Friday, November 03, 2006

Listen to Elvis and Bach. Unless

For the past few days I’ve been listening to The Writer’s Almanac — a five-minute, daily broadcast hosted by Garrison Keillor featuring a short bit of literary history and a poem. Because I often have trouble concentrating, I often read along as I listen. And lately, I have noticed some really beautiful lessons pulled from the difference between poetry that is read and poetry that is heard.

For instance, today’s poem is “How to Live” by Charles Harper Webb:

How to Live

“I don’t know how to live.”
–Sharon Olds

Eat lots of steak and salmon and Thai curry and mu shu
pork and fresh green beans and baked potatoes
and fresh strawberries with vanilla ice cream.
Kick-box three days a week. Stay strong and lean.
Go fly-fishing every chance you get, with friends

who’ll teach you secrets of the stream. Play guitar
in a rock band. Read Dostoyevsky, Whitman, Kafka,
Shakespeare, Twain. Collect Uncle Scrooge comics.
See Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, and everything Monty Python made.
Love freely. Treat ex-partners as kindly

as you can. Wish them as well as you’re able.
Snorkel with moray eels and yellow tangs. Watch
spinner dolphins earn their name as your panga slam-
bams over glittering seas. Try not to lie; it sours
the soul. But being a patsy sours it too. If you cause

a car wreck, and aren’t hurt, but someone is, apologize
silently. Learn from your mistake. Walk gratefully
away. Let your insurance handle it. Never drive drunk.
Don’t be a drunk, or any kind of “aholic.” It’s bad
English, and bad news. Don’t berate yourself. If you lose

a game or prize you’ve earned, remember the winners
history forgets. Remember them if you do win. Enjoy
success. Have kids if you want and can afford them,
but don’t make them your reason-to-be. Spare them that
misery. Take them to the beach. Mail order sea

monkeys once in your life. Give someone the full-on
ass-kicking he (or she) has earned. Keep a box turtle
in good heath for twenty years. If you get sick, don’t thrive
on suffering. There’s nothing noble about pain. Die
if you need to, the best way you can. (You define best.)

Go to church if it helps you. Grow tomatoes to put store-
bought in perspective. Listen to Elvis and Bach. Unless
you’re tone deaf, own Perlman’s “Meditation from Thais.”
Don’t look for hidden meanings in a cardinal’s song.
Don’t think TV characters talk to you; that’s crazy.

Don’t be too sane. Work hard. Loaf easily. Have good
friends, and be good to them. Be immoderate
in moderation. Spend little time anesthetized. Dive
the Great Barrier Reef. Don’t touch the coral. Watch
for sea snakes. Smile for the camera. Don’t say “Cheese.”

This poem is very authoritative, but avoids being patronizing through charm and wisdom. Hear it without reading it, though, and you miss a harsh written line like that one is the sixth stanza — “on suffering. There’s nothing noble about pain. Die.” — which is actually part of three separate sentences, but reads on the page like one of the aphorisms that make up the poem.

Read alone, that line would be curt and cruel (you can imagine a colon after, “on suffering” and the word “already” stuck at the end), but reintegrated back into poem, the line is a plea for appropriateness: suffering is a symptom, not a reason for living. And that is what the poem is about, anyway, a measured life where one extreme is tempered with the other: Elvis with Bach, eating vanilla ice cream with staying strong and lean. Work hard. Loaf easily.

Or this one, from October 16:

“Before I Was Born” by Linda S. Buckmaster

Before I Was Born

She waits
on the corner of Broad Street and
Oregon Ave., Benny Goodman’s clarinet
slipping out of the radio at Tony’s
each time a customer opens
the door. They go in
and out again, and still
he hasn’t come. Twenty past
seven and now they’ll never
make the show.
Streetlights blink on.
She bends to straighten
the seam of her stocking.
She doesn’t know that this
will be her life.

Line six — “the door. They go in” — reads like stage directions, but also an imagining (when “he” arrives, “they” will go into the show). Line twelve — “She bends to straighten” — uses opposites to mock the action; bending to straighten equals dressing up for no one.

And then the master, William Carlos Williams:


As the cat
climbed over
the top of

the jamcloset
first the right

then the hind
stepped down
into the pit of
the empty

A poem that would be almost meaningless without line-breaks.