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April is poetry month, so open your heart

Updated: May 8, 2014 10:08AM



Friday was cold and windy. Getting dressed for the Cubs home opener, I thought: better put on my Under Armour. Which is usually reserved for skiing or when it’s 15 below zero. But I worried that high-tech long johns were overkill, so I fired off an email to a Cub fan buddy, who would be at the game. Is wearing long underwear to the ballpark in April, I asked, a “prudent precaution” or a “shameful stratagem?”

You’ll notice the alliteration in that question. Not an accident. “Prudent precaution” came naturally, then I paused, searching for the right “s” word to put after “shameful.”

Not poetic, of course, but a reminder that we can all use language to decorate and enhance the most ordinary moments of our lives, like checking with a pal to see if wearing long underwear to Wrigley Field will mark a guy as a weakling. (“I will be wearing mine,” he answered, a reply I was grateful for when the wind picked up and the temperature dropped after the sixth).

Cut to the next day, around Sheffield and Fullerton, I noticed the sleek pegasus logo of the Poetry Foundation on a placard atop a taxi cab. Oh right. April is National Poetry Month, and while the commencement of baseball is marked in Chicago with pomp, solemnity and mass ritual, events like Poetry Month are shrugged off by the vast majority, which is just plain wrong.

First, poetry is important. Yes, as with long underwear, there is a whiff of effeminacy to it that many guys find off-putting. A cultural slur you’d think we would have abandoned long ago. Soldiers write poetry, not only a century ago, such as Wilfred Owen’s classic “Dulce et Decorum Est,” about a World War I gas attack (Go on line and read it right now, “As under a green sea, I saw him drowning/In all my dreams, before my helpless sight/He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”)

But also soldiers fighting today. Brian Turner, in his collection “Here, Bullet” sees a sergeant shoot a crane in Iraq. “It pauses, as if amazed death has found it/here, at 7 a.m. on such a beautiful morning, before pitching over the side and falling/in a slow unraveling of feathers and wings.”

Second, poetry is useful. It’s a tool, like a screwdriver or a hammer. Though I suppose that depends on who you are. If you are Mr. Equanimity, smiling at the clouds as you stroll happily along, your neighbors setting their watches as you pass by, well, maybe the stuff has not much use for you.

Even then, there are always lighter poets, like Billy Collins, who runs up to the reader waving his poem like a 6-year-old showing off a new toy. “To take a poem/and hold it up to the light/like a color slide/or press an ear against its hive./I say drop a mouse into a poem/and watch him probe his way out.”

Me, being a dark sort, I’ve been revelling in the poems of Louise Glück, such as “Stars.” She inventories her scant world. “I have a bed, a vase/of flowers beside it,/ and a nightlight, a book.” Life itself questions her: “Do you dare/send me away as though/you were waiting for something better?/There is no better/Only (for a short space)/the night sky . . .” To which she hisses back: “I was brave, I resisted,/I set myself on fire.”

And third, Chicago is a poetry town. Do you think Wrigley Field, built in 1914, is old? Poetry Magazine was founded here in 1912 by Harriet Monroe, and has fielded better players and enjoyed a better past century.

Chicago is a city not only with statues to poets such as Goethe, but with an apartment building and a parking garage named for poets. There is the Uptown Poetry Slam at the Green Mill on Sundays, now in its 27th year, and why that isn’t a standard Chicago tourist stop along with Wrigley and the Art Institute is an utter mystery. There is the Poetry Foundation itself, which put up its airy and attractive building on West Superior to help sop up the Lilly $100 million fortune that drenched it, a dubious boon they’ve coped with better than expected.

There is nothing superfluous about good poetry. It guides and instructs. I picked up “Leaves of Grass” a 150-year-old poem, and read one sentence that resonates with today.

“And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy,” Walt Whitman writes, “walks to his own funeral, dressed in his shroud.”

That’s it, I thought. That’s what our political problem is right now. Not enough sympathy, for other people that is. We overflow with sympathy for ourselves and puzzle that others don’t share it, when we are so stingy doling it out. Maybe we should take our cue from Whitman and pause from marching graveward to cast off our blinding burial cloth, force ourselves to feel compassion for the other guy, even if we don’t like him. Here poetry helps, or could help, if only we let it.

Email: nsteinberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @NeilSteinberg



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