THE POETRY VACATION: POETS AS DELIBERATE TOURISTS—Post cards from “somewhere i have never traveled gladly beyond any experience” (e.e. cummings)—or Messages from Lost and Found

It’s that time of year when people, maybe you, maybe you right now, go on vacations, which means, vacate, empty, leave home, leave the everyday routine, and be tourists. You are saying, Oh not me, I don’t want to be a tourist, Dr. B. Now you think I will say, because you know me, what I think of you, Oh, not you, but . . . peo–ple. But I say, Oh, how does a tourist act?

You know, you say, lost, out of place, wanting everything to be the same, stressed it isn’t, walking around with a map, not knowing, always asking questions, standing out like a sore thumb. I’m really glad you said this, Poetry Slow Down, because, speaking of go-ing on vacations, I want to go with this. This is Professor Barbara Mossberg, thank you for joining me at the Poetry Slow Down, it’s vacation time of year, and we’re going to have a little vacation this hour from the habitual world, what Emily Dickinson called Prose . . . Ann Tyler, do you know her works, I read them all, I buy them when they come out, in hardback–wrote a novel called The Accidental Tourist. It’s about a man in Baltimore, where Tyler herself lives, who organizes his whole life around preventing change–anything different from happening to him. He even hates to do errands across town because he gets homesick, only blocks away. Traveling is a matter of finding a place and a way to be where it is just like home. Being a tourist is his ultimate nightmare. He would never be one on purpose. And I think you’re right, Poetry Slow Down, of course you are, in how tourists are perceived. When we’re in a new place, we’re often lost, and demoralized, and irritated, and irritable, and irritating. We don’t know where to go or how to go or what to do. We think we know it all, and now we face the fact that we don’t and that people are doing things differently, in other words, wrong. But when we’re walking down the street, and we know where we’re going, we don’t have to think about it. We don’t have to look, so, we don’t look. We get to where we’re going. We aren’t peering at every sign and looking for landmarks, Is that it, is that, trying to match marks on a map with shapes of buildings-–or how they are described—When I was the U.S. Scholar in Residence in Washington, D.C., representing the academic study American culture, I would meet and travel with visiting foreign delegations, and there was this group of youth leaders from Europe, who had been traveling in the South, and every time we said goodbye they waved and said, knowingly, Piggly Wiggly. People in the Washington agencies were baffled. I asked them what they meant. They were so proud of picking up American lingo. They told me they asked directions for a place to buy aspirin, and people said, You go down this street, and turn that way, and you’ll see it, it’s right there– Piggly Wiggly. They thought Piggly Wiggly was a manner of farewell, like ciao, a toute de l’heure, see ya, but it’s a Southern market chain, the store they were looking for . . . Everywhere they went after that, in all their encounters with Americans, they proudly ended every conversation with, Piggly Wiggly . . . Anyhoosals: As tourists, we’re aware intensely of what we’re seeing, where we are, a little off center, possibly anxious, but wide-eyed. Aware we don’t know, we’re conscious. We’re awake. In the immortal words of our show’s theme song, Paul Simon’s 59th Street Bridge Song, Slow down, you move too fast, you’ve got to make the morning last . . . as a tourist, we’re slowing down, and, we’re making the morning and life itself last . . . how? Being lost, not knowing where we’re going, we notice: everything: We’re aware of morning, the present, the now of it all. The clouds, the feel of the air, the look of the sidewalk or the trees or the towers or the people on the street, the smells, the light . . . we might not remember what we were doing two days ago or last week, but on our vacation, when we were a tourist, we can recall every detail of a morning. And so where I am going with this, Poetry Slow Down, this mid summer day, when the privileged go on vacation, and when it is likely you may be a tourist, is that this state of consciousness, of not knowing, of being in a new place, an unknown place, and trying to figure it out, whether an emotion, a landscape, a scene, and engage with it, and own it, know it, for the first time, is what it is to be a poet, present in our world . . . Before we can write a poem about something, we first have to not know it, not know it in the sense that we take for granted what we think we know.  If we know, we don’t have to think, we just go—Do you ever find that people ask you directions to a place you go to every day, and you don’t know the names of the streets, or how many blocks, because you go there almost blind, from habit. . . But a tourist can’t do that. A tourist has to be on the lookout every moment, in fear or wonder . . . A poet is a deliberate tourist, seeking out the state of mind for which so much is unintelligible, and a new way of speaking is required, a new language, for a new way of thinking and seeing a new world. . .

So Poetry Slow Down, let’s imagine that you’re a tourist, you’re on vacation, you’ve gone somewhere, on purpose, and what’s the first obligation of being away? You’re right, of course, you have to write a post card to your friends back home. I am sure the first post card—POET card—was written on stone or coal or a log or leaf–Professor Mossberg, with all due respect, that’s pretty old school, writing a post card! Like that’s ancient, like a letter . . . OK, OK, so, today, maybe you write email, ok, I know, how old school, you text, you twitter, you . . . flitter—I don’t know—glimmer—whatever! You facebook, you take photos with your cell phone, but even so, you need a caption, you need words. . . and what should you say?

Well, that’s where poetry comes in: deux ex machina! Saved by the bell! Poets are tourists in our daily world! Poets are like Thoreau, going to the woods to live deliberately. Poets are wandering, wondering what am I seeing, what’s going on here, where am I, trying to put it into words, what is found there. . . present in our world . . . in what schools of psychology today call the Now . . . But poets have always ascribed to the sense of now, east or west: Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh (b. 1926), writes of what can happen if we leave off from our complacency, from the habits of mind that drag us down, our fears of change which impoverish us, and leave us destitute and forlorn; Hafiz: (b. 1310)- from Shiraz, in South-central Iran, writes of what we can find when we are alone and unknowing.

So today, we are going to see how poets are tourists giving us inspiration for our own post cards/emails/texts/twitters/captions of where we find ourselves, in the process of being lost, and found, as tourists, or simply, on vacation. . . vacating our normal lives, our routines, our habits of thought and being, our blinders preventing us from seeing the world because we think we already know it.

So let’s get started, Poetry Slow Down, let’s see where we are likely to be when we are on vacations this month, and see if the poets can help us out for writing our metaphoric post cards . . . our ringers . . . for sending home zingers . . . words that can do justice to the occasion . . .

We’ll hear how Billy Collins and Leonard Cohen and Emily Dickinson deliberate try to disorient us in their poetry, philosophies of creativity.

Here’s our line up: We’re likely to be  . . .


On the beach, and we’ll hear from our own KRXA Poetry Slow Down pilot philosopher poet Chuck Tripi; Going To the beach, Emily Dickinson; On the open road, on foot, Walt Whitman; On the ferry, Edna St. Vincent Millay; In the car, on an LA freeway, Leonard Cohen; In the car, on a Virginia highway, Charles Wright (and in his backyard); At the museum, with Billy Collins (fishing on the Susquehanna) (and Canada);

By the lake, Quantum Happiness by your Dr. B;

Eating barbeque, watermelon, corn on the cob, Pablo Neruda; On a hammock, James Wright;

At a café, W.B. Yeats and Robert Service; By a river, WH Auden; Gardening, James Tate; Checking into a hotel, Nancy Willard; Getting on a plane, at the departure gate, Rita Dove;

Sitting at one’s desk, Stanley Kunitz and Emily Dickinson. Wait! Sitting at a desk: does that qualify as a vacation? Thank you for this question! It qualifies if it is a vacating, a leave-taking . . . if it is a rest . . . if it gets us to the tourist state of mind. We’ll see what the results are, what is written home about! Please join me for this series on packing by emptying our suitcase of the mind, postcards from “somewhere I have never traveled” (e.e. cummings’ sonnet) . . . Let’s begin with the beach, get your sun tan lotion and binoculars! Mr. Tripi: you’re on! And we’re off!

c Barbara Mossberg 2011

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