It’s National Poetry Month and I haven’t given poetry much thought this month. In years past I atleast thought about reading poetry, but this year I wasn’t even tempted. Not even when the Willa Cather Association posted encouragement on their Facebook page to read some of Cather’s poems.
Yesterday I listen to Michael Kindness interview Lynee Martin on Books on the Nightstand. Martin is an Associate Publisher and the Director of Publicity at Riverhead Books. In 2013 she was the Artist-in-Residence in Antarctica. Her new book of poetry, We Mammals in Hospitable Times, grew out of that experience. The interview and the poems Martin shared on it nudged me towards trying some poetry again.
Unlike Michael, I didn’t have a traumatic poetry experience in high school. None that I can remember, anyway.
Mr Antus was my high school English teacher. He was a Vietnam veteran and looked like a scrawnier version of Waylon Jennings, complete with the ever-present leather vest that seemed to be part of his body. He was the most passionate teacher I had up to that point in my rather dreary educational experience. It’s been thirty years or so since I sat in his classroom, but I can vividly picture him literally twirling through the rows of desks while he reads a passage from some now forgotten book aloud. Another time he threw a desk across the room. I was rarely bored in Mr Antus’s classroom.
The only poem I recall from my high school days was one about a couple sharing a cigarette after sex. Mr Antus gave an inspired reading of the poem and then broke it down and explained the imagery of how the cigarette’s ember represents the couple’s relationship: it burned bright and faded, then burned bright and faded again, eventually to be completely burned out and turned into ash.
I loved that Mr Antus read that poem to a group of horny teenagers and wish I could remember something else about the poem to track it down. He may have been sad about the end of the passion, but we were riveted on that hot, glowing ember. His teaching of this poem made me feel mature. No one, in my experience up to that time, talked about the emotional side of sex. This was the early 80s when sex definitely wasn’t discussed in the classroom, even if there were girls with swollen bellies walking the school hallways.
I didn’t know much about Mr Antus outside of the classroom. I know he lost a few toes due to a lawnmower accident as a kid. Part of his duty in Vietnam was to type up the letters that COs wrote home to the next of kin of soldiers killed in action.
Looking back, it is little wonder that when I told him I joined the Marines he looked at me for a few seconds, then turned and walked away without saying a word. It hurt me deeply at the time. I never saw Mr Antus again.
He died a several years ago, just before I tried to find him to reconnect. I’m happy for the vivid memories I have of him in his long-sleeved button down faded cotton shirt and leather vest, shaggy black hair fluttering around his face as he moved through the room reading to us. And even though he was reading to room full of teens, I always felt like he was reading to me.
I had some bloodless encounters with poetry in college, but it wasn’t until graduate school that I came across a poet or two that I enjoyed reading on my own. Emily Dickinson and Adrienne Rich stand out from that time period.
Listening to Michael talk with Jynne Martin yesterday made me willing to seek out some new poets, contemporary poets or poets of old, who speak to me. I’m off to R.J. Julia’s 25th Anniversary Party today, so we’ll see what I find.
[Author’s note: although I didn’t have a traumatic poetry experience in high school, Mr Antus led us through a painful reading of The Old Man and the Sea. It felt like we spent triple the amount of time on that thin story than we did on Great Expectations. It was one of the the things I wanted to ask him about had we been able to talk again.]