Towards Appreciating Poetry

I have always loved the power and the beauty of words. I guess that’s one of the reasons why I became a preacher, and now, it’s part of why I enjoy this newspaper business.

Words have the power to create worlds and to transport us backwards – even forwards! – in time.

Appropriate words can inspire a nation, comfort the afflicted, and encourage the hopeless. Proverbs 25:11 tells us that when the right words are well spoken, they are like “apples of gold in settings of silver.” That is to say, words can have a beauty and a value like an exquisite piece of fine jewelry.

I think that is especially true for poetry. And April is National Poetry Month. According to the website, “National Poetry Month in April is a special occasion to celebrate the importance of poets and poetry in our culture. This year, on the 25th anniversary of the celebration and in this time of uncertainty and great concern, we can rely on poems to offer wisdom, uplifting ideas, and language that prompts reflection that can help us slow down and center mentally, emotionally, spiritually.”

In my experience, poetry is one of those things that you either love or you hate. And speaking just for myself, I love it. I like the way poets can play with rhythm and “hard,” or accented syllables, versus softer ones: “I think that I shall never see / a poem lovely as a tree” is the way Sergeant Joyce Kilmer began his famous poem “Trees.” He was a member of the Famous 69th New York, with the American Expeditionary Force in France during World War I. Countless soldiers have surveyed the wasteland of a devastated, bombed-out forest, but to read his poem is to feel it from his point of view. Then think about the fact that he was killed in action on July 30, 1918, at the age of 31.

There’s a Robert Frost poem that I enjoy that says, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.” Any dad trying to get home to his family before someone’s Big Day can relate to the speaker being tired and wishing he could stay where he was but knowing that he had to keep moving.

If you are old enough to remember the Challenger disaster, then perhaps you also remember President Reagan’s tribute to the seven who died in that tragedy. The president quoted from the poem “High Flight,” written by an American flyer serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force, Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee. He wrote the poem in the early days of World War II; tragically, he was killed in action a short time later. It begins, “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…” The poem concludes with, “And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod The high un-trespassed sanctity of space, Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

I don’t know much about this idea, but I think poetry taps into to that whole “left-brain, right-brain” thing. Doctors who study the brain tell us that one side of our brain handles the analytical duties – math, language, engineering – while the other side deals with emotions, imagination, and creativity. So maybe poetry is able to touch both parts – the words communicate the meaning intended by the writer, but the rhyming, the cadence of the verses, and the other types of creative expression touch that part of us that enjoys art and beauty. It’s a possibility.

In honor of April as National Poetry Month, this coming Friday night, April 1, there’s going to be an “Open Mic Night” featuring poetry and coffee, at the new Copenhagen Coffee House in Stamford, 126 E. Hamilton. It is scheduled for 6:30 – 8:00 pm, and I’m planning to go. Maybe you can join me there.

One of my favorite poems is – Big Surprise! – about trains. The title is “Travel,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I read somewhere that it was a favorite of President Franklin Roosevelt. It closes with –

My heart is warm with friends I make,
  And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
  No matter where it’s going.

No Matter Where It’s Going

I love trains.

I mean, I always have. My mother used to say that, as a child, I could say “choo choo” before I could say “Mama.” I love watching trains, hearing trains off in the distance, reading about trains. And I especially love riding on them.

Trains were a major part of my life growing up. We used to spend a lot of time at my maternal grandparents’ home in Grayburg, Texas, between Houston and Beaumont. It was right on the Missouri Pacific mainline between Houston and New Orleans. There was a long passing siding there, and also a small rail yard where pulpwood logs would be off-loaded from trucks onto flatcars for transit to the paper mills of East Texas. There was also a small passenger station and freight dock. The station was a two-tone beige and brown structure with the typical bay window that jutted out to give a clear view of the tracks in both directions. And of course, on both sides of the station, a large black and wide sign that read “Grayburg,” and the red and white Missouri Pacific “buzzsaw” logo.

MoPac’s famous “Buzzsaw” Logo

When I was in about the 2nd grade, Mom dropped off my dad, my brother Buzzy and me at the train station in Beaumont, and we rode the train the 25 miles or so to Grayburg. It must have been around 1963. (Yes, I know, I’m old.) I remember the green tufted chenille upholstery on the seats, and the cheap black rubber floor mats over linoleum on the floor. I remember feeling really high up off the ground as I watched the train cars in the yard go by at eye level. And I remember the conductor hurrying us off the train when we got to Grayburg. He put the little stepstool on the ground, we stepped off, he waved to the engineer, and they were moving again. We stood there and waited for the train to finish going by before we could cross the tracks and walk the short distance to my grandmother’s house.

The station there was torn down in the late 60s, but I still remember it, inside and out. There were MoPac calendars hanging up inside, a couple of pews along the wall, and a restroom with a sign that said, “Whites Only.” But that’s a story for another day.

Thinking about Grayburg always makes me smile. I’m sure you have some favorite memories from your childhood that do that for you. But I remember hours of watching trains and playing with my brothers. Climbing all over the railcars (in hindsight, unsafe, I know), putting pennies on the track for the train to flatten, and waving to the train crews as they went by. Sweet times.

People have often asked me why I love trains so much. I guess partly it’s the sight of a powerful locomotive laboring to pull a long string of cars, the sounds of horns and steel on steel and brakes squealing, the smells of creosote and hot steel on a Texas summer day. Partly it’s the romance of travel, of passing countryside, of new places and new sights. A lot of it is the sweet memories of those days. I love it all.

I will give the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay the last word, from her poem, “Travel.”

The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.