Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.
My daughters know that it’s April when I retell the saga of mighty Casey’s disastrous game…. so do pretty much all the kids I’ve ever had the privilege of being their “library lady”. Now, knowing me — you realize that it’s not opening day of baseball season that lures me to the Mudville Nine. It’s the pure joy of National Poetry Month! Perhaps Mr. Thayer lacks the gravitas or romance of Whitman or Keats, yet my lips curve into a smile as wide as any pitcher’s throw when I begin to recite the cadences.
Long ago, before Netflix and 24-hour news, that prehistoric age — my parents planned family evenings not huddled around the warmth of a TV screen. Mostly that was because my Mom rejected much “prime time” fare as inappropriate for young & tender eyes. On the other hand, Daddy saw it as an opportunity — and that could be a good thing. Learning to ballroom dance, or perhaps to do CPR on the dummy that lived with us between semesters — those were interesting. The brothers, on the other hand, got absolutely no joy from my favorite activity. My Dad would pull out his trusty cassette recorder with the piano key sized buttons and the microphone that made you sound as if you were possibly a Darth Vader extra. With great enthusiasm, he would then produce his 640-page book of “Favorite Poems, Old & New”, so we could read aloud to one another.
It was every bit as geeky as it sounds — what made it seem so wonderful in retrospect was how my Dad did it and what it taught me. We would read the poems into the mic, trying to position it so we didn’t sound so awful and then my Dad would play them back. He would take us through the rhythms and the pauses and how we could enunciate and modulate our voices to better showcase the words/story.
Kirkus Reviews (my go to resource for reviews) says “If your children don’t like poetry, expose them to this collection . . . and I defy them to resist its magic” and I certainly couldn’t. While the boys liked the short ones or the funny ones, my mom wanted the tragic sagas à la Noyes’ the Highwayman; I would try anything. Originally published in 1957, the book had over 700 poems — from the Psalms to Shakespeare, from Ogden Nash to Rudyard Kipling, from Blake to Browning, and Tolkien to Tennyson… and everything in between. From those nights, I fell in love with Langston Hughes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, cummings and Plath and Parker and Auden (I can’t forget him) and. you get the idea. I wanted to write with the passion of Byron or Yeats, and orate with the skill of Demosthenes.
Though I’m still practicing both of those skills (maybe someday) — Daddy’s family fun night taught me to speak clearly, even if I do occasionally have to translate the southern. It taught me that nothing could ever be embarrassing after you have read Jabberwocky in front of your giggling brothers. Most importantly, it showed me that language is to be treasured — it glows like some fabled jewel — sparking rainbows that color and shape meaning with passion and nuance.
So, I’m happy April is here — celebrating life and language in the newness of spring, seems like a pretty cool thing. As the poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen (more on him below) says, “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash”. What poems/stanzas burn for you?
- In my Secret Life (Leonard Cohen) – poet, singer/songwriter and easily one of the Canada’s greatest exports – most people would go for “Hallelujah,” or “1000 Kisses Deep” which are extraordinary. This dream musing on the self we keep hidden is flawless – and he tinkered with it for about a decade. That makes sense for in an interview with Utne magazine he described how he wrote, “a bear stumbling into a beehive or a honey cache: I’m stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it’s delicious and it’s horrible and I’m in it and it’s not very graceful and it’s very awkward and it’s very painful and yet there’s something inevitable about it”. Is that not the most perfect, sense tingling, “amen” kind of the highs and lows of writing!?
- Country Girl (Rhiannon Giddens/Carolina Chocolate Drops) – shout out to the hometown girl. She’s a native of NC and the words of this song bring me back to red clay, warm strawberry juice on your lips and filling buckets (and mouths) in the morning while the sun dries the dew off the ripened fruit.
- Mad About You (Sting) – I know my love for him is highly uncritical, however, in my defense there are songs like this. One doesn’t necessarily think a song about the romantic plight of King David would chart as a rock single, or that the album, an extended paean to a father and a way of life that had passed, would be a commercial success; that would be underestimating Sting as a musician and a writer.
- Closer to you (Brandi Carlile) – an indy artist, hard to classify as folk, country, rock or alt-rock – easier perhaps to say singer/songwriter. This song from her self-titled debut has several fabulous tracks (plug for the album)! Lyrics like, “My mind wanders through all that I’ve been hiding from/I tried not to let you down/Now I wonder if I’ve been doin’ something wrong/Help me get my feet back on the ground “, resonate verse and chorus.
- Sugar Magnolia (Grateful Dead) – a Hunter/Weir song, which makes me dance with every beat. The lyrics sparkle green and pink like those nursery rhymes full of fairies tumbling through the greenwood – wading in a drop of dew.
- Tourist Town (Marti Jones) – the opening cut from her Used Guitars album – it soars. Another NC girl, she, & Don Dixon made amazing music separately and together – I saw them once in a little club in Charlotte – they had the audience captivated. It’s really cool – she’s retired from music and makes her living as a painter now.
- Blackbird (the Beatles) – while Paul McCartney has offered various interpretations of why this song came to be – my favorite is in an interview as he had been reading a book of poems called “Blackbird Singing”, and it made him think of this song – recalling that it was written at the height of the Civil Rights movement, and the metaphor of “you were only waiting for this moment to arise” nestled in the language of the struggle.
- Bluebird (Kasey Chambers) – a platinum selling artist in her native Australia, has enjoyed a modest success for her albums. The girls and I played the “Wayward Angel” CD on a loop for about 6 months when they were younger. Bluebird was one of the tracks that got repeated an awful lot – she writes so evocatively.
- When Doves Cry (Prince) – continuing the bird thing, I was surprised with as many hits as he had; this was his first #1 single. The “Purple Rain” album & movie are considered classics – the music more than the acting, though Morris Day created a well-deserved following J When Doves Cry is gorgeous in its musicality, but the lyrics are just compelling, telling a story and setting a mood that colors the film (no pun).
- Mr. Rock & Roll (Amy MacDonald) – so she’s Scots, which ups her cool quotient by a factor of at least 35. If there were any one song to compare this to – it would be Billy Joel’s Piano Man. It’s the random people who come together over a drink in a bar. Her spot on descriptions and sparseness of the landscape make the song sharp and silvery in its playback.
- My Life (Billy Joel) – every 17-year old kid’s perfect “Fu” song. He gets to that part of the psyche stomping a foot and saying, “I can do it all by myself, I don’t need any help”. Generally age cures that particular malady. It’s one of Billy Joel’s gifts as a writer – injecting a realness into his words that allows each generation to get him.
- So Far Away (Carole King) – another iconic performer with songs that transcend generations. Rolling Stone says the “warm, earnest singing brings out the sadness in the song”, and yes, perhaps it is a bit dismal – but the lyrics are yearny and full of longing.
- Nothing I Can Do (Ben Taylor) – doing the 6 degrees of “whomever” – Carole King to Troubadour buddy James Taylor to his son Ben. Heretically, I am coming to love the son more than the father – his lyrics are intelligent and whimsical, paired with rhythms easygoing and primal. Like: There is nothing that I can do but belong to you/Heaven and Earth and I find myself/Singing this song for you/As luck would have it, it just so happens that there’s/Nothing I’d Rather do
- Sound & Color (Alabama Shakes) – I love Brittany Howard – her zest and multi-sensory enthusiasm for the music and the words and the performance makes her a joy for both listening and seeing. I, of course, would love this song – colors spilling into sound – “Sound and color/I loath to go back to sleep/Sound and color/Ain’t life just down the street”.
- One Last Time (from Hamilton) – while Hamilton has justly become a phenomenon, I’ve in general preferred the musicality of In the Heights. Yet, this piece combining actual words from Washington’s Farewell (a gorgeous bit of American oratory), the Bible and Miranda’s enviable wordplay – is sublime.
- Bottle it Up (Sara Bareilles) – the newest Broadway “babe”, her music/lyrics for the show “Waitress”(based on the very indie movie with Keri Russell) – offers this charming poppy treat of a song, talking about breaking into the music business – from her 2nd album “Little Voice” – “I am aiming to be somebody this somebody trusts/With her delicate soul/I don’t claim to know much except soon as you start/To make room for the parts/That aren’t you it gets harder to bloom in a garden of/Love love love love”.
- Mercy Street (Peter Gabriel) – for a direct poem/lyric connection; Peter Gabriel reimagines Anne Sexton’s “45 Mercy Street” into the fog-grey lyrics of this song from the So album. Amid the better-known tracks like Sledgehammer, Big Time, and In your Eyes (hi, John Cusack) – Mercy Street brings shadows and dimension.
- Poetry Man (Phoebe Snow) – not a song about Jackson Browne, despite Casey Kasem’s gossipy claim. Snow was an incredible singer; the NYT described her as having a “bluesy growl that can sweep over 4 octaves”. One of my favorite things she did was perform with Paul Simon on Gone at Last off “Still Crazy after all these Years”. The lyrics are lush – “You make me laugh/’Cause your eyes they light the night/They look right through me/You bashful boy/You’re hiding something sweet/Please give it to me yeah, to me”. Just as an aside, the multi-talented Queen Latifah has a gorgeous cover.
- Cool, Cool River (Paul Simon) – speaking of…. As American poets he has morphed over the years – evolving with the times… from Parsley & Sage, to Kodachrome to the must have “Graceland” album – he has marked each era with his sound. Despite its success, “Rhythm of the Saints” was often compared to its astounding predecessor “Graceland”, the South American version of a legend. Yet, some of the songs just push against you – poetry and music, anger, peace, and possibility – one of my favorites.
- Right Amount of Wrong (Imelda May) – “A pinch of salt goes good with sweet/A hint of pain is great with a treat/Just like a cute dog baring it’s teeth/I love a little strange and I dig a bit of a freak/You got me good, yeah you got it going on/You do it for me, you’re the right amount of wrong”. Oh, I love her – an incredible Irish chanteuse who can sing, play 5 or 6 instruments including the bodhrán (so cool), and writes sassy, poignant, and smart lyrics!
- Fields of Gray (Bruce Hornsby) – another poet, his word/music pictures of the Chesapeake and the pastoral world – passionate, funny and eccentric as hell. This gorgeous song that had the misfortune to be released the same year (1993) as the utterly perfect Fields of Gold (Sting) – both songs are paeans to passion, both remember love – they just color the texture a bit differently. Hornsby, “There’ll be blue skies falling/There’ll be sad scenes and bad dreams/In a world so uncertain/Through the clouds it’s hard to see/I will grab you and lift you/As you hold on tight and sway/We’ll go walking/Across the fields of gray”, and Sting, “See the west wind move like a lover so/Upon the fields of barley/Feel her body rise when you kiss her mouth/Among the fields of gold/I never made promises lightly/And there have been some that I’ve broken/But I swear in the days still left/We’ll walk in fields of gold”
Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own. ―> Dylan Thomas