Sunday, March 09, 2014

Poet Robert K. Johnson's Visit to Endicott College as part of the IbbetsonStreet/Endicott College Visiting Author Series

Poet Robert K. Johnson

****Robert K. Johnson is a retired English professor from Suffolk University in Boston. Johnson has been widely published in the small press. He is the author of  a number collections of poetry, his latest being: From Mist to Shadow and Choir of the Day. Johnson has also written two critical studies, one of Francis Ford Coppola, and the other of Neil Simon. His poetry has appeared widely in newspapers, and literary journal across the country.  He is a winner of the Ibbetson Street Press Lifetime Achievement Award along with other notables such as: Robert Pinsky, David R. Godine, Louisa Solano, and Jack Powers. Johnson was the first poetry editor of Ibbetson Street affiliated with Endicott College.

Poet Robert K. Johnson's Visit to Endicott College as part of the IbbetsonStreet/Endicott College Visiting Author Series

By Emily Pineau

      Before Robert K. Johnson read his poetry during his reading at Endicott College, he explained that “allusive elements of the human mind” cannot be described without poetry, and that poetry plays a very important role when it comes to communicating emotions.   When one tries to break down feelings into formulas, and attempts to find logic in the unexplainable, something gets lost along the way.  I feel like this point highlights what poetry can do for people, and how we can use it as a tool for bringing ideas, raw feeling, and people together.  Even though love can be thought of as an abstract idea, or something that is not easily explained, poetry allows us to just feel it and to feel closer to others who also feel and understand it.

    In Johnson’s poem, “Lover’s Words”, which is about falling in love for the first time, he begins by saying, “Each gliding gull that tilts sunlight.” This image of the gull and the sun seems to indicate that the bird is not only free, but is also in control of its journey and happiness.  By gliding, and tilting sunlight, this shows that the gull knows what it wants, and it immediately gives this poem a feeling of peace and certainty.  By starting the poem this way, it really captures what a first love feels like.  There is this illusion that someone’s first love is “the one” and that nothing could go wrong.  It is that feeling when you love so deeply there is no possible way you could ever let that person fade from your life.  They become a permanent fixture, or part of your universe like the sun.  Though, the truth is that most of the time someone’s first serious relationship, or first love, is not an ever-lasting one.  Then, suddenly, what once was so certain becomes a whole string of questions.  Johnson writes, “You ask me and all my answers prove I don’t know.”  After hearing this first poem I felt like I was actually watching two people fall in love, and then fall apart.  Then, as if to pick up the pieces, Johnson reads his next poem, “The Second Time,” which is about someone falling in love again.  Johnson starts by saying, “Like bird wings rising into sunlight,” which instantly reminds of the gull in his poem “Lover’s Words”.  By using a similar first line to the his poem about a first love, this demonstrates that when someone falls in love again that initial feeling comes flooding back, and it all feels very familiar.  Johnson addresses this reminder by saying, “The first time’s final pain.”  Even though the beginning of the new relationship is happy, there is a lingering stab wound that is in danger of reappearing somewhere else in the heart. Though, as this poem goes on, it celebrates the idea of uncertainty rather than dwelling on it.  Johnson cleverly ends this poem by writing, “Irreversible flight into a place you know you don’t know.”  The word “flight” carries the image of the bird back from the beginning, which makes the whole poem come full circle.

    Johnson’s surprising endings are one of my favorite aspects of his poetry, and something that I really admire about his writing technique.  In his poem, “After a Breakup,” he invites us into the past to watch him and his girlfriend breakup in front of a library on 42nd street.  As they “walked into opposite darknesses”, he then proceeds to get into a cab, in which he meets his future wife.  I love how this poem shows how fate can bring people to their next destination, and how when one thing ends, it allows people to be open to something new.  Each of Johnson’s poems about love, family, people, and nature read like a story, and this is a quality that I try to incorporate in my own poetry.  By writing these little poetical stories, it allows someone to take something important with them, like a portable understanding of the world, how we live, and how we love.

****Emily Pineau is a junior at Endicott College and author of NO NEED TO SPEAK ( Ibbetson Street Press/Endicott College Young Poet Series)

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