|Countdown to New Year's: Round 1, Day 2|
Nash VS Markham
I decide to meet today’s dates at my favorite urban farmer’s market in Pennsylvania, so that we can mingle with the crowds and walk as we talk poetry. I meet Ogden Nash in a crowd of spectators watching a group of Greek performers execute an elaborate dance beside a stand where a woman dutifully roasts and carves lamb. Ogden turns and gives me a mischievous and sly grin, urging me forward to stand beside him and watch what he calls this great display of humanity. We clap and laugh along with the crowd, and Ogden becomes a delight when he takes the opportunity to try his own dance manouvers … all, he says, part of his joyous engagement in a focus on “the minor idiocies of humanity.” As we talk, he revels in his former critics’ words of him, and recites that he heard one once call him “a philosopher, albeit a laughing one.”
As we march on, mingling where we can and observing almost everything with laughter, we are joined by Edward Markham, who instantly leans in close and urges us to pause and take in “all the many voices” around us. We do so, and pause in the midst of the sea of people pressing in around us, to listen to the multitude of accents, languages, and dialects that saturate the air thicker than the scents of all the food the market holds. He suggests we try on different voices and personas—a trade for which he is known as a poet—as we walk and talk, and we do this as well. Soon we are all laughing at the seeming silliness of the world and our own clumsy tongues. I think back often to Sean O’Brien’s statement that Edward “speaks as he finds, in multiple, unpredictable voices.” I find myself sinking into silence to listen to the two of them battle and play with words as midmorning drifts into early afternoon.
Before we part ways, Ogden delivers a humorously exaggerated bow and, tipping his hat, lets fall at my feet a folded sheet of paper with his poem “Always Marry an April Girl” scrawled on it. Edward stoops to pick it up and hands it to me with an amused smile, along with a copy of his own “Cracks.”
Slessor VS Okigbo
I round a corner, pocketing the poems of the first date, and spot Kenneth Slessor sitting by a small stand where a young Amish boy sells fresh apples and moon pies. Kenneth’s gaze seems fixed upon the child’s small black hat as it bobs back and forth in the booth waiting on customers, and a small smile plays at his lips before he turns and meets my eye. Standing, he leaves a few coins on the boy’s stand and brings us both bright red apples before we move on. As we walk, he guides me gently by the elbow and asks me more than I ask of him. Besides his rich Australian accent, I’m struck most by his curiosity and courtesy and recall how his colleague Hal Porter told me he was “a city lover, fastidious and excessively courteous.” We stop at several stands, and I notice that he tends toward the smaller ones, and lingers at displays of art and craft more than the seemingly thousands of fresh fruit and produce carts to which he pays little mind (with the exception of stopping twice to buy us more fruit).
We are met at a table of flowers and miniature statues by Christopher Okigbo, who leans in so close to the table to stare at the wares both Kenneth and I are almost afraid to interrupt. Christopher rights himself and turns to us with a soft smile, pointing out the intricate designs on the sculptures and handing me a bright purple orchid to smell. As I inhale the sweet aroma, he begins to speak of African legends and myths, the history of some of the different plants he recognizes, and bits and pieces of his own life. When I ask him what he thought of the praise and criticism his work has received over the years, he merely shakes his head and says, with another smile, “I am the sole witness to my homecoming.” This simple phrase is enough to take my breath away, and I am grateful that it simultaneously launches a lovely dialogue between the two poets. As day fades toward early evening, we sit on a bench outside the emptying farmer’s market and reflect on everything from the sunset to reincarnation and the soul.
Kenneth departs first and hands copies of his poem “New Magic” to both Christopher and me. Christopher, in turn, pulls out two copies of his “The Passage,” handing one to Kenneth as Kenneth departs and one to me before he slips off into a small crowd and disappears.
Smith VS Ferlinghetti
The first stars have appeared in the sky as I approach the riverfront just down the hill from the now abandoned farmer’s market. I sit on a cool metal park bench and wait, and soon Mbembe Milton Smith appears and sits beside me. His voice is rich, and he speaks softly of his life in Kansas City and later time in New York. We speak about the art of teaching, and the power of poetry. He gazes up at the sky for a few minutes in silence, and as I watch his eyes wander in the dark I can’t help but wonder what he sees above us. When he finally grounds himself again, I tell him what I’ve been told of him by Gwendolyn Brooks: that he was “one of our most nourishing poets,” and how he “used language deftly, with a lively, affectionate respect.” He smiles slightly at this, but merely shrugs and asks if I’d like to walk a little beside the water.
We descend a hill and, as we walk the narrow stairs that lead directly into the river water’s murky depths, we are joined by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. When he joins us, the three of us engage again in conversation about the act—and responsibility—of teaching and sharing the arts with all people. Lawrence speaks of jazz, and urges us to pause and listen to the rhythm and unspoken meter of the water as it slaps gently against the sinking stairs. As we stand in silence and listen, I recall Larry Smith’s words about him: how “his writing sings, with the sad and comic music of the streets.”
We walk for a while beside the water, challenging each other to compose lines on the spot for the “water song” that plays beside us. When the air takes on a distinct chill and the stars speckle the sky like salt on a sea of black paper, we part ways. Before departing, Mbembe hands me a copy of his poem “Reality.” Lawrence hands me a copy of “London Crossfigured” and walks off in the opposite direction, snapping his fingers in time to the beat of the water.
Your Turn: Of today’s six poets, which three won your heart? What lines and phrases stood out to you, and why? Which poems tugged at something in you? Share your thoughts and judgments in the comments below, and help me pick the winners of the day!
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