David Bruce: Poetry Anecdotes

Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, is a wonderful storyteller—not just when he writes his novels, but also when he tells out loud the stories of classic literature. For example, when he and his family were on vacation, Tom, his young son, found it difficult to stay still while they waited for their food in a restaurant. Therefore, Mr. Pullman started telling him the story of Odysseus, hero of Homer’s Odyssey, who spent 10 years at Troy in the Trojan War, and who spent another 10 years returning back home to his home island, Ithaca. Although Odysseus was the King of Ithaca, he returned home without any of his men or ships. Ever cautious, he disguised himself as a beggar, and then he set out to see if he had any friends left on the island. He found that a gang of young men who thought he was dead had overtaken his palace. They wanted to kill his son and to force his wife, Penelope, to choose one of them to marry. Eventually, Mr. Pullman reached the point in the story where Odysseus gets his great bow in his hands and strings the bow. After stringing the bow, he plucks the string on the bow just like a harp player plucks a string on a harp. Immediately, the suitors besieging Penelope feel dread because they know that Odysseus is going to try to kill all of them. At this point, Tom, who was holding a drink in his hands, was so excited that he bit a chunk out of his glass. Their waitress saw him do that, and she was so shocked that she dropped the tray with all their food on the floor. Mr. Pullman ends his story by writing, “And I sent up a silent prayer of thanks to Homer.”

While children’s mystery writer Joan Lowery Nixon was attending Hollywood High, Pearl Harbor was bombed. Lots of soldiers were in Los Angeles, and city authorities begged families to entertain the servicemen. Ms. Nixon’s parents responded by often inviting servicemen who visited their church to also visit their home. Soon, Ms. Nixon began to write letters to many of the servicemen who visited her family. Other girls at her school were doing the same thing. Once in a while, Ms. Nixon would write a poem—something light and romantic that would let a serviceman know that he was being missed. She would let her friends copy the poem to put in their letters, and their friends would copy the poem to put in their letters, and suddenly Ms. Nixon found that she was writing for a large audience.

While attending Montclair State Teacher’s College in Montclair, New York, Paula Danziger met poet John Ciardi, who greatly influenced her development as a writer of books for young children and teenagers. He once had her analyze a poem by using the color red to underline the funny lines and the color blue to underline the serious lines. When she had finished analyzing the poem, the lines were red mixed with blue: purple. Ms. Danziger’s own books are a mix of funny and serious. She says, “That’s what I always write toward—that mixture.”

In this game, a person will write a line of poetry on a sheet of paper, bend the paper so that the line cannot be read, then give the paper to another person who does the same thing. The two poets keep writing different lines, until they decide the poem is complete and unfold the paper to read the poem. The game’s name comes from the first two lines of the very first poem created by the game: “the exquisite / corpse / shall drink / the new / wine.”

Zen master Sengai was invited to a wealthy man’s housewarming. After enjoying a fine meal, Sengai was asked to compose a poem in honor of the housewarming. He quickly wrote the first half of his poem, “The house is surrounded / By the gods of poverty.” Looking over Sengai’s shoulder, the host became angry, but his mind was set at ease when Sengai finished his poem: “How can the deities of good luck / Ever leave it?”

When she was a young woman, Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote the poem “Renascence,” which contained mature imagery of death and rebirth. Poets Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke read the poem, but until they met Ms. Millay in person, they refused to believe that “some sweet young thing of 20” had written the poem, writing her instead to say that its author must have been “a brawny male of 45.”

In Robert Frost’s famous poem “Mending Wall,” a character says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Poet and playwright T.S. Eliot once asked Mr. Frost what that sentence—a New England proverb—meant. Mr. Frost said that he was not surprised that Mr. Eliot asked that particular question: “Eliot’s characters never know boundaries, not even of each other’s beds.”

Vaslav Nijinsky choreographed his ballet titled L’ Après-Midi d’un to Debussy’s music, which was a prelude to Mallarmé’s poem. Mr. Nijinsky created much consternation for everyone at a dinner party, all of whom thought the ballet was a wonderful introduction to Mallarmé’s poem, when he confessed that he had not read that poem by Mallarmé—or any poem by Mallarmé.

African-American poet Countee Cullen wanted to be judged as a poet, not as an African-American poet. He stated that clearly to Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter Margaret Sperry: “If I am going to be a poet at all, I am going to be a poet and not a Negro poet.” Ironically, the headline for this interview stated, “Countee P. Cullen, Negro Boy Poet, Tells His Story.”

When he was a student, poet David McCord, author of One at a Time, had a teacher who told him, “Never let a day go by without looking on three beautiful things.” He has always tried to follow that advice, which he acknowledges is not difficult. Mr. McCord says, “The sky in all weathers is, for me, the first of these three things.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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