensive, though occasionally starkly beautiful. Fortunately, there are multitudinous poems to get us through…and there are now only six more weeks until spring. We can make it.
P. S. As always, I’d be grateful for your suggestions for poems to get us through. Spring is coming! Keep the fire alive–and thanks!
Winter, to quote Eddard Stark, is coming.
There are so many poems about cold and snow and ice. Perhaps it’s simply the hunkering down we have to do in the storm that makes poets write that storm down. Imagine them, if you will, huddled next to the wood fire, blowing on cold hands before lifting the pen to make that first bold stroke on the blank page. Imagine them recreating the stark beauty. Imagine them. Because they are imagining you.
December 1, Monday: “Not Yet” by Jane Hirshfield
December 2, Tuesday: “The End” by Mark Strand
December 3, Wednesday: snow day–no school
December 4: Thursday: “Sonnet 97: How like a winter hath my absence been” by William Shakespeare
December 5: Friday: “White Eyes” by Mary Oliver
December 8, Monday: “This Winter Worse Than Most” by Madelyne Camrud
December 9, Tuesday: “At the Beginning of Winter” by Tom Hennan
December 10, Wednesday: “Snow Flakes” by Emily Dickinson
December 11, Thursday: “Glass Night” by Wesley McNair (This is a beautiful poem about treacherous ice–I have always loved it, and try to work it in at least once a year.)
December 12, Friday: “First Sight” by Philip Larkin
December 15, Monday: Sonnet 71 by William Shakespeare
December 16, Tuesday: “Winter Trees” by William Carlos Williams
December 17, Wednesday: “Fog” by Carl Sandburg (because this morning was incredibly thick with fog: I explained to the kids that it was sublimation, an idea they found rather interesting).
December 18, Thursday: “The Night of the Snowfall” by Mo H. Saidi (and last night there was quite a lot of snow!)
December 19, Friday: “Winter Solstice” by Hilda Morley (not until Sunday, I know, but there it is.)
December 22, Monday: “Winter Grace” by Patricia Fargnoli (This was a new poem to me, but how beautiful!)
December 23, Tuesday: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost (Because I got a request for a Christmas poem, and this one will do. It will always do.)
December 24-31: Christmas break–no school.
It’s been a long month. But a good one. Because there are poems. When you wake up in the dark early morning and think I don’t know if I can do this for another day–the poems keep you company. You crawl out from under the covers into the crystalline air and start looking for the beauty. Then you find it. And everything is okay. At least, that’s what I keep telling these kids. I hope they believe me.
November: one of my favorite months. It just seems a release after all the colorful expectations of October. Time to settle down, get the wood in, freeze all the food to last through the winter. The leaves are gone. The birds are gone. The light, once Daylight Savings Time is over, is gone. Hibernation is the story here. Hunkering down next to the woodstove with a blanket and a book and a cup of tea. Waiting for winter, and for winter to be done.
Here are some poems.
November 3, Monday: Snow day–no school
November 4, Tuesday: Snow day–no school
November 5, Wednesday: “Snow Day” by Billy Collins (because I always read this one for the first snow day of the year; this is the earliest snow day I can remember.)
November 6, Thursday:”The Thrush” by Edward Thomas
November 7, Friday: “After Spending the Morning Baking Bread” by Jack Ridl (I want this life.)
November 10, Monday: “In Flanders Field” by John McCrae (The kids were fascinated by the line “We are the dead.” Perhaps humbled.)
November 11, Tuesday: Veterans’ Day–no school
November 12, Wednesday: “Her Kind” by Anne Sexton (Because it was just her birthday–and the juniors have begun reading The Crucible. Witch poem, anyone?)
November 13, Thursday: “How many times these low feet” by Emily Dickinson (Inside joke. I was out today and left this for the sub, because I was having an operation on my low foot.)
November 14, Friday: “To Spareness” by Jane Hirshfield
November 17, Monday: “November for Beginners” by Rita Dove
November 18, Tuesday: “Falling Leaves and Early Snow” by Kenneth Rexroth
November 19, Wednesday: “Like Coins, November” by Elizabeth Klise von Zerneck
November 20, Thursday: “Sonnet 84: While one sere leaf, that parting Autumn yields” by Anna Seward
November 21, Friday: “Ox Cart Man” by Donald Hall (One of my favorite poems ever.)
November 24, Monday: “Bless Their Hearts” by Richard Newman
November 25, Tuesday: “The Gift Outright” by Robert Frost
November 26-30: Thanksgiving break–no school
This is the shortest month in the school year. It seems, though, that it’s one of the most ripe in poetry. And there’s some great food in it, too.
Send me some poem suggestions. I’ll be ever thankful.
I was late, exhausted, and my feet hurt, but John Jones bid me welcome when I found the private bar at the Lysses, filled with other ramblers. I folded myself up on the floor against the back wall, exchanged smiles with some of the others. We’d put in 17 miles that day, starting at The Shoe Pub in Exton, circling up onto Old Winchester Hill, down to The Izaak Walton Pub in East Meon, around and up to Beacon Hill before dropping back down for a pint at The Shoe. We’ll have a bit of a session-rehearsal tonight at the hotel, John told us. I didn’t think I could make it, but I sure as hell didn’t think I could miss it.
I have John’s solo CD, Rising Road. I had been on one day of the White Horses Walk two summers previously. I had seen the Reluctant Ramblers do a show at the Nettlebed Folk Club. Yet somehow, I had never really thought about how those songs and that show came together–a really strange observation from a person who has played in bands and performed in plays off and on for years. Of course I know about rehearsals. But on that Wednesday night in the private bar in the Lysses Hotel, I sat in on the one for the Ramblers’ opening show at the Wickham Festival the next day. John, Rowan Godel, Boff Whalley, Al Scott, Lindsey Oliver, Tim Cotterell: they sat on couches, perched on stools or comfy chairs before the fireplace; the rest of us jammed into the small room as best we could while they constructed–and deconstructed–their performance for the next day.
It was brilliant. A snatch of song, then discussion. Should Al play guitar, or Boff? Lindsey: bowing, or plucking? A run-through of a single line, harmonized by John and Rowan: should she let her voice fall sharply on the final word of the phrasing? In that instance, they tried it both ways without coming to a complete decision, before John turned to long-time producer Al and asked what do you think? No, Al said. And there was no falling from that note. It was interesting that Al did not explain, nor did they ask him to; his judgment was enough.
Some songs they sang in full, including the beautiful “Black and White Bird,” a song John claimed was inspired by a woman of his acquaintance finding a bird in a burlap sack in the stables where her horse was kept–because this is Wales, and that’s what they do. Rowan’s solo contribution to the show
was to be “Raggle-Taggle Gypsy;” she sang it all the way through, curled up in a chair in the corner; John suggested punching up a line in the penultimate verse, where the lady spurns her ‘new-wedded lord’ and his riches for the love of her gypsy, since that was the climax of the song. Boff’s song was to be “Everyone Sang,” but we weren’t to hear it until the show.
I don’t know how late it was when I left, to make the walk back through darkened Fareham to my Roundabout Hotel home. I left the group still singing, still sharing pints. Their voices, their instruments followed me down to East Street, past the bakery, the orthodontist, the school. The music was still in my spinning head when I lay down in my room on the top floor.
Postscript: The next afternoon, after lunch and a pint in the ironically named village of Soberton, we walked into the Wickham Festival. First into the tent, we walkers crowded the rail before the stage to watch and listen to the result of the work of the previous night. Including Mr. Boff’s “Everyone Sang”–and everyone did. Magic.
From The Guardian online:
“In an interview with French paper La Croix, [Nobel judge Horace] Engdahl said that the ‘professionalization’ of the job of the writer, via grants and financial support, was having a negative effect of literature. ‘Even though I
understand the temptation, I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates and unhealthy link with institutions,’ he told La Croix. ‘Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard–but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.”’
I have never been a taxi driver. Perhaps that’s my problem. Then again, I have never had a grant or other financial support for my writing, either. Does this mean I’ll never be a Nobel Prize winner? Or that I will? I’m so confused.
Perhaps, though, it should count in my favor that I have had two taxi drivers who have become enormous parts of my backstory: my life, in the parts that matter. One I met when I was a teenager in an ill-fated chambermaid job at the Eastland Motor Hotel in Portland; I knew Livingston for a grand total of three days. The other, Frank Ireland, I knew for even less time: a couple of hours he spent driving me on the scenic route between Wadebridge and Tintagel in North Cornwall, the first time I went to England on my own. But those two taxi drivers gave me stories, and since I live my life in stories, time is immaterial.
I was 15 when I met Livingston. I never knew his last name. He was from Jamaica, an immigrant who worked days as an electrician at the Eastland, and nights as a taxi driver, saving his money and sending it to his mother back home. He might have been in his early twenties. But in my white-bread world, he was foreign and exciting and interesting. He and I worked on the same floors at the Eastland in the short time before I lost my job (I had to be 16, it turned out, to work in a hotel, even as a chambermaid). I made beds and vacuumed and cleaned out ashtrays and emptied trash. He did whatever the electricians did; but he also wired his boombox into the wall panels when he worked, and used the 16-story building as his personal antenna in order that he might listen to reggae stations broadcasting from New York. I don’t know how he did it. He tried to explain to me, but gave up after a while, because it was obvious I didn’t get it. Never mind, let’s just dance. And we did, in the hallway when I’d done one room and was moving on to the next in the 16 each maid had to tend to each day. He explained to me how he drove his cab at night, up and down between Commercial Street by the harbor and Back Bay on the other side of the city, listening to his reggae, leaning against the door, his long right leg stretched out on the seat beside him, his left foot on the pedals. When did he sleep? Who knew? I just knew when he danced. Terrible dancer, you. He would shake his head, grasp my wrist. Like this. This. I was a grave disappointment to him. I take you to Kingston. We teach you there. But instead, I got my walking papers, and I never saw him again.
Frank, on the other hand, was a lifesaver. I had
come into the station at Bodmin Parkway to find that, Sunday, no buses were running. With another couple, I hitched a ride into Wadebridge. There, desperate to find a ride to Tintagel, I finally got hold of Frank at ADA Cabs from a public call box on The Platt. He said he wasn’t planning to work that day, but he’d come for me at 4. In the meantime, did I see that pub across the way? Don’t go to that one. Go to the one beside it. It’s better. I had my first pint of Cornish Cream at the next pub over, sitting at a picnic table in the side garden, reading a book, until 4. When Frank finally came, in his black and white cab, he asked if I wanted to sit in front or back (I chose front); then he asked if I needed to get to Tintagel immediately, or if I wanted to take the scenic route–Same price!–and you know what I chose. We spent hours driving
about the North Cornwall countryside, and I got lessons about Delabole slate; about tin mining; about how once there have been pigs, there’ll be nettles, and there’s nothing you can do to get rid of them. He showed me the beach I’d want to go to. He told me which pubs in which villages were the good ones. He was appalled that, where I live, there’s no place social like the pubs: what do you do of an evening when you just want to walk out for a pint? He called me “love,” which is apparently a very common and colloquial endearment west of Taunton. He told me next time I came, I needed to rent a car on my own, because there was so much to do, so much to look at, so much to find out. It was a great sadness to finally reach the Bosayne Guest House on Atlantic Street in Tintagel, to have to get out of the cab. I have not seen Frank since, though I did, the following winter, send him four pounds sterling in a Christmas card, so he could walk out for a pint on me. I still have the card he sent in return.
No, Mr. Engdahl, I’ve never been a taxi driver. But I’ve been mildly in love with a pair of them for years. And they’ve both fed me, in a literary sense.
I’ve been seeing Facebook memes about how October is so many people’s “favorite color.” It seems to have taken the fancy of any number of poets, writing about the month, about the season, about things which are part of both. Exploring the poems of October has been quite an interesting adventure. One person in my third period class did pick up on the fact that so many poets named their pieces “Autumn” or “October;” didn’t we just read that one? was the question I heard. Surprise! No, no, we didn’t. We read another one with that title by a different author. Isn’t it cool to see the different takes by the different writers?
I realized, though, that I always introduce the class by saying the same thing: Today I have a poem for you. It was brought home to me when a young person shot back, Don’t you always? And–for four years and two months now–I always have!
October 1, Wednesday: “Still Morning” by W. S. Merwin
October 2, Thursday: “October” by Patrick Kavanagh (both Patrick Kavanagh in general, and tomorrow’s Hughes poem in particular have been suggested in the past by the poet Jenny Doughty: she understands my taste, I think.)
October 3, Friday: “October Dawn” by Ted Hughes
October 6, Monday: “Wild Turkeys” by Lawrence Kessinich
October 7, Tuesday: “Beyond the Red River” by Thomas McGrath
October 8, Wednesday: “Rain” by Edward Thomas
October 9, Thursday: “Full Moon” by Liesel Muller
October 10, Friday: teacher conference–no class
October 13, Monday: Columbus Day–no school
October 14, Tuesday: “Especially When the October Wind” by Dylan Thomas
October 15, Wednesday: “Autumn Sky” by Charles Simic
October 16, Thursday: “Autumn Comes to Martins Ferry, Ohio” by James Wright (and did they ever want to talk about what “suicidally beautiful” looks like!)
October 17, Friday: “Octobers” by Loren Graham (because of an ad that came in my mail this week: How come we don’t get poetry ads in the mail? one young person asked. Hallelujah for targeted advertising!)
October 20, Monday: “Six Cheerful Couplets on Death” by Michael Blumenthal
October 21, Tuesday: “Autumn” by Amy Lowell
October 22, Wednesday: “Haymaking” by Edward Thomas
October 23, Thursday: “For My Son, Reading Harry Potter” by Michael Blumenthal
October 24, Friday: “The Students” by Mark Halliday
October 27, Monday: “Autumn” by Joan Mitchell
October 28, Tuesday: “The Broken Fountain” by Amy Lowell (I don’t know that we’ve read any Amy Lowell in all these years–so I guess two this month could make up for that lack.)
October 29, Wednesday: “October” by Robert Frost
October 30, Thursday: “The Haunted Palace” by Edgar Allan Poe (I couldn’t decide which Poe to read for Halloween, so I chose two!)
October 31, Friday: “Spirits of the Dead” by Edgar Allan Poe
Postscript: The month ended with the sad news of the death of Galway Kinnell. Needless to say, November’s going to rock with the man’s work. As always, I am open to suggestions. Keep them coming in!
Two years ago, Julia got me hooked on the novels of Phil Rickman, a writer from the Border Country. His books are…weird. Often unnerving. Extremely intelligent. Layered. Containing multiple narratives. Spooky? Characters are spiritual, sometimes within the framework of established religion, sometimes not. There are hauntings, some of them psychological, some of them inexplicable. The books are musical, with bands and solo artists and sometimes Edward Elgar. The books are full of poetry, and history, and archaeology, and folklore. There are characters who flit between books, sometimes in major and sometimes in minor roles. There are stand-alones; there are books that might be pairs; there is a series. Thanks to Julia, I have been devouring them as quickly as I can lay my hands on them.
In December, which is perhaps one of the most unnerving of all Rickman’s novels, a group of musicians, who had worked together 14 years previously with disastrous results, reluctantly reunite to record again. The music label which coerces them into this uncomfortable situation arranges the recording to be done in a studio in the tower of a ruinous abbey in Wales, the place where everything went to hell for the members on the night of December 8, 1980. Just to see what would happen. Well, things do happen, and of course, in Rickman form, they happen cataclysmically.
Fast-forward to me. And Julia and Roger, in August, when I visited. I thought we could go to Llanthony Priory, Julia suggested casually. She knows how much I love ruinous things. Then she told me the tower formerly housed a recording studio. Oh. I got it. Of course, we had to make a drinks stop at the Skirrid Inn–the characters did in December, too, for sustenance before facing their ordeal. The oldest pub in Wales, first listed in chronicles in 1100, the inn is dark, low-ceilinged, heavy-beamed, and sports a noose hanging in the stairwell: hundreds of people
were tried and hanged there over the years of its existence, Julia told me. A dreadfully unhappy place. From the table on the cobbles out front we could see the mountain after which the inn is named, a high double peak which legend says split at the moment of the crucifixion of Jesus. Seriously atmospheric.
On to the priory. The roads were twisty and narrow–lanes, really, between high hedges. Yes, I could feel the possibility of the a car crash in the dark on the road into the ruins, just as happens in December. Even though the sun was out, the clouds were ominous, casting shadows over the high fields where sheep dotted the grass. The massive stonework rose up before us, and it was beautiful against the sky and the Brecons, and sad, and even haunted. We wandered through the chapter house, Julia identifying rooms now open to the air. Roger and I read about the history, the establishment, the de Lacys, the destruction, the abandonment. I wondered about the square tower, still intact; next to it, a much later building houses a restaurant, a bar, and rooms to let. Strangely, though: the Abbey of the novel seemed gloomier, more frightening than the actual Priory…but of course, it was August, not December. It was sunny, not snowing. And it was daytime, not after dark. I don’t know if I’d be more anxious if I’d taken a room overnight in midwinter; I’d probably be looking over my shoulder all the time for perverted ghostly monks.
Postscript: Julia, Roger and I did not have cake at the restaurant here. It was much too early.