Ode in Prose

img_1742-2What I did with my summer vacation is write a poem. Those twelve lines about talking with friends at a dinner are the best record I have of having done something different. No T-shirt or mug, shard of beach glass or whelk matches the souvenir of a finished poem, especially one you get to recite to others.

When you stand inside Robert Frost’s barn, where he once milked his cows and likely recited new lines to the animals, an undulating profile of White Mountains fills the open shed doors at the rear. As a student attending the annual Frost Place summer poetry program in New Hampshire, you get to stand at a podium there on the final night and recite to your fellow students, instructors, and locals, what you have written, with those blue-green mountains as a backdrop. Breezes whistle through chinks in the wooden walls and flaming torches on the lawn, meant to repel mosquitoes, produce enough smoke to make you question whether the barn may be on fire. Trooper, a three-legged dog, owned by a local woman, is often in the audience, and if he gets restless with your imagery or metaphors, he’ll saunter on to the podium to make it known you have more work to do—with a yawn or shake of his body to dispel flies.

Perhaps this is a mixed metaphor, but the moment I took my place at the lectern to recite my poems, it reminded me of a guided tour of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry when I stood on the stage where Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette and all the others of the era performed. I often think of those Country Western stars as bards; their best lyrics are poems. The import of being in the very place where Robert Frost had worked as a gentleman farmer, and where he thought and composed, is an experience that can inspire an ode. His white frame house lies beyond the barn and one of the rooms there contains a desk where he finished what he might likely have begun while pulling on udders.

Every evening, following classes and lectures at the nearby White Mountain School, where we twenty-one students resided, guest poets would read in the barn. Their introductions included a litany of grants and scholarships received, and a partial list of publications in journals with names like Mudbank and Hoot, Palaver and Wanted. Some of the lines the poets recited elicited grunts and whooshes of breaths through the nostrils from those of us seated in folding chairs. Most of the poems, though, were long, discursive “I” works about failed relationships and childhood memories of blue-collar parents—and other themes whose meanings remained indecipherable, so much so that your mind wanders to thoughts about your next dental appointment or which closet at home to clean out. But we would collectively ooo and ah over certain images. Many of these poets recited with an intonation that I’ve to come call “the MFA voice,” an unfortunate infliction and inflection where every word at the end of a line gets an uptick, akin to a more sophisticated Valley Girl accent, so that no thought seems ever to be completed and, in fact, seems always questioned.

While most of my fellow attendees were English professors or high school teachers, many of us were in nonacademic professions—I a magazine editor, another a banker, librarian, military officer, coffee company roaster. Our poems, typically, are shorter than those of the academics, and more rooted in what we do now in our life or they reference memories that haunt us still as middle-aged adults. Robert Frost was a nonacademic and I think that helped make his poetry great. He had no tenure committees to impress.

For my presentation, I read a poem I wrote fifteen years ago, soon after my father died. I describe walking a long hallway in a grand old hotel in Pittsburgh, aware that my father would likely have found the walk to be too long for him. I lingered in the threshold of my room, waiting for him to catch up. I did feel his presence in that hotel—and I swear, hours before the public reading in the Frost barn, while doing errands in nearby Littleton, I saw an elderly man sitting on the porch of the Thayers Inn who looked so much like my father that I stopped and tried to take a photograph of him. That poem got a good collective sigh from the audience after I recited the last line. I read another about a black widow spider crawling at me in my hotel room in New Mexico one night and how that event led to an unlikely sexual encounter with a cowboy (the real thing) the next morning, which elicited a whoop (better than a sigh in the world of poetry readings).

While on that podium in the barn, you feel as if you’ve arrived as a poet, even though every student in the program is allowed to read there. And because the group is a supportive one, you receive generous, enthusiastic applause, even for those poems by some named for a four-letter word or a sestina to Brittany Spears. Trooper, too, thumps his tail, once he hears applause. More than one of us broke down at the podium upon reciting a poem, the result of being able to express to others, via lines of poetry, something of supreme personal importance.

I attend a different poetry-writing workshop every summer—Sewanee University, Kenyon College (in Ohio and Italy), University of New Mexico—because I like vacations with an intellectual agenda. At the Frost program, like the others, you reside in sweatsock-redolent dorm rooms, share bathrooms and shower in moldy group stalls. When I arrived at the White Mountain School, I was handed a shrink-wrapped bedding kit akin to something you’d receive upon beginning a sentence at Riker’s: thread-bare towel, wafer-thin Styrofoam pillow, felt blanket, scratchy sheet. The room is lit by a buzzing fluorescent coil and your body learns to read like Braille the contours and springs of the single bed’s mattress. There is no mirror in the room, no hangers, or air conditioning. But you adapt and soon don’t care, though when you drive past the town’s quaint inns, you look longingly at the curtained windows, explosions of blue TV light behind within.

Other intrigues, apart from poetry, often occur, too. When I arrived after a drive from Boston, I was greeted by a young student seated against a tree, writing in a notebook. We established that we were in the same class and had already read and admired the poems to be discussed in our workshops. We then drove to town together to buy groceries for late-night snacks and amble through antiques shops, quickly learning what attracts us—paintings for me, vintage postcards for him.

From our poetry, we knew we were both gay, but he was in this early twenties, and I in my fifties. At one point, while we were in town, having just met minutes earlier on the quiet campus, the young man said to me, “I feel like I don’t know how to be very conversational,” whereupon I assured him that he was doing just fine. We spoke and conversed with ease, though I could tell he was nervous, as I would have been at his age.

The first morning in the communal bathroom, while I was at the mirror shaving, the young man came in, rubbing his eyes. He said good morning. He fluffed his hair in the mirror and put his hand on my bare shoulder as if balancing himself, a gesture I recognized as affection—perhaps a bit inappropriate, but something I welcomed. Later that day, after class, I found a note under my door. It was written by the young man, configured on the page as a poem, which confused me at first glance—was it a newly minted work he wanted me to assess or was it an actual missive to me. It stated that he had a “crush” on me and that he wished to take it further, with the woods suggested as a possible venue. The first chance I had, I took him aside to thank him for the note and the invitation “to romp and touch faces”, especially from a young man to a man my age, but I said no to the idea. He squeezed his eyes shut when I told him this.

From the moment my stay began, I remained haunted by a man named Matthew back in New York, from whom I had just broken up. So, when I read the young man’s declaration of affection, a favorite line from A Streetcar Named Desire came to mind, where Blanche says, upon meeting a new suitor, “Sometimes— there’s God—so quickly.”

The head of the program, Patrick Donnelly, who is equal parts poetry sage and poet, and a chronicler of the plague, said something in his final address that resonated with us all. He thanked us for being so supportive of each other’s work but also said that he knew we had all come to the workshop troubled by something in our personal lives. How did he know this? Many of us nodded in agreement the moment he uttered that statement, as if we were parishioners in pews responding to a sermon. I was recovering from a love affair and had even considered reading a poem based on that still raw experience. Matthew might just as well have been with me in the audience he was that present still in my mind. Something about poetry that makes you think about everyone in your life who matters but who isn’t there. But here was an audience of people who were there, for each other.

I went into town my last day there to buy the young man in my class a goodbye souvenir. In one of the antiques shops in Littleton, there were prepackaged selections of vintage postcards for sale and I bought one without looking to see what was included. But I could see through the plastic bag in which they were encased that some of the postcards had messages written in the nineteen-aughts, while others had never been written on or sent anywhere. I figured those disparate images might serve well as prompts for future poems by the young man, for he was the most talented in our class.

After a week of pure poetry, I, like my fellow poets, return home to face some of those same problems that were alluded to by the director. But you feel better equipped to write about them and live with them. What I did on my summer vacation lasts the whole year.

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