The Art of Losing

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”

From “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

In the last year, we have all practiced the art of losing: we have lost being with family and friends, lost a bit of our independence, lost time.  We’ve become pretty good at it, actually. I’ve been reflecting a lot on the last year as I recently celebrated my second Pandemic Birthday. Soon, my wife and I will celebrate our second Pandemic Anniversary.

April is National Poetry Month, so I’ve been revisiting a lot of poetry – Elizabeth Bishop is a favorite, and I’ve always loved “One Art.” From the relative safety of our homes, it’s been hard to watch so much disaster all around us while we lived happily during the pandemic – I’m borrowing from Ilya Kaminsky here and his poem “We Lived Happily During the War.” (By the way, Ilya Kaminsky will be our featured poet at the 13th annual Blackbird Poetry Festival later this month.) It is true though – my wife and I have been more or less content during the pandemic. We have each other, and work keeps us busy; I’ve practiced guitar a lot. We’ve read and re-read books. Netflix has kept us pretty entertained – we resisted Tiger King but watched every bit of Bridgerton, rewatched all of The Office. Our dogs love having us constantly with them, especially our senior chihuahua who takes up his perch every day on the couch in my wife’s office while she teleworks, unwitting guest star of all her virtual meetings. We miss our friends, but we have done Zoom happy hours (which got old fast), we’ve missed our families, we’ve missed baseball games and theater and going out to a nice dinner inside a restaurant. But none of this has been a disaster; I think that is because we knew that staying home, practicing social distancing (avoiding the politics of it all and following the science), and waiting for and then taking the vaccine as soon as it was ready was the only way to get back to normal again. And normal is worth waiting for.

I’ve also reflected a lot on what I cannot bear to lose and who cannot bear to lose me. I cannot bear to lose my wife, so it was kind of an emotional thing to get our vaccines together and know that we’ve done what we can do. I cannot bear to lose my family, so I pray every day for their safety. Same with my friends – I rejoice every time I see those updates that another one has gotten the vaccine – I high-five the air. I miss my students and my campus and can’t wait to walk across the quad again, write on a whiteboard, see a student in office hours. I feel hope’s feathers growing inside me a bit more every day.

There is another side of this too. I have no intent to be lost; I have a responsibility not to be lost. I know that my wife cannot bear to lose me – having lost her parents already, I cannot leave her alone in this life, so there was no question at all that I would get the vaccine immediately. No question that until it was available I would do anything and everything I could to make her feel safe. I don’t think my mom could bear to lose me either – having lost one child already, this would be a disaster. There isn’t much – there isn’t anything – that isn’t worth delaying to keep them from feeling that loss.

A year ago, I wrote a blog post on my birthday, and 1001 American lives had been lost to COVID on that day. Just over a year later, that number is an astonishing 553,000 and counting. That really is unbelievable except that we’ve been watching it unfold day by day. It’s hard to emotionally, mentally fight against all of this loss – but we have to. We all have people who can’t bear to lose us. Spring feels so much different this year than last. Renewal seems possible, but only if we act on our intent not to be lost. I can’t wait to see you all again someday soon.

Understanding Poetry

Dear Reader,

April is National Poetry Month, and whatever else that means, it means that we should pay attention to poetry.  At Howard Community College, that means it’s time for the annual Blackbird Poetry Festival.  Blackbird was inspired by a visit to the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2008. I saw Billy Collins, Mark Doty, Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, and many other wonderful poets.  In 2010, I saw Michael Cirelli, and the next year, we had Michael at Blackbird.  His poem, “Troubador,” is still one of my favorite poems to teach or talk about with students.

The name of the Blackbird festival comes from the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”  This poem was an inscrutable poem that I first read as a junior in college, and I had a professor who liked to start every class with us reciting this poem in different ways.  Over time, I began to see it as a celebration of the many ways that poetry helps us see the extraordinary in the ordinary.  So it was natural that this humble festival would take the name of that poem.  Although, over time and due largely to a wonderful partnership with HoCoPoLitSo, the Blackbird festival has welcomed not just Cirelli, but also amazing poets like Martin Espada, Taylor Mali, Rives, Kim Addonizio, and even Billy Collins.

The real goal of the festival, for me, has always been to give students a different experience with poetry.  Most students only experience poetry on the page in an academic setting.  My first real experience with reading poetry was in 9th grade.  My teacher at my private, religious high school allowed us to read some of the Romantic poets – mostly Blake and Wordsworth.  One of our major assignments of the semester was to memorize and recite a poem to the rest of the class.  I chose “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by William Wordsworth.  I still remember the entire poem even now.  But I didn’t really understand the poem until years later when I walked by a row of daffodils with my dog, Oberon.  It was only when I took the poem off the page that it started to mean anything to me.

I teach poetry now, and I normally start teaching poetry with 2 poems from Billy Collins: “Introduction to Poetry” and “The Lanyard” because both of the poems make the principal arguments I hope to advance in teaching poetry to my students.  1: The meaning of poetry is not fixed and is entirely dependent on how the reader experiences it – so I don’t want them to get too caught up in the “real” meaning or the technical aspects of it.  Some of the least inspiring poetry teachers I have had beat me over the head with rhyme and meter definitions – as if those things would unlock the wonder and mystery of poetry. 2: Images are everything in poetry because they are full of possibility – see William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson for more on this.  Reading poetry should be an exercise in active interpretation, and images allow us to engage in that.

I love the scene in Dead Poets Society when Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) has the students turn to the section called “Understanding Poetry” in their textbooks.  In leading them through the ridiculous assessment of the technical and historical wonders of poems, Keating’s larger point is that understanding poetry is synonymous with experiencing poetry.  When the class is over, I don’t know that many students will recall the technical parameters of a villanelle, but I hope they do remember what it means to rage against the dying of the light – whatever that might mean to them. I want them to remember that poetry can be “a place for the genuine.”  In recent years, poetry has been declared all but dead in the cultural conversation – an archaic art form that might as well be hieroglyphics, but I would argue against that.  Poetry is all around us in our song lyrics, in movies, in political protest, in festivals, and yes, even in academia.  For one month, we get to remind ourselves of it.

© Ryna May 2016