Of Pilfering, Pears, and Poetry

When I came to work the other day, I was struck by an odor so sublimely sweet as to make my taste buds ache. I followed the scent until it led me to the desk of the departmental secretary. There, lying on a paper towel, was a pear brimming with ripeness to the point that so much as touching it would have made the skin crack. The secretary herself was out of the office, and for a moment I actually contemplated seizing at least a portion of the fruit. Then she came in and I refuted temptation.

This was a coincidental circumstance. Just before coming to work I had been perusing a book of William Carlos Williams's poetry. Although I teach biology, I am constantly on the lookout for ways to marry literature to my discipline. This was the poem I had become stuck on:

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably

saving

for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

There it was, then. This poem could just as easily have been written about Charlene's magnificent pear. It was as if Williams's poem had been illustrated in some wondrously olfactory way, and for the rest of the day I found myself preoccupied with a question that suddenly seemed dire: What has become of poetry?

During a recent lecture on the adaptations of plants and animals to their environments, I tried to tie in a poem by Robert Frost called ``Design,'' in which he wonders at the purpose of nature's humblest inventions (``A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,/ And dead wings carried like a paper kite''). The failure of some of my students to immediately catch the poet's meaning didn't faze me in the least, since that is the nature of poetry: One has to work at it.

But what I was disturbed by was that about one-third of those in the class had never heard of Frost. In fact, I was dumbstruck. For the longest time I brooded over the loss of poetry from our culture. How on earth could this have happened? If, in the words of Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, ``Literature is the memory of humanity,'' then we have become a nation of amnesiacs, especially when we forget the last of the great populist poets of America.

When I was in grammar school during the 1960s, poetry seemed to be our constant companion from third grade on. We simply took its presence for granted. The reverence with which Mrs. Sokolowski, my fourth-grade teacher, opened a book of poems indicated in some subliminal way that people who wrote stories were writers, but people who wrote poems were, well, poets.

And a poet was a different kind of wordsmith altogether. Working from the environment within arm's reach, the ordinary and peripheral suddenly seemed fresh and central. A red wheelbarrow, a crumpled newspaper in a snowdrift, a mouse.... We were being fed the poetry of Williams, Frost, and Walt Whitman without even knowing, in any intellectual sense, how these giants fit in. But Mrs. Sokolowski's grave rendering of some of their lighter verses (``so - much - depends - upon - a red - wheel - barrow,'' she would nod, her face laden with significance) communicated the sentiment that these were words penned with the utmost care and therefore worthy of being remembered.

Remember them we did: Each student had to commit one poem to heart during the course of the school year. Kevin Botler, a noted bully on the playground, memorized the whole of ``The Village Blacksmith.'' This didn't make him any less a bully, but when he stood up in front of his classmates and recited it, the cadence of the verse bore us away with him, and I felt myself compelled to acknowledge that there must be something good behind those fists.

In short, an exposure to poetry early on might not have made poets of many of us, but it did tell us that such things as poems existed - not a bad start for an eight-year-old.

Shortly after reading Williams's unassuming lines about the plums, I came across my university's weekly newsletter, in which something called a ``poetry slam'' was being touted. As I understood it, this was the literary equivalent of tag-team wrestling, in which a phalanx of poets, accompanied by visual and sonic effects, hurled themselves at a microphone in rapid succession and screamed their verses at the audience.

Interestingly enough, I didn't feel the slightest inclination to attend the event. Instead, a question cropped up in my mind: Why can American poetry no longer pull its own weight without the addition of bells, whistles, and gymnastics? In a sense, its development has paralleled that of the movie industry, where a film is valued not so much for its content as for its ``special effects.''

Perhaps one reason is that poetry is no longer taught in either our grammar or high schools in any uniform or consistent way, and therefore it has lost the ``hallowed'' quality these institutions would lend it. Now that it is being packaged to sell - with attached bangles, ribbons, and beads - it has become just one more tawdry product of the age.

I think these ruminations eventually brought me to do the thing I did. When I returned to work the next day, the pear was still on Charlene's desk, doubly ripe now, begging for attention. Charlene herself had left a note: ``Out sick.'' There it was, then. In another day the pear would be unfit for consumption, but at the moment it was perched ripe for versifying, and so I took it. In its place I left this note, as a sort of tribute to the unadorned act of poetry and to Mrs. Sokolowski's role in rooting it firmly in my life:

Charlene, This Is Just to Say

I have eaten

the pear

that was on

your desk

and which

you were probably

saving

for lunch

Forgive me

it was delicious

and about

to go bad

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