I wish I was better-versed in how to read and understand poetry. Part of that longing emanates from a place of loss and grief—Mark was a poet—as well as being an activist, a performance artist, and one special human being always in search of his better self. His writing and poetry was part of his process.
The Tragically Hip had a song called “Poets.” When I was thinking about this post while making like a fish in the pool this morning, the song was in my head (and has been much of the day). I’m sad to say that we lost another poet and always-evolving human when Gord Downie “shuffled off this mortal coil” a few weeks back.
I was stricken with The Hip the first time I heard the opening chords to “New Orleans is Sinking.” Then, I went to Canada, their homeland where they were rock gods. Mark was probably five at the time. Downie’s poetic ruminations, framed by a rock and roll backbeat captivated me for more than a decade. So maybe I was more familiar with poetry than I thought. Perhaps Gord and Mark are somewhere reading together.
Last week, I was at Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick. Now that the power has been restored in Brunswick-proper, the library has resumed it normalcy, which for me is mainly, a place where people come to find and check out books. I found Stephen Burt’s the poem is you: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them perched on the new releases shelf. “This is the book for me,” I thought. I was right.
Burt includes 60 poems, collected from 1981 forward. Interestingly, the featured poets were all “shipping” their work across the approximate span of Mark’s lifetime (he was born in 1983, the year after my better half and I tied the knot).
When Mark realized he was a poet, he also came to terms with the landscape where his writing would be living and breathing, I felt like this was when his work was destined for bigger and better things. Of course, little did I know what lay ahead.
Burt, who now is known as Steph, is an intriguing figure within the realm of poetry and literary criticism circles. There are those who don’t care for his “cheerleading” for poets. Of course, we live in such a cynical world obsessed with tearing others down that being accused of “indiscriminate positivity,” “blurbing good cheer,” and “comprehensive enthusiasm” seems destined to get you disliked and even hated. Whatever.
Mark was of good cheer, too. Because of that and some of his own unorthodox ways, others have directed their hate and vitriol his way via YouTube, and other social media platforms, too. Fuck the haters!
I read another one of Burt’s selections and poets this morning: a woman named Lucia Perillo. Her poem, “Viagra,” was a “funny poem” that takes its title from a well-known pharmaceutical that inflates flaccid penises. You’ve probably seen one of the commercials.
Perillo was a person with a disability. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was in her 30s. She wasn’t shy about taking on the issues affecting people like her in America. Sadly, I learned this morning while doing research to write this that she died just after Mark began his walk last October. She was only three years older than I am when she died. I keep coming across these poets lately and I wish I could ask him about them, if they were people he was familiar with and had read. But of course, I can’t.
As I make my way through Burt’s fantastic book (see, his cheerleading is rubbing off on me), I’m learning that poets like Perillo and many others did other things besides just writing poetry. She had been a researcher for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prior to earning her MA in English from Syracuse University. A.R. Ammons studied chemistry and biology at Wake Forest. He then worked for a biological glass company for twelve years while honing his chops before his poems shaped by his math and science skills began to get noticed by the poetry community.
Mark worked in a library as a content management specialist. He was an activist, and he also took time to put his feet on the ground to traverse this wide and surprisingly diverse nation of ours. He was writing poems as he walked. He was teaching those of us paying attention that the more you get out and about, the more you begin to realize that while we’re the same in many ways, we’re also different, too.
Rugged individualism plays well in some corners (mainly conservative talk radio), but in much of the real world, we all need (and rely) on others. If we don’t, we become bitter, twisted, and just plain lonely, I think. Or your world becomes darkened by fear and hatred of “the other.”
I’m still finding my way forward with poetry, but Burt’s helped me along and I’ll continue to grow my understanding of the genre. I also now recognize that the poems and poets I was made to read in high school and hated are no longer required in adulthood. Plus, the palette of flavors is much broader than I ever imagined.