Saturday, April 30, 2022

Red Letter Poem #106

 The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


                                                                                                          – Steven Ratiner



Red Letter Poem #106



It’s National Poetry Month – and Phil Lewis’ Red Letter poem affords me the opportunity to think about this artform which is currently enjoying a resurgence in public interest.  But poet Gary Snyder reminds us that “Of all the streams of civilized tradition with roots in the paleolithic, poetry is one of the few that can realistically claim an unchanged function and a relevance which will outlast most of the activities that surround us today.”  I’m thinking now of how composing a poem seems to transform the day in its entirety; of how reading a good poem transports the consciousness to a wholly unexpected destination; and how, sitting at a poetry reading, some stranger’s voice can seize an audience with his or her measured lines and make us aware of those precious materials we humans hold in common.  I am imagining also a set of eyes a thousand years in the future reading a poem from our time (just as I read favorite poems from ancient Athens or Song Dynasty China) and wondering for a moment what our days were like.


When, on occasion, young poets ask me for advice about where to publish and how to amass an audience, I’m afraid the counsel I offer them is often not what they’re looking for: I plead for diligent practice, for patience, for deepened attention, for mastering one’s craft, and honestly exploring why you have the desire to compose these inky constructions in the first place (let alone committing to them as a career.)  I’m advocating for a poetry that is a vital activity in an individual’s life, as close at hand (and as essential) as breathing – something that will sustain them throughout their years, whether their job title is doctor, lawyer, farmer, carpenter, teacher, or perhaps poet.  Phil’s life presents a wonderful example: he remembers first writing poems as a freshman at Dartmouth, describing to me the powerful influence of faculty members like Sidney Cox and poets like Robert Frost and Philip Booth, both frequently present on campus.  A stint in the Navy silenced the Muse but later, while pursuing an advanced degree at Harvard and teaching high school mathematics and computer science, he returned to writing.  Even today, when Phil reads one of his artful sonnets to the Beehive group at the local library (one of the few enumerated responsibilities of Arlington’s Laureate is to lead this monthly workshop), I can recognize the flinty rhythms and softened vowels of Frost’s reading style.  Phil is a clear-eyed observer and a diligent craftsman who subtly maneuvers us through the grammatical twists until we, too, grasp the matter at hand and feel the ah! rising within us.


At this time – when the spring holidays of Easter, Passover, and Ramadan converge – here is a poem of quiet abundance.  It hints at the way absence can become a generative presence in our lives – even as what is present is made more precious by the knowledge of its inevitable loss.  Taken from what we imagine must have been a ruined church, this statue of Mary now reaches people in a new way within this museum setting.  There is a marvelous fullness conjured by those empty arms, by the dust on the stone.  No, Phil’s exemplary career as an educator and an early innovator in the use of computers to foster mathematical understanding did not include literary prizes or audiences applauding him at the podium – things, I realize, every poet dreams of to a greater or lesser degree.  But through all his years, poems have been a constant presence, illuminating the circumstances of his days, and offering him deep pleasure.  This is a poetry that sustains life.  It’s what I wish for every poet, old or young, who takes up the pen.  Phil Lewis is approaching the close of his 91st year, and this is his newest poem – only the second one published in a public forum.  Yet another reason to celebrate April. 







She had, we guess, remained unseen,except by occasional birds, for centuriesbefore today, and now exposed  in this eclectic alcove, still cradlesin empty arms her infant sonlong gone. She looks down fondlyon where he was –– and, moved,we wonder if the artisanwho carved for pay, believed beforeaccepting his task — or only after,job done, he dusted off the stone.

                         – Phil Lewis




The Red Letter3.0


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Friday, April 29, 2022

The Use of Seltzer in the Classroom


I wrote this for a distinguished academic journal sponsored by the university, "What's a matter U"

A bottle of seltzer has always been a comforting, humorous beverage to me. A bottle of seltzer can interrupt the ravings of a pompous ass, it fizzles and sizzles with comic energy--it is the great whoopee -cushion of the beverage world. The fizzle of seltzer down my throat brings to mind my father and me as we watched the antics of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, The Three Stooges, not to mention the Marx Brother's, on the black and white TV. One of my close friends  jokes that I have not entered the 21st century yet--I am decidedly a man of the 20th. He is probably right.  I always talk to my colleagues about ways to engage students in the classroom.  I had a crazy idea to use seltzer as an educational prop in class. Now mind you--I teach Creative Writing--so the class is a bit looser than other classes. Usually when I look over the weary students in my Creative Writing class (at 8AM )--I think of a way to wake them from their sleepy doldrums. So I step back and slowly turn the cap on a seltzer bottle to let the seltzer slowly rise--finally the liquid foams out through the cap(which I hold firmly) and eventually a literal font of creativity flows madly out of the Adirondack Cherry/Vanilla seltzer bottle.  I make sure not a soul is touched by this creative fountain, and after the waterworks are done-- I take a sip and say, in a very Jackie Gleasonish way-- "How sweet is!." My parched throat is relieved, the students are laughing, and the conversation about writing seems to have a new spritz of energy. This has now been a very much-in-demand ritual.  Indeed, how sweet it is!