Cook: ‘The poets are at their windows’

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 1, 2011

I found myself thinking about freedom during our recent vacation. Not the political freedom we celebrate on Independence Day. Instead, a book of poetry got me to musing about a different kind of freedom.
ěThe Trouble With Poetryî called me from the bookstore shelf ó maybe it was the bear on the cover that beckoned. Itís not often a black bear looks you in the eye.
Thanks to one of my book club friends, I recognized the poet, Billy Collins. He was poet laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. Usually, Iím as up-to-date on poetry and poets laureates as I am on pop music. Thatís not my realm.
But there was the bear, along with Billy Collinsí name, and a book title that fit my attitude ó ěThe Trouble With Poetry.î
I glanced through it and thought of all the people who have asked the Post to print their poems. Poetry is trouble for me in that sense. Feeling an impulse to read something different on this vacation, I took the slim paperback to the checkout counter and bought it.
One of the first poems was titled ěMonday.î
The birds are in their trees,
the toast is in the toaster,
and the poets are at their windows.

Itís hard to envision a work week that begins with looking out the window ó and stays there. Monday means getting up and starting the work routine again.
Thereís a newness about it. All things seem possible on Monday when figuring out what needs to be done by Sunday.
But it is Monday, after all. And Monday after Monday, in ěGroundhog Dayî fashion, we focus again on our jobs and tune out the extraneous stuff ó like birds in trees, or the view outside the window.
Except the poets.

They are at their windows
in every section of the tangerine of earth ó
the Chinese poets looking up at the moon,
the American poets gazing out
at the pink and blue ribbons of sunrise.

On vacation mornings, we watched the sun begin its climb as we walked our dog on the beach. Vacations used to mean sleeping in, but the dog changed that.
I would complain, but there seem to be some benefits. Stepping outside with the dog at night, I find myself looking up at the stars or trying to find the moon amid the treetops.
But back to work with Collins:
The clerks are at their desks,
the miners are down in their mines,
and the poets are looking out their windows
maybe with a cup of tea,
and maybe a flannel shirt or bathrobe is involved.

OK, now Collins is just making us jealous. While the workers among us are in the coal mines, heís sipping tea and pondering what to write about today.
But the life of the poet has its drawbacks, as Collins alludes:

The proofreaders are playing the ping-pong game of proofreading,
glancing back and forth from page to page,
the chefs are dicing celery and potatoes,
and the poets are at their windows
because it is their job for which
they are paid nothing every Friday afternoon.

Ah, yes. I am fond of a paycheck. Besides (I rationalize), the only coal mine around me is a mental one, too preoccupied with my narrow space to notice the larger world. A person can enjoy the perks of being a poet without becoming one ó gazing at stars, contemplating the universe, enjoying the way a leaf skitters along the sidewalk.
The trouble with poetry is ó Collins says in his title poem ó that it encourages the writing of more poetry.
That doesnít seem like trouble at all, as long as Collins is writing it. He made this skeptic of poetry realize its worth and look at life a little differently.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.