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Poetry calls to us, like wild geese

Updated: November 25, 2012 11:36AM

An interview with Mary Oliver was posted on Facebook last week, tipping me off that she has a new book of poetry out. I marched over to the Book Bin and asked if they had a copy. They did — it’s that kind of store — and I said I’d take it.

“That’ll be $27.25,” said the clerk, and I paused to thumb through the book. A wad of cash for a slim volume of brief poems; 77 pages, 26 of them completely blank.

I read the first poem, “I Go Down to the Shore,” which consists of eight lines:

I go down to the shore in the morning

and depending on the hour the waves

are rolling in or moving out,

and I say, oh, I am miserable,

what shall--

what should I do? And the sea says

in its lovely voice:

Excuse me, I have work to do.

Yup. I plunked down the 27 bucks. Having Mary Oliver close-at-hand is helpful. She lives in the space between the fragile seed puff of our egos and the great surging world, both indifferent and enticing. In “Wild Geese,” she points out that while you endure your crises,

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Poetry traditionally is the scorned stepchild of the arts — no buckets of money like the movies or music. But poetry seems more popular lately. We might even be in a renaissance, especially in Chicago, home to both poles, the Poetry Slam and the Poetry Foundation. You walk down State Street and poetry hangs from lamposts (W.S. Di Piero’s “Mealy mist. Furred air,” apt in Tuesday’s fog). Garrison Keillor’s voice intones from planters, reading poetry — he has been producing a five-minute radio show, “The Writer’s Almanac,” featuring a daily poem, for 20 years, and edited the three popular Good Poems anthologies of verse. I caught up with him last week.

“I think that poetry is booming as never before,” Keillor said, over the telephone. “Because there’s a whole generation of people, a couple generations, seriously encouraged to write their own poems. Everybody — half the people I meet — are secret poets, people you might never suspect. It is the form for allowing intimate, personal expression, expressing private intimate thoughts to strangers.”

Why is poetry surging at this moment?

“The universality of it,” he said. “It is the great window, for most people. It’s the place where people go to contemplate their own deepest feelings, about love and mortality and the light and dark of life. It’s simply everywhere you look. It’s always with us.”

I told him I take poetry medicinally, and wondered if he too derives comfort from it.

“No,” he said. “I guess I take an English major’s interest in it. I read a vast amount of poetry doing The Writer’s Almanac, so I push things that don’t speak to me aside, push things that seem second-hand and false and imitative to the side. When I find something original and moving, I feel wonderful, but I don’t think I turn to it in dark times, I don’t know what I turn to — I turn to my friends.”

I asked if he had any favorite contemporary poets, Mary Oliver perhaps. But he didn’t name names. “I like the latest new poet I’ve come across,” he said. “That’s my strongest feeling, for poets who are unknown and who are just breaking through. There are so many of them now thanks to creative writing programs and people with MFAs. When you come on somebody who is an original, it really strikes you. There’s nothing quite like it.”

“The Writer’s Almanac” can be heard on-line, and on 383 public radio stations nationwide, but not on Chicago’s own public radio station, WBEZ. I wondered why. This is the response I got from WBEZ general manager Torey Malatia, which I believe simultaneously explains the lack and illustrates the need:

“Modules such as Writer’s Almanac have limited utility in that they are dependent on consuming segments in other larger vehicles. The series was designed when the public radio system was comprised of mostly classical stations where a few minutes of interruption could happen anytime in the schedule.”

Keillor and I also spoke a bit about his “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show, discussing whether he really plans to retire, as he has threatened to do, how he writes his “The News from Lake Wobegon” segments, and why he takes the show on the road so much — he’ll bring the program to the Auditorium Theatre Nov. 10. But space dwindles, so I’ll return to our conversation on Friday.

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