Ghost-Companions and National Poetry Month

So April is almost over, which means that National Poetry Month is also on the wane. This holiday (of sorts) is celebrated primarily with readings and book fairs and maybe a brief appearance or two by a soft spoken poet on PBS’ The News Hour with Jim Leher. Some poets and literati might lament the fact that the national standing of the man (or woman) of letters is not what it used to be. Since Shakespeare, the prominence of poets in English and American pop culture has flat-lined. There is of course the rare anomaly here and there – a blip or two by Robert Frost in the 50’s, maybe a blip now and again when Maya Angelou steps into the spotlight – but for the most part, April is the only month that the general public is treated to an oh so rare dose of poesy. And, in my opinion, it’s all for the better. 
There is no reason to hold the poet up to the same personal scrutiny and ephemeral, gushing accolades as we do a rock star or politician. Most poets have become poets because they enjoy the simple quiet of a small room. And they enjoy poetry for the strange transformation that a few, well-chosen words can have on the very walls of said room. Never have I heard a poet complain that they themselves are not getting enough attention, only, some may lament, that their work has suffered that fate. 
And here we can insert National Poetry Month back into the conversation. For this month we are reminded that there are men and women striving, in their own solitude, to warp and wrap and change our language so that it may emerge more profound, more transcendent, more meaningful than when it was so humbly placed into so meek and frail a form as poetry. Joseph Brodskyonce said that “poetry is not the best words in the best order, but for language it is the highest form of existence.” And it attains that high form, at least in part, because of (though some would say ‘in spite of’) its frail and meek form. Poems are small and delicate things that can be carried around in the memory or folded up and stuck easily in the pocket. 
Which brings us back around to one of the last events of National Poetry Month: this Thursday, April 26th is Poetry in your Pocket Day.  The idea behind this nationwide event is to encourage people to walk around with a poem close to them, for them to read it, think about it, talk about it… let the poem inform your day. Hearing this idea on NPR reminded me of a similar project that the poet and essayist Andrei Codrescu* gave to his poetry students at Louisiana State University. He assigned each student a Ghost-Companion, who, as he explained it in his book The Poetry Lesson, is “a poet, dead or alive . . . whose last name begins with the same letter as yours. This is a poet that you will study all semester, read deeply, understand well, google till you’re satisfied, and call on when you feel some difficulty. Any difficulty. Your Ghost-Companion will be a great and generous soul, who will come to your aid not just for your assignments, but also in other situations that neither you nor I can now imagine.” 
To ask me to pick a favorite poet out of the many I have read over the years is an anxiety inducing experience, one similar to trying to rationalize the difference between a small and large infinity. My mind seizes and comes up with scarcely a sound, let alone a name. So, in order to pick a poet for this Thursday I have elected Codrescu’s method and picked Charles Simic as my Pocket Poet, as we both share a last initial. Here is one of his many small gems:


Green Buddhas
On the fruit stand.
We eat the smile
And spit out the teeth.

Let me know about your Ghost-Companion, and post your poem for Poetry in Your Pocket Day below.

By Adam Shutz

*A poet who, by the way, got his start at Johns Hopkins and was a columnist for the Baltimore Sun as well as NPR. He has also been featured in UB’s literary magazine, Welter.

9 Replies to “Ghost-Companions and National Poetry Month”

  1. Like Adam, I am truly paralyzed at the thought of choosing my favorite poem; instead I choose to go back to a poem that brought all the emotions of a life changing week to the surface. I clearly remember the Saturday after September 11, 2001 driving to the Waverly Farmers' Market in Baltimore, listening to Scott Simon on NPR recite Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself." I pulled over on the street, listening to the poem as waves of tears and grief poured over me."I am the mash'd fireman with breast-bone broken,Tumbling walls buried me in their debris,Heat and smoke I inspired, I heard the yelling shouts of mycomrades,I heard the distant click of their picks and shovels,They have clear'd the beams away, they tenderly lift me forth."…"I take part, I see and hear the whole,The cries, curses, roar, the plaudits for well-aim'd shots,The ambulanza slowly passing trailing its red drip,Workmen searching after damages, making indispensable repairs,The fall of grenades through the rent roof, the fan-shapedexplosion,The whizz of limbs, heads, stone, wood, iron, high in the air. "

  2. Great post, Adam. It's nice to take a break from the "real world" with a poem every once in a while 🙂

    My favorite is an odd one to find comfort in, but it's a classic and it captured my imagination when I was a angsty, goth teenager:

    Annabel Lee
    By Edgar Allan Poe

    It was many and many a year ago,
    In a kingdom by the sea,
    That a maiden there lived whom you may know
    By the name of Annabel Lee;
    And this maiden she lived with no other thought
    Than to love and be loved by me.

    I was a child and she was a child,
    In this kingdom by the sea,
    But we loved with a love that was more than love—
    I and my Annabel Lee—
    With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven
    Coveted her and me.

    And this was the reason that, long ago,
    In this kingdom by the sea,
    A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
    My beautiful Annabel Lee;
    So that her highborn kinsmen came
    And bore her away from me,
    To shut her up in a sepulchre
    In this kingdom by the sea.

    The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
    Went envying her and me—
    Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
    In this kingdom by the sea)
    That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
    Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

    But our love it was stronger by far than the love
    Of those who were older than we—
    Of many far wiser than we—
    And neither the angels in Heaven above
    Nor the demons down under the sea
    Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
    Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

    For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
    Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
    And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
    Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
    And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
    Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
    In her sepulchre there by the sea—
    In her tomb by the sounding sea.

  3. My late father enjoyed poetry a great deal, and would always go around reciting poems he liked. As a youngster I considered this to be completely embarrassing and cornball. Now that he's gone, I enjoy picking up where he left off, occasionally quoting my own favorite verses. Emily Dickinson is great candidate for this exercise because of the economy with which she used her words:

    My life closed twice before its close;
    It yet remains to see
    If Immortality unveil
    A third event to me,
    So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
    As these that twice befell.
    Parting is all we know of heaven,
    And all we need of hell.

  4. Poetry can convey the depth of a whole book in a few lines or paragraphs and take you to places far away or deep inside.

    In keeping with the 'pocket' poem theme, I'd like to share a short poem that I wrote. Sentimental, yes, but I reflect on it each year when the first snowflakes fall. The image warms my heart and takes me to my favorite places in the past.

    Tiny snowflakes falling down
    Gently land on frozen ground

    I lie curled up with a book
    In a warm and comfy nook

    Posing as a furry sage
    Kitty tries to turn the page

    There's nothing I love more than this
    The snow a book a kitty's kiss.

  5. For my Ghost-Companion I've chosen a man who's first initial we share, I hope Codrescu won't mind. I picked him not so much because I think of him as a poet; to be honest I haven't read much of his work outside of his political declarations, plans and theories. But when I sat down to think of poets, a little piece written by a young Benjamin Franklin came to mind.

    Having grown up in the rough and tumble ports town of Boston, he was enamored with pirates and the adventure surrounding the rum trade. At the age of 13 he "famously" wrote a bloody, and self described "wretched" account, of Edward "Blackbeard" Teach's death at the hands of Lt. Robert Maynard's crew off Ocrakoe Island. I won't recount the whole thing here, and there is some debate as to which version of the work The Downfall of Piracy, should be attributed to Mr. Franklin. But I want to have faith that this fragment is authentic. Or, at the very least, it seems to have some pretty good advice at the end.

    So each man to his gun,
    For the work must be done
        With Cutlass, sword, or pistol.
    And when we no longer can strike a blow,
    Then fire the magazine, boys, and up
        we go!

    It's better to swim in the sea bellow
    Than swing in the air and feed the crow
        Says jolly Ned Teach of Bristol

  6. I first heard "The Lanyard" a few years ago at a reading done by Billy Collins. Appropriately enough, the reading was done a Mother's Day.

    The Lanyard – Billy Collins

    The other day I was ricocheting slowly
    off the blue walls of this room,
    moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
    from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
    when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
    where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

    No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
    could send one into the past more suddenly—
    a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
    by a deep Adirondack lake
    learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
    into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

    I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
    or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
    but that did not keep me from crossing
    strand over strand again and again
    until I had made a boxy
    red and white lanyard for my mother.

    She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
    and I gave her a lanyard.
    She nursed me in many a sick room,
    lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
    laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
    and then led me out into the airy light

    and taught me to walk and swim,
    and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
    Here are thousands of meals, she said,
    and here is clothing and a good education.
    And here is your lanyard, I replied,
    which I made with a little help from a counselor.

    Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
    strong legs, bones and teeth,
    and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
    and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
    And here, I wish to say to her now,
    is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

    that you can never repay your mother,
    but the rueful admission that when she took
    the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
    I was as sure as a boy could be
    that this useless, worthless thing I wove
    out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

  7. I've always loved Poet Maya Angelou, and her talent of using the language to convey feelings of pride and self worth. Here is one of my absolute favorites

    Phenomenal Woman
    by Maya Angelou

    Pretty women where my secret lies
    I'm not cute or built to suit a fashon model's size
    But when I start to tell them
    they think I"m tellin lies
    I say,
    It's in the reach of my arms
    The span of my hips
    The stride of my step
    The curl of my lips
    I"m a woman
    Phenomenal woman
    That's me

    I walk into a room
    Just as cool as you please,
    And to a man
    The fellows stand or
    Fall down on their knees
    Then they swarm around me,
    A hive of honey bees,
    I say,
    It's the fire in my eyes
    And the flash of my teeth,
    The swing of my waist
    And the joy in my feet,
    I'm a woman
    Phenomenal woman, that's me

    Men themselves have wondered
    What they see in me
    They try so much
    But they can't touch
    My inner mystery.
    When I try to show them,
    They say they still can't see
    I say,
    It's in the arch of my back
    the sun of my smile
    The ride of my breasts
    The grace of my style,
    I'm a woman
    Phenomenal woman
    that's me

    Now you understand
    Just why my head's not bowed
    I don't have to shout or jump about
    Or have to talk read loud
    When you see me passing
    It ought to make you rroud
    I say,
    It's in the click of my heels,
    The bend of my hair
    The palm of my hand,
    The need of my care,
    Cause I"m a woman
    Phenomenal woman,
    that's me.

  8. The bartender at Caesar's tells jokes we've heard a hundred times.
    A shoelace walks into a bar, for example. I whisper
    Sarah Evers told me that joke in sixth grade and Josey says
    My brother Steve, 1982. A whore, a midget, a Chinaman,
    nothing we haven't heard. Then a customer asks
    Why are breasts like martinis? and they both start laughing.
    They know this one, everybody knows this one, except
    us. They don't even bother with the punch line. The bartender just says
    Yeah, but I always said there should be a third one, on the back,
    for dancing, dancing with the woman-shaped air behind the bar, his hand
    on the breast on her back. So we figure three is too many,
    one's not enough. Okay; we can do better than that. I like my breasts
    like I like my martinis, we say: Small and bruised or big and dry. Perfect.
    Overflowing. Reeking of juniper,spilling all over the bar.
    When I have a migraine and she reaches for me, I say
    Josey,my breasts are like martinis. She nods, solemn:
    People should keep their goddamn hands off yours. How
    could we tell these jokes to the bartender? We can't. He'll never know.
    I say it after scrubbing the kitchen cabinets, and she gets it:
    dirty and wet. Walking in the wind, Josey says My breasts
    are like martinis and I hail a cab, know she means shaking, ice cold.

    Pushcart prize winner Jill McDonough’s first book of poems, Habeas Corpus, was published by Salt in 2008. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and Stanford’s Stegner program, she has taught incarcerated college students through Boston University’s Prison Education program since 1999. Her work appears in Slate, The Nation, and The Threepenny Review, and is forthcoming in Best American Poetry 2011. She directs 24PearlStreet, the Fine Arts Work Center's Online Writing Workshops.

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