THE BEASTS OF POETRY: The Poetry of the Morning Report, A Series

From my journal:

TigersI read the paper, The San Francisco Chronicle, that Christer puts for me in the back room to savor and drink my first cup of coffee before the morning email. This day’s first page deals with a woman who hurtles through flames to drag a man to safety when his truck turned over on 101 in SF, and the story is not clear at all on what actually happened and what she actually did, but its point is that someone slowed down: literally stopped, at 5 am, in freeway speeds of 65 mph, that someone noticed something in their rearview mirror, with a one year old child in the backseat, saw a truck tip and topple, stopped, and tried to help. And no one else stopped. A 22 year old who works at a senior center. That is an inspiring story. What makes us slow down and disrupt our routine for others, in heroic ways, lifesaving ways, or not . . . as we hurry along on our paths. I need to talk to The Poetry Slow Down. Is writing a poem, or reading a poem, this kind of slow down, this kind of interruption, that can save each others’ lives. And I have been thinking of what my students did with Marcel Proust, as I assigned them de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. Through the lens of their voices and visions, Proust’s ideas for how to live are so wise, the importance of taking time to appreciate things, how if you hurry through things you make them smaller and less momentous, when they could be so precious, and how to make the everyday revealed as extraordinary by making the moment last—and last—real—momentous (“you’ve got to make the morning last”). I want to talk about this. And what slowing down with poetry has to do with it.

I read about the crisis of drop outs in community colleges. To me, we all know what works. It takes time and individual attention and belief in each student, in their whole self. It cannot be a mass factory wholesale hurried -approach. Whole self, not wholesale. It must be education for the whole self, the Hokey Pokey—slow poke-pokey–approach, throw your whole self in, and shake it all about. That’s what it’s all about. Mix with Homer, Proust, Cyrano de Bergerac, Shakespeare, epic wisdom from the ages, myth, stories. In this lens is revelation. One’s own life becomes a story, a heroic, epic struggle, that has meaning, and hope. We find out who we are, what is at stake in our learning, through the writings of others. A magic mirror. What was Luis Rodriguez’s new book—you are the other me. We need to let our students discover their illimitable, indefatigable (they love this word), hungry for learning selves! Through literature and art—through “despised” and “difficult” poems!

Tiger in the JungleI also read about a man who had a private preserve of wild animals and in a fit of revenge against his community, set them loose, and killed himself. The animals, released from their cages and fences, were shot on sight, almost every one, except a few tigers, a grizzly bear, and two monkeys. All else killed, as a director of the Columbus Zoo said, a reverse Noah’s Ark, Noah’s Ark wrecked. This disaster. 18 rare Bengal tigers. Just saying tiger, I think of Blake, of what he would make of this. How do we honor the momentousness of this tragedy, of Blake’s vision? Once we read The Tyger, we are committed for the rest of our lives to that fearful symmetry. I want to include that too, in the show. And in each case, poetry on this topic, but also, poetry as a story in itself, how it matters, as a principle of slowing down, and appreciating life.

So Poetry Slow Down, you good ones, you are on my mind . . . And somehow, Marcel Proust got into the mix, with his advice, channeled through Alain de Botton, a philosopher, on the relation between the newspaper news and what the poet makes of it. So we’re going to hear marvelous poets and writers as we consider what the topic became:

The Beasts of Poetry: The Poetry of the Morning Report. This title is a little bit of an allusion to—speaking of wild things, lions and tigers and bears oh no—the clever and enduring Lion King, and The Morning Report!

First, saving lives! There are poems that actually save lives, famous ones like Invictus by William Ernest Henley, which saved Nelson Mandela, and possibly South Africa, and certainly Henley himself, and Ulysses by Tennyson, which Tennyson wrote to save himself from despair when his college friend died, and poems that may have saved YOU, Poetry Slow Down, and there are whole books of poems on this topic. One is called Saving Lives, by Albert Goldbarth. We’ll hear, in the next weeks, James Laughlin, W.S. Merwin, Marianne Moore, Theodore Roethke, Zbigniew Herbert, Edward Sanders, Galway Kinnell, Ted Hughes, Kenneth Rexroth, Delmore Schwarz, Timothy Liu, George Oppen, James Dickey, Elizabety Bishop, William Blake, Wallace Stevens, Sandra McPherson, Joan Houlihan, Edward Hirsch, Carl Sandburg, and me, and others, on poetry of slow down and saving the day, on lions and tigers and bears and the wild, in our world, in us, in poetry, in the poet in your neighborhood, in you. Our poems gather us in tribute and requiem and reflection: Cherish the wildness in you, the news of your heroic spirit invoked by Poetry, and slowing down!

Thank you, and write me at

© Barbara Mossberg 2011


My heart rouses to bring you news that concerns you and concerns many men. It is difficult to get the news from despised poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. You know who that is, Poetry Slow Down, That’s William Carlos Williams, Dr. Williams, your corner OB-GYN delivering babies by day and writing by night, and you know who this is, I’m Professor Barbara Mossberg, here at KRXA 540AM, with Producer Sara Hughes, at Think For Yourself Radio. Now Dr. Williams is making pretty large claims, isn’t he, for poetry—life and death? And not just death but miserable death? What is this news? And: what if we could not get this Rx? Those are the questions that my heart rouses to bring you news of today, that concerns you and concerns many men, so to speak, the issue of banned literature– including poetry. We just finished celebrating a week of Banned Books nationwide, with such groups as the American Library Association, are we a great country or what, we celebrate everything, like Walt Whitman, ourselves—we mark events we need to remember! I haven’t seen a Hallmark Card yet, but we could . . . Thinking of you during banned books week . . . My love for you is so intense it would be banned in Boston! If I told you how much I love you, there would be a federal case! I’d go to jail to tell you of my love. In fact, words of love did end up banned in Boston, in federal jurisdiction, and cause for jail. What? Yes, even the poets you love; yes, even the poets you were taught

in school; yes, even the poetry you taught; and yes, even the poetry you read to your children! I’m not kidding. Wait until you hear the list. We are going to have such a good time, because the topic of banned poetry is a platform, I admit it at the outset, of discussing just what it is about a work that makes it so powerful –the news that concerns us–that someone want to get it off our screens. So many works have been banned or challenged or panned or slammed that are considered great: We are talking about the guts of greatness. Of course, I think, Banned Books Week is precisely meant to have us ponder the magnitude of loss when a book is taken from us, when we no longer have access to these words. What would our world be

without them? That’s what I’m thinking about: the Banned Books week stirred and in some ways shook me — I discussed it with the great students at the Osher Institute of Lifelong Learning, aka OLLI,—it turned out to be so big we just grazed the topic, with six hours. What’s at stake, in our daily mind and grind, a kind of FlashMob in our quotidian day, and daze, we think it’s an ordinary moment and out pops Walt! You know he would—transforming our ordinary moment into something extraordinary, and bringing us into it . . . Of course, Walt was banned—banned early, banned often, banned late. So let’s get a move on, Poetry Slow down, what do you say? You are saying, Poetry Slow Down, banned? The Good Grey Poet, as he was called, O Captain, My Captain! When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed? The Walt Whitman whose words are inscribed in stone on Freedom Plaza—one of the places where Occupy Washington are taking place—and on the walls of the Metro Station at Dupont Circle—and a bridge on a turnpike—and the high school where our son went—isn’t he sort of patriotic? The list of banned books could be

confused with the curriculum of any middle or high school or college English class for required reading! There’s poetry banned by governments, poetry banned by school boards, poetry banned by cities, poetry banned by religions, poetry banned by parent groups. Poetry is taken out of libraries. It’s taken off school shelves. It’s not taught. It’s not bought or sold. Well, for example, what? We’ll hear an amazing list of works whose existence is anathema to various organizations and entities that want to silence their voices. (You can find some of these in the nursery and at your book club.) What it is about literature and poetry that gets itself in trouble and people want to disappear it? How dangerous is it, if people want to silence it? That’s the point, I think: it’s so powerful. Hearing or seeing words

moves and maybe moves around and jostles and ignites the way we think and feel—words can change our minds. They can change the day—we have FACTS about that—they can move mountains, or maybe save them. They can inspire courage, and conscience, and consciousness . . . . We’ll hear about John Avalos being inspired by (banned) Tolstoy, James Wright (“I have wasted my life”) on (banned) Mark Twain. So in this two-part series, we’ll hear about banned poems of empathy, compassion, peace, love, kindness, and joyousness, and examples of what would be lost to us if we did not have these poems, including a reading of epic responses to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s injunction to speak one’s genius, (banned-in-Boston) Walt Whitman, (banned) Nikki Giovanni, (banned) Allen Ginsberg, and also some of the good behavior of wild things (children and their parents) in the banned Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak, Paul Simon’s “Sounds of Silence,” E. Dickinson’s “They shut me up in Prose” excerpt—and a sweet love poem of (banned) Sappho. Next up: Shelley’s Defense of Poets, Milton, Yeats, and more: “the sounds of silence” unfurled. Thank you for joining me, and for your support of our program to have poetry in our civic life, our quotidian days and daze.

© Dr. Barbara Mossberg


What is not flighty but soars? You, Poetry Slow Down Listeners! 

 “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” Kahil Gibran

“I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life, as by the obstacles overcome whilst trying to succeed.” Booker T. Washington

“However great the hardship pursue with firmness the happy ending” The Tirukkural

“If you’re going through hell, keep going!” Winston Churchill

“You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him learn it within himself” Galileo

“Making miracles is hard work, most people give up before they happen” Sheryl Crow

“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted” Aesop

 “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the human eye” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“Everyone thinks of changing the world but no one thinks of changing himself.” Leo Tolstoy

“Now I become myself, it’s taken many years and places, I have been dissolved and shaken, worn other people’s faces” May Sarton

“The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.” William James

“A man is but a product of his thoughts; what he thinks, that he becomes.” Mohandas K. Gandhi

“I dwell in Possibility,” Emily Dickinson,

 And this is Professor Barbara Mossberg, Hail, Evolving citizenry! You have alighted at the Poetry Slow Down, in our grove of poetry, the news-we-need-in-our-civic ethos.You are an amazing community of our airwaves, O Flight of Listeners, making time in your hurtling day to slow down with poetry, and so gracious, writing me. This is dedicated to Krishna, on her birthday today. So in response to your mail, our show today continues my and your thinking onYour Inner Butterfly, including excerpts from my Chautauqua Address for the City of Pacific Grove, California, aka Butterfly Town USA and our show September 25 2011.

 The epigraphs to our show today, a hodge-podge of global cultural icons whose words have changed the world—imagine this dinner party, around the table Winston Churchill, Kahil Gibran, Booker T. Washington, Sheryl Crow, Galileo, Antoine Saint-Exupury, Gandhi, May Sarton, Aesop, Tolstoy, William James. Each bon mot expresses what I think of as butterfly knowledge. Artist, statesman, philosopher, poet, scientist, saint: the distinctions blur, overlap, fuse, as we see a common interdisciplinary set of observations on the work of becoming. 

Each by itself is an observation in worlds seemingly unrelated, not in the same conversation. But taken together, shaken and stirred, a blended recognition of our lives as journey, of struggle not only in our lives, I think, but defining our lives—known as pain, obstacles, change, being dissolved and shaken, altered lives and minds, becoming, invisibility, as some of our greatest and most enduring thinkers on earth express their own headline news: This is the poetry sound track of being human.

 Aristotle once said: In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous. We should venture on the study of every kind of animal . . . for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful.” We’ve been talking about butterflies these days, in honor of their incredible desire and ability to migrate thousands of miles—straight here to us on California’s Central Coast. If we consider the butterfly as a marvelous example we can learn from, we see the most improbable story of apparent incoherence and powerlessness—and then miraculous change that occurs from within.

I cannot think of an example of a creature on earth that works so hard at transformation . . . except maybe us, in ways poetry brings to light. Poetry, the language of slowing down, of expressing understanding in terms of other things, the relation of things that don’t seem related—metaphor—analogy—trying to turn thinking inside out, hang upside down, slow down to a stop, seem obscure, give language to thought in its most raw and wild state of knowing and unknowing, as we learn by unlearning, dismantling what we know to construct a new form of knowing. It makes sense, then, to me, that when scientists who were working on emergence theory, called chaos or complexity theory, from multiple ways of knowing, agreed that in such an interdependent earth system, dynamical, any initial force or energy remarkably perturbs and disturbs and changes the system, no matter how seemingly small. When scientists sought a way to explain this phenomenon to the public us, of a little going a long way, of the slightest initial action causing momentous changes over time and space, they called it The Butterfly Effect.


The anthem in the emergent science community, to explain the findings of physics goes: The butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil causes a cataclysmic storm system in Texas. It makes sense that such a powerful outcome would be named for the creature who works so hard to create and reform itself into a being of power, of beauty, of inspiration. Surely the butterfly flapping its wings is not the strongest in the animal kingdom; it does not have a roar; but its flap is heard round the world. It is a symbol of transformation, from blob to ravenous-take-no-prisoners worm to imprisonment; from prison, immobility, to freedom; from writhing struggle to soaring; from dark to light; from solitude to mating and community; from encasement to far travels; and it does this all itself; all its work is inner.

Now you may be thinking, AHA, I recall Professor Mossberg’s title is Your Inner Butterfly. If we go back to Aristotle, he noted, “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”

In fact, Aristotle saw the butterfly poetically as a metaphor of spirit. Aristotle named the butterflypsyche, the Greek word for soul.

So our human mind sees in butterfly a transformative power of flesh and spirit. Know thyself, was inscribed on the Delphic temple, Socrates said it, but how, sir? I am thinking of ancient wisdom, more ancient than Socrates or Aristotle, more ancient than the Bible, more ancient than clay tablets scratched with sticks in cuneiform. The Sphinx. The Sphinx standing for  . . . existence. . . a composite creature in stone, four-legged lion, two-legged woman, and winged eagle. This Sphinx can do it all; it is all. When Sophocles is writing his plays in 5th century BC, Oedipus the King, to explain our human situation, he describes the Greek City of Thebes guarded by the Sphinx. You can’t get into the City without passing the Sphinx’s admission test. Now this test isn’t like the MCATs or LSAT or GED or SAT or Driver’s License. It has one question. What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the afternoon? Well, that’s impossible, right? Some creature better make up its mind! Who are you, anyway? Well, it turns out, no one could figure it out. And the Sphinx, well, the Sphinx was a hard grader. Strict, really. You couldn’t just take a test and go back, and it didn’t say, well, you tried, come back later, or, good try. No, it throttled you (the Sphinx means “throttler”) and hurled you down the cliff. One day a guy shows up, who was told he would kill his father and marry his mother, and so he leaves home, but on the way, kills a man with his entourage, which he thought was okay, because it wasn’t his dad safe at home, or so he thought; and he answers the Sphinx, MAN, who in the morning of our lives—early on in our day, so to speak, crawls as an infant on four legs, who strides erect as an adult (with Advil) in the prime of life, our noon, and in our afternoon, in the waning golden light, we walk with support of a cane. All of these three stages are being human.  We are changing, and transforming, but we could not recognize ourselves in action, our whole life-long selves. To not see in what ways we are like the butterfly, in fact, is a fatal ignorance. We are not only not fit to live WITH, since we can’t get into Thebes Town, we are not fit to live at ALL. So ancient wisdom held that it was good for our health and our communities to understand and appreciate the butterfly-ness of ourselves—our capacity to transform into something that can powerfully influence and change our world, we, who change our own being over and over.

But Professor Mossberg, how can one person be like this butterfly effect and change the world?

And so I imagine us, each person a cocoon, creativity wriggling inside, working for emergence, and your eyes, your ears, with a destiny of liberation, a message we can take inside our minds, where it will soar. . . And I think of the words in you, that you can say and sing and write that matter so much . . . Because what we do know from human history—FACT– is that words can change how we think, can perturb and disrupt and destabilize what we thought we knew, and erupt in learning, and growth, and change . . . .So we’ll graze on chaos theory and cultural history of butterfly outcomes of global transformation, as we continue to explore your inner butterfly, and we’ll find examples of chrysalis crisis at the heart of T.S. Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Tennyson’s Ulysses. We’ll hear butterfly philosophy of Wendell Berry, and reprise a little of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. We’ll conclude with James Wright, with a new reading of his hammock poem, where he swings in chrysalis preparing for a new soaring life, not wasted at all. It turns out everyone we know has butterfly on their minds, and we are no exception this Sunday. We give the last words to Emily Dickinson, in memory of Steve Jobs, her funeral service to summer, as a farewell and salute to change, “in the name of the bee, and the butterfly, and the breeze.” I hope this lens of the butterfly will illuminate how you see your life in terms of transformation and creativity: it is when things look most not happening, most locked up, when one is invisible and one’s meaning is obscure, that we know we have to hang on, and as Churchill said (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953), if we’re going through hell we have to keep going! We hear a message of hope and cheer from your Dr. B, and you are sent off with hopes for your innie and outie butterfly to soar. Thank you for joining me, until next week.

c Barbara Mossberg 2011