Poetry Out in the Country

Monk at Mt. Athos in GreeceOn Cold Springs Road, the deer seem to lie in wait, ready to spring across the road at night. It was raining and misty on that road last night, not ideal driving conditions, as I came home with a friend from meeting a poetry group an hour south of here. It was worth the drive, to have spent two pleasant hours in an old farm house listening to people read and talk about death and dust and whether a line still needs a pronoun.

Since I moved to Pennsylvania six years ago, I’ve been connected with a group of poets that changes its makeup on a regular basis, as members of this casual group include students from the local college. The meetings themselves are casual, coming to life consistently but irregularly, in spite of efforts to herd these rhyming cats into a predictable schedule. (When I say “rhyming” cats I’m speaking symbolically. This is modern poetry and rarely rhymes.)

Last night we met in the parlor of the old farmhouse—it really is old— on a working farm, where 300 pounds of tomatoes were picked that day. Because that harvesting occurred on Sunday, the Lord’s day, we know that normally such labor would be wrong, but because the crop in question was tomatoes, we also know that God would have approved.

This same poetry group sometimes gives readings at the wonderful Standing Stone cafe, which appeared two years ago like a mystical urban vision suddenly arrived from a city, complete with art on the warm-painted walls. I’ve been to many of those readings, I’ve taken part in many, and I had one all to myself. When I’ve gotten up to the microphone I’ve joked more than once (so it is high time to retire the joke) that I’m the fiction mascot for the group. Though I have read poetry on occasion, I usually try to squeeze in two or three pages of fiction.

Last night at the farm I read a few pages from the new novel, but what was more interesting was what other people read, and the discussions we had. One of the most interesting poems for me was inspired by a story about monks at one of the monasteries on Mt. Athos, in Greece. I find Mt. Athos a fascinating place, but the poem was appealing even without knowing that. I wish now I had a copy of it to refer to, as my sieve-like memory already begins to lose all the words, retaining only an impression.

The poem also inspired a conversation there in the parlor where two dogs were reveling in the joy of their dogginess. On hearing of the inspiration for the monk poem, another poet suggested truthfully that we feel a strong affinity for the kind of life we assume monks have, the beautiful tranquility of contemplation and intellectual inquiry. I related strongly to that, and have often thought of what kind of monk I would have made (not a good one, actually, if they were going to be serious about that celibacy idea).

That conversation also moved into a discussion of the appeal of a simple life. Almost every life in reality is filled with clutter that is not needed for living and more importantly, filled with clutter that is not needed for a contented life. And yet we find it almost impossible to be so clearsighted as to know this, and then so bold as to act on it. Occasionally as we move our piles of belongings from place to place, we sometimes feel the weight of the invisible chain that attaches them to us. We were reminded last night of one of the examples of a simpler life that surround us here in Central Pennsylvania, the example of the Amish. But even the Amish are human, and some of them must also wish sometimes that life were simpler than it is.

Of the poems I heard from the group, I will also cite one written in response to a call for a poem on the topic of dust. The poem did concern dust, though one of the people present felt it might have evoked dust in a more truly dusty way. What made the poem surpass the inspiration for its origin is that while it referred to dust in multiple ways, each reference served as a symbol, and the real subject of the poem was the history of a house and some of the things that had happened there.

In all the years I have been listening to poets in this group, I have been struck repeatedly by how infinitely much more I like the poems of these writers who I sit with, than almost any poet who I see in magazines or books. I often wonder whether that is because none of the poets I hear have been harmed by creative writing programs, teaching them the “proper” way to write obscure poetry that is indifferent to readers.

In my own small experience, and it is small, I find poetry to be very alive in rural and small-town Pennsylvania.

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