Ever since I read Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life I’ve been thinking of some of the books that have kept me going. My wife laughs and says, “You’re the only person I know who takes three books to the bathroom.” Well, it’s not quite that bad but every place I’ve ever lived the public library has become, for me, almost a holy place.
When we moved from Alabama to South Carolina I had to get rid of hundreds of books. We just had no place in our new house for all my books. And it was a grief running my fingers over the spines on the bookshelves trying to figure out what I really could part with. Some of those books I had not opened in thirty years. But once upon a time this book or that book had opened some door to a larger and more special world. Some of these books I will keep until I leave this world.
But other books keep me going just like that cereal does in the morning and my evening meal. In college I did a reading for some class and I still remember one of those lines: “There’s nothing like a book to take you lands away.” I still find this to be true. Sometimes my reading is just flat-out escape reading. It’s a way to shut out the “out there” and just forget it all. But most days I turn for just a few minutes to some wise words that set me to thinking or alters my perspective. This is not escape reading—for these books throw me back into the swim of life. They touch something deep within me and often just make me glad to be alive.
The last few years I’ve discovered some of the wonder of poetry. I love what Maya Angelou has said about poetry. “Poetry can tell us what human beings are. I can tell us why we stumble and fall and how, miraculously, we can stand up.” I have been surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Wendell Berry...Czeslaw Milosz...Langston Hughes...Mary Oliver...Denise Levertov...Donald Hall and his beloved late wife, Jane Kenyon. I discovered Siegfried Sassoon, the English War poet, poem on the end of World War I standing in front of a plate glass window of a book shop in Oxford. It was typewritten in the window:
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was fill’d with such delight
As prison’d birds must find in freedom
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on; on; and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted,
And beauty came like the setting sun.
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away . . . O but every one
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing
will never be done.”
From there I turned to Wilfred Owens and other War poets. Bryan Turner’s Here, Bullet is a powerful statement about our war in Iraq. Raymond Carver has always moved me deeply. Ever read his poem, Late Fragment. It was the last poem published in the last book he wrote:
“And did you get what
You wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
Beloved on the earth.”
William Stafford, the poet from the Western part of the country is one of my favorites. And to those I would add: Billy Collins and the less-known but wonderful Alden Nowland from Newfoundland. I hope you don’t find this pretentious or name-dropping. I am not trying to impress you with how smart I am. I simply wanted to share with you some of my lights along the way that remind me of my humanity and the wonder of life itself.
Neil Astley’s three volumes of collected poetry have introduced me to many poets I have never heard of that are doing great work. Interested? His books are: Staying Alive, Being Alive and Being Human. He hails from England and has compiled many books of poetry.
But maybe Mary Oliver says best when I am trying to say.
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting,
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no mater how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
In the family of things."
Not a bad Benediction.