Rosemary Laughlin/Voices | Poetry in service

Rosemary Laughlin/Voices | Poetry in service


As a retired English teacher, I often think of poetry discussion with students.

I always looked forward to hearing how the younger generation responded to any work chosen for a literature textbook.

From her quiet garden in 19th-century Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson looked at nature. "There is enough in one oak tree," she is reported to have said, "to last me for fifty years."

Her polar opposite in New York City, Walt Whitman, found ecstasy in wide travel and contacts with working people. He called his free verse "barbaric yawp." It wonderfully celebrated the unity of Americans on Brooklyn Ferry, on the open road, on Midwestern farms and in the workshops of the nation. Whitman loved nature, too, naming his collection of poems "Leaves of Grass" since he found the simple green blades in the airy sunshine to be miracles, symbols of life and beauty "no less than the journey-work of the stars." Through perennial lilacs and the hermit thrush he mourned his beloved President Lincoln.

I may not have students anymore, but increasingly I find myself discussing perceptions of nature with folks I now have more time to chat with, and whom Dickinson and Whitman would also be delighted by — service people, who help me in my home or in a store. I cherish these encounters of the beautiful kind.

The refrigerator repairman diagnosed a failed cold control, found the needed part in his truck and repaired it. His next call was near Hoopeston. "Oh," I said, "you cover a large area!"

"Yes. I love the country calls. I observe birds and wildlife. Last month I saw a bobcat in a field." He exclaimed how many hawks he sees, and, yes, American bald eagles. "I keep a guidebook to identify for sure. I can tell you bald eagles are huge!" He stretched his arms way out. "And what a wingspan!"

I asked his most treasured sighting. He paused, glowed. "A California condor! I researched and found that 50 years ago a few had got off course and ended up in the Midwest. They stayed and bred. I saw one just once, floating, drafting widely above my road."

Then there was the wood-floor finisher, a strong young man who wore ear buds while guiding the heavy machines. He told me his dad played gospel guitar for some 30 years in a prison ministry. "I grew up with that," he said.

Now he has his own mixed-genre group with percussion, bass, vocalist and two guitars, doing small gigs.

"It's hardly worth it to set up amp equipment for an audience of 20," he said. He laughed and gestured to the sander, buffer and vacuum. "But I have all this moving practice, and music is in my soul." He pointed to his ear buds. "I listen to it all day long."

In the garden center of a big-box store, I talked to the clerk about soil, watering and fertilizing different varieties of geraniums. She told me she lives on North Lincoln. I asked her if deer eat her flowers or her yews.

"Well, yes," she said. "I don't begrudge them a few lilies, but I stopped planting tulips. They devoured the tender stems, leaving the petals like tears for me to bemoan."

She added reflectively, "I love to watch the deer in moonlight on snow, majestically wary of the coyotes who will attack their fauns." She made a wry face. "I have to admit I'm equally fascinated with those same coyotes who answer with piercing, long drawn-out howls the sirens streaking up and down I-74."

Such conversations happen fairly often. How enriched I am by these oral poetry services. Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and all the poets in the textbooks of my past smile, clap and fade. The "Spoon River Anthology" of central Illinois continues.

Rosemary Laughlin writes community theater reviews for The News Gazette.