It will do you no harm to find yourself ridiculous—T.S. Eliot
I cannot rest from travel, I will drink life to the lees, come, my friends, tis not too late to seek a newer world, that’s Alfred, Lloyd Tennyson, exhorting us to join him although “the gulfs may wash us down”–
Traveling is a fool’s paradise, that’s Ralph Waldo Emerson, –ah,
And who’s that, we’re talking about, I’m Professor Barbara Mossberg, welcoming you to our show. Today our show is about April and what makes fools of us and how that is a good thing?— I was thinking of you, flying this past week, to Washington, D.C. to read poetry in celebration of the Fulbright program, the 60th anniversary of the program between Finland and the U.S. at the leaf-covered blue-glass Finnish Embassy, and wondering about flying, looking out the window and wondering about this experience of being miles up in the air among and over and between the clouds, and tossed about in winds and holding steady like some gull, and below is earth, and we’re hurtling in some arc as part of the planetary curve and space curve, and I was thinking, what if John Muir were in this plane seat, looking out, what would he think, what would he write, he who was rhapsodic about lying on grass looking up at the trees and skies and stars, Homer and Shakespeare and Milton and Burns and Wordsworth in his mind, what would Emily Dickinson write if she were here, I KNOW, she didn’t even want to get into a wagon, or train, or even on foot, “cross my father’s ground to any land or town,” what would she say, who could capture a view from her second story bedroom window over Main Street and the yard in Amherst, Massachusetts? What would Whitman do with this view? Coming over the Rockies, the Nevada plains and gorges? Mark Doty saw a green crab shell on a beach and made it a wondrous sight, thrilling the brain, Mary Oliver saw a grasshopper’s face and made it a moment of change-your-life-now transcendance, doesn’t everything die at last and too soon? Tell me, what are you going to do with your one wild and precious life? And I was thinking of Emily Dickinson’s “the brain is wider than the sky,” how our capacity to imagine it makes our brain larger than anything we can see. And I wondered, if actually our capacity to see, to experience, our very consciousness, is limited, we can conceive infinity, but to our mind, our ability to be thrilled, enthralled, enthusiastic, amazed, is finite, that is, we can be overcome by something like a broken sea shell, or sight of a mole or fox, or thought of a blade of grass, or feeling wind, and we can make a mountain in that way out of a molehill, like Blake we can see infinity in a blade of grass, heaven in a wild flower, our mind can take an experience and run with it, on poetic feet, that’s poetry, don’t you ever wonder, when you hear a poem, how did he think of that, how did she come up with that, this completely new way of seeing our ordinary—NOT—world, our days, our hours, what’s here . . . make it extraordinary, or rather, reveal its extraordinariness, revelation about reality, its amazingness, how in the face of the smallest seeming fact, we are reduced, or elevated, to wonder, to feel awe, to feel . . . regret, remorse, gratitude, excitement, loss, pain, solace, hope . . . . and our human minds can take something mundane, quotidian, humdrum, the dust of life and reveal it shining! And it may be, Poetry Slow Down, that our minds can make hugeness of something, can see its hugeness, its immensity of meaning and value, but it does not scale up, that is, we don’t experience more joy than joy, more awe than awe—so that to be actually flying in the sky, the brain does not conceive to be more momentous than seeing a groundhog lying, as in Richard Wilbur’s poem, or actually, perhaps, less so, than ground level, because maybe, maybe, what is required to conceive magnitude is slowing down, up close, maybe hurtling at warp speed, hundreds of miles an hour, seeing vistas of thousands of feet, over thirty thousands of feet, just does not do it for us. At least yet. Whereas, on the ground, looking up, slowed down, riled up . . . thrill, perception, amazement, What do you think?
Let’s here Mark Doty’s peering at a green crabshell, “Not, exactly, green” (that’s how closely he’s looking and trying to do accurate justice to what he sees). And some sky, a little view, from down here, is Eric Baus, who writes of the science of life, here recovering from an eye procedure, like John Muir, like Emily Dickinson, sky is on our minds . . . The sisters of the broken candle . . . . But when we’re in the middle of it, part of sky, no, maybe poetry is our microscope on magnitude, making the moment epic.
That’s what I was thinking on the plane, and of our show. Then, this is from my journal yesterday, my morning ritual, read a few pages of the paper, write in my journal, work on our show.
Editorial, from my journal:
March 31, 2012
There is much that I want to write about and for this morning—an editorial on why worries about healthcare and suffering economic stress deteriorate and stagnate and erode the civic spirit on which democracy depends, and deprives our nation of a citizenry of creativity, invention, enthusiasm, and hope. When we are preoccupied with worries, when we live in fear for ourselves and our loved ones, when we live demoralized by our incapacity to improve our circumstances no matter how hard we work and think, then literally our minds are operating at brain-stem stress levels, and we are stopping the kind of flow that must come when one is relaxed and trusting, trusting of our external
environment, its people and processes and news, when productive ideas can bloom. As a nation we need our citizens to feel encouraged and hopeful about each other. Not only our civic government of democracy is at stake when people feel too demoralized and stressed to worry about the civic health of our country, but the ideas that make for civilization’s progress in how we treat each other and our earth. We need people to feel they that can slow down and take the time to think of new ways of doing things, new ways of preserving things. And somehow, as I write this, I realize that while I did not set out to write in advocacy of poetry, I was just doing my daily private editorial in response to the days news, before I went to work on my poetry show, that poetry is a way to slow us down and let us reflect
and give us time to think in new ways, to stir our imagination and conscience, to complicate and simplify our perspective, a way to see what is amazing, a way of focus, and it is not that poets are going to come up with new government policies perhaps or products but that the mindwork of poetry, reading it, reciting it, memorizing it, hearing it, writing it, makes for a cognitive climate for ideas and spirit that these policies and products come out of. I was reflecting as I walked around Washington D.C. this past Sunday, by and through the monuments, that these monuments to people exist because of monumental thinking, : human merely beings as e.e. cummings would say, did say, like you and me with bad hair days and sore legs, but inspired by, and then inspiring us, with poetry! I saw the new Martin Luther King monument, huge slabs resembling mountains, with waterfalls, and on the walls of valleys, all this symbolism, with words on them, inscribed in stone, words based on poetry, from ancient Biblical texts and cultural traditions, to the classical writers influencing Henry David Thoreau who influenced Gandhi who influenced King who influenced all who were inspired by his words, I have a dream . . ., his insistence that hate cannot be fought with hate, that we need a rigorous, robust, insistent love that will make for peace and justice, and his poetic legacy is here celebrated in our nation’s capital, next to the World War II monument and in sight of Jefferson and Lincoln, with their words, coming from . . . yes, poetry . . . . And here are the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his monument, inscribed in stone, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, and the words, heard on radio, Poetry Slow Down, that kept a country on hope during times of depression and war, when people were so demoralized by their inability to take care of themselves. And so poetry has mattered in how we think about ourselves and our futures, and I see that somehow, as we try to figure out how to move our country into a new productivity and civic life of energized and hopeful contributions to our lives, that we make sure poetry, and art, and music, are accessible to everyone, that are required learning, and when we wonder why we have a deficit of engineers and scientists in this country, well, we can look at the decrease of arts and music programs in our schools, when history tells us, neuroscieince tells us, our own experience tells us, that the mind work of poetry, art, and music, is intrinsic to the kind of analysis and brain function of equation, reasoning, assimilation of data and understanding its patterns and meaning, and creativity and invention.
Look at Caltech’s entering class every year, how many students play a musical instrument . . . 100%–I think that’s the figure . . . so this is my editorial today, on the first day of National Poetry Month, why poetry can possibly matter in the national interest, and meanwhile, also on a national focus, we will talk today about anational program, initiated by a United States Senator, that is creative and imaginative and optimistic, the Fulbright program, and how this program, making travel possible to foreign lands for know it all scholars and students, if not creates poets and poetry, invokes the poet within, by taking know it alls and smarty pants and making fools—in the best sense—of these travelers.
So our show today is grounded in the national spirit for National Poetry Month, and our epigraph from the man who wanted us as a nation to have our own national Poet, our own arts, our respect for what America could produce, writing early in our Republic’s history, when in living memory the Constitution was still being debated and voted for, that early . . Ralph Waldo Emerson, calling for a Poet, The Poet, to come forth and express us, when culture was considered “over there” and not here, not where we are, not you and I, he wanted us to stay home and appreciate what we have, and sit at the feet of the familiar and the low (inspiring Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which Whitman sent Emerson as soon as he printed it), and Emerson’s epigraph for us today, Poetry Slow Down, isTraveling is a fool’s paradise . . . because today is, yes, April Fools! And we’re going to talk about fools, and poets, and traveling, and April, and how that is all connected, why April is National Poetry Month, which I believe Poetry Slow Down, is because a poet who traveled to foreign lands, an American from Missoura, wrote, April is the cruelest month, one of the most famous first lines of modern poetry, from The Wasteland, 1922, old possum himself, T.S. Eliot, and for some reason we all just love that line, perhaps because it’s so playful and provocative, April is Spring, and new life and hope, and how can it be cruel, and this line actually is responsible for my career, it’s true, even being here with you today, yay!, these words are responsible . . . Eliot’s poetry is the soundtrack of journeys that make fools and poets and paradise . . . come, my friends, we’re going to take a little jaunt to lose and find ourselves anew the poetic way, experiences that make fools of us, you say that like it’s a good thing, Dr. B, I do, because it’s April Fools today, on the Poetry Slow Down
Let us go then, you and I, shall we, POETRY SLOW DOWN, we’re quotingT.S. Eliot The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, speaking of fools, which we are, on this April Fools Day! This is where I come in, for true confessions. Now, a fool is defined by the dictionary as an unintelligent person, not sensible, a ridiculous person, but also, a court entertainer, and enthusiast. Guilty. But now isn’t that interesting. Why is it, WHY, that enthusiasm is taken, I will be objective here and give the benefit of the doubt and not say mis-taken, for a lack of intelligence, I would argue, that enthusiasm, which literally means filled with god, defined by our digital Ms Manners as “person deeply involved in something,” fan, devotee, buff, aficionado, and enthusiasm as eagerness, interest, fervor, passion, excited, engrossing interest, gusto, keenness, zest, and the antonym is apathy . . . why would these qualities of being amazed and engaged by and interested in and curious about—which Leonardo da Vinci scholar Peter Gelb defines as THE first requirement for how to think like a genius, and Einstein and Richard Feynman agree, be considered a lack of intelligence and be disrespected as a fool? When our poets, I would argue, are the voices of being deeply engaged in our life, absorbed, fascinated—beholding—see the root words, hold, fasten, of being conscious, awake, alert, alive! And so, leave it to the poet, Shakespeare himself, to resolve this conundrum, by having the fools in HIS plays at least, be the wise folks you can trust to be sensible—. As Mark Twain said, when you speak the truth, it is so astonishing that you are considered mad. Emily Dickinson said, Much madness is divinest sense, and SHE also comes up with a way to understand what it is about the fool, that is wise, that is amazing, that is the poet, that is, the amazed. She says,
A little madness in the spring
Is wholesome even for the king
But god be with the Clown,
Who ponders this tremendous scene,
This whole experiment in green,
As if it were his own.
Aha! The king has a LITTLE madness, so modest, exhibiting a decorum, not getting all excited, but who is God with? The Clown—and how is a clown defined here? Someone who PONDERS, that is, considers carefully, thinks about, thinks over, contemplates, deliberates, wonders about, muses, broods over, mulls, IN OTHER WORDS POETRY SLOW DOWN, slows down, in order to see, and what the clown sees, is a scene that is, apologies, apologies, tremendous! Which is defined objectively, I’m quoting Word Tools dictionary from my computer, marvelous, wonderful, great, incredible, fabulous, fantastic, remarkable, terrific, awesome, magnificent, sensational, out of this world, super, superb. . . . Emily Dickinson wrote her cousins, it’s a great thing to be great, someday, and the clown sees the world as tremendous, a word that is infused with unapologetic energetic rejoicing and amazement, the first word that comes to mind when I think of how John Muir experiences the wilderness; and the Clown then sees this whole experiment in Green as if it were his own. And if we see the world, as we talk about on this show, as OURS, as our listener Eggie from Texas reminds me, about OUR Poetry Slow Down, when we say something is OURS, we feel connected to it in a way that precludes being bored or not caring or not being responsible, and the Clown just is enthralled by Spring!
So we could say her Clown is an April Fools, and speaking of April, which we are, why did T.S. Eliot say April is the cruelest month, which a Harvard professor asked, Miss Clarke? He said, recognizing a student in the front row waving her hand, that was me, your host of the Poetry Slow Down, pre-Professor Barbara Mossberg, I’m at UCLA in this story, probably barefoot, it was April, the 1960s, and I answer, because April is so beautiful, it’s a time of such fertility and growth, everything is in bloom, and you are looking out and seeing this, and wondering about your inner growth, how can it compare, with the external glory—and he cut me off, Miss Clarke, Miss Clarke, he said, that only could be said by someone who has born in Southern California, where April IS beautiful, but Miss Clarke, if you want to understand American literature and culture, you must go east, where April is cruel, it is cold, and slushy, and muddy, and wet, it’s an awful time. Now we know Horace Greeley, a wise guy, said to Americans, go West young man, and now here a century later I am being told to go back east to experience the cruel Aprils my parents came from specifically to escape. And Eliot begins his prophetic critique on modern life and pollution, The Wasteland, our spoiled paradise of earth, where we mistreat each other and the land, its rivers and skies, but he’s all about redemption. He shows a spoiled and polluted and demoralizing world:
|A rat crept softly through the vegetation|
|Dragging its slimy belly on the bank|
|While I was fishing in the dull canal|
|On a winter evening round behind the gashouse.||
|Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck|
|And on the king my father’s death before him.|
|White bodies naked on the low damp ground|
|And bones cast in a little low dry garret,|
|Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year.||
|But at my back from time to time I hear|
|The sound of horns and motors–|
And this was 1922, when there were about 12 cars total on the road. I’m just sayin. Of course I wanted to understand American literature and culture and so I headed east, dutifully in quest of cruel Aprils, first to graduate school in Indiana, that was east to me, believe me, and my first story-book seasons, the way they were in books and not in real life foothills of southern California, ah, I was in real terrain! Cruel Aprils and all! And so I began to write some poetry, as I tried to make sense of this new environment, such as rain . . . which to me was mysterious. When it rained, I was disoriented. It was beyond earthly as I knew earth. In my mind, buffalo flew, the kind that fly, when it rains, for whatever reason. This image haunted my April dreams and I wrote this:
The buffalo returned last night.
Hooves pounded the tin roof.
I could hear myself trampled,
A valley trembling with thunder,
My ears filled with sounds,
And my mind spill awoke me,
Flooded with rain in the night.
Is it because I am a woman
I can be filled up,
Like a bowl or a cup,
As my dream receded I was a lake,
And the rain poured into me.
I was nothing but the sound of the stampede.
And it was night, and rain.
But in the morning, only birds.
Outside on the plain
There is a straggly green,
Left by the herd.
Although I look for buffalo in vain,
There are only plops, and puddles.
And this grass now,
Which would not grow for me,
But is there for buffalo?
The buffalo return,
And I, hollowed out
In brown season
Like ripe scooped cantaloupe,
Renounce all doubt:
I see no earthly reason
Why I cannot sprout–
That being so filled with spring sounds—
I, too, again will pound.
c Barbara Mossberg 2012
Then I was further east, down east in Maine, which was very confusing, down to me meaning south, then Cambridge, studying Emily Dickinson’s papers at Harvard’s Houghton Library Box 8, and ultimately on a Fulbright to Finland! A succession of cruel and crueler Aprils, and what happened was that, I did not go there as a poet, but I think the experience turns you into a poet, of new experience. T.S. Eliot said, we had the experience but missed the meaning. What do you do when you are confronted with a landscape of the mind, an emotion-scape of the heart, when you are searching for words in which to do it justice?
THE FULBRIGHT EXPERIENCE
The role of foreign travel in imagination seems critical as the effort to do justice to the experience of finding oneself new, a stranger, to oneself, invoking a consciousness that is expressed as a poetic sensibility wrestling with language, so that everything is seen as spiritually and intellectually and emotionally nutritious, for the hungry mind seeking to be present in the moment of not knowing, of being there, but not knowing exactly where “there” is. It was being in Finland as a senior Fulbrighter that I became who I am today—a vision in the sauna of John Muir whom I had never thought of before in any academic or professional or creative setting, been taught, or
taught, John Muir as an April fool!
We have heard, “John Muir Takes A Sauna With the Finnish Ladies of Kuopio.” And this vision of John Muir led to my becoming a John Muir scholar, and years later, I was invited to come on to KRXA 540AM station,Tomorrow Matters, with Deborah Lindsay, to talk about the environment and Muir, and in the course of our interview she asked me if I had any poetry about Muir and I read this poem and I came out of the studio and Larry Wrathall and Hal Ginsberg said, we have to have poetry on our station! And a week later I showed up with The Poetry Slow Down! and here we are! April fools!
Travel makes fools of us in the Shakespearian sense of the wise man knows he is a fool—it undoes our complacency, our conviction we know where we are, and what it all means, it lets us know what we do not know, and that’s when and where poetry floods in, and T.S. Eliot says, that’s what I’m talking about! He has written about fools, in Prufrock, “ridiculous, almost at times a fool,” and in The Cocktail Party, “It will do you no harm to find yourself ridiculous/Resign yourself to be the fool you are… “
Whew! That’s a relief! Thank you T.S. Eliot, the poet for whom I believe National Poetry Month, is named, forApril is the cruelest month. Eliot profoundly is concerned with giving us good advice to redeem our lives as April fools, his Prufrock, “almost ridiculous, almost at times the fool. . . “ Prufrock is afraid to disturb the universe, does he dare to eat a peach? But Eliot says go for it ” …We must always take risks. That is our destiny…”
― In Four Quartets, he says, we had the experience but missed the meaning–how is that for making fools of us, experience as the unknown terrain, the mind tries to map with words feeling lost, undone, unknowing, “almost, at times, the fool,” indeed–he says:
“To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.” That’s Shakespeare’s wise man who knows he is a fool.
And, “We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
So maybe that is what poetry does, this ceaseless exploration of our world, trying to see it and knowing it for the first time,
the humble stance of not knowing, engaging with language, something as seemingly modest as a broken sea shell faded on a beach. Yesterday morning at my desk next to my window I took up my pen:—
Poet in Residence
I sit by the window, dotted with rain,
As leaves slap the glass in the wind.
Two people walk by, holding umbrellas,
And I am grateful for the view, a Monet,
A Manet, making 18th Street in Pacific Grove,
A hop or hobble from Lover’s Lane,
A splashing Paris street in dark day spring—the only place it is so wet in art.
Oh thank you, for carrying an umbrella,
Oh thank you for purple plaid in this day,
And the plain Impressionist black, its dignity, the shape
Of a world seen from stars, or sun in eclipse,
Its solar flares, and the luminous gray, the luscious wet,
The waving tremors of the leaves in wind,
On such a day, how uncomplicated life is.
I sit in our Victorian tent of 1892 that Whitney wrote in,
And gave to our city for a Poet in Residence,
And this morning, I am thinking of what it means to be in Residence,
On our earth, in our noble towns, among all that grows and was formed so long ago.
The marvel of it, of what it means to sit beside a window on a rainy morning,
A witness to earth happening before my eyes—a bird flies upwards just now—
Black flutter zigzag while white gull is flapping across grey roof–
Bliss happening in my ears, quiet clapping, a brook-side sound of water lapping,
A hiss of car wheel, a soft thunder laugh under the umbrella floating by.
c Barbara Mossberg 2012
Sitting by the window, I realize, is poetic terrain actually—when Billy Collins reflects on travel and its role in his life as a poet in an interview with Frank Burus on the internet site WorldHum, he confesses his mind is really always at the window:
Collins said, “Poetry for me is a kind of travel writing. . . —a change of consciousness. . . . The persona speaking in most of my poems tends to be someone who doesn’t leave the house very often. He tends to be a reclusive fellow who likes to look out the
window.” He confesses that even though he goes to exotic locations, most of his poems “take place looking out the window.” AND NOT THE PLANE WINDOW EITHER! NOT THE FLYING EXPERIENCE, YOU SEE WHAT I MEAN POETRY SLOW DOWN?
So Mr. Collins, Mr. Eliot of National Poetry Month, your wish that we see our poetic fate in allowing ourselves to be a fool . . by everyday experience which shimmers in mystery and possibility of meaning.
And when I began today to muse with you Poetry Slow Down, about what poets really want to be absorbed about, IS looking out a window, not being any more or less thrilled by a window from a hotel room or front porch or metaphoric room lying in the grass house of the world, than from space or speed of roller coaster whipped peak like some body-mind meringue or white caps, weeeeeee, whoooa, and when Billy Collins IS up in a plane, here’s what he actually writes—be begins on the ground “At the hotel coffee shop that morning,
the waitress was wearing a pink uniform
with “Florence” written in script over her heart.”
And “ as I arced from coast to coast,” he imaginatively engages with the human beings on board, not the view outside the window, not the experience of over-earth flying, and finally reveals himself to himself—and us, as a poet. So as we hear Billy Collins, traveling alone, we are mindful of Eliot,
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
And Eliot’s lines,
“I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”
Maybe poetry traveling takes us to this place where we are fools, wise in this place of not knowing where we are, which travel teaches us, and next week, we will be celebrating spring poems, new life poems, faith in spring’s emergence poems, some of your and my favorites, and Jacques Brel’s birthday, our Belgian lyricist, our fiercely loving troubadour, and anticipating that we will hear from the all-time best spring poet e.e. cummings, on our theme today, we’ll end—for now!!! With, somewhere I have never traveled . . . that’s a wise fool for you!
And on that note, Spring, you, the mystery of emergence, so we keep the faith, the meaning of spring, we allow ourselves to be fools, to travel by untraveling, unraveling, being wise, a fool’s paradise, that is, slowing down, our Poetry Slow Down, you and I, let us go then, we’re sensible April fools, if we see this scene as tremendous, this earth as ours, are we lucky, or what?
c Barbara Mossberg 2012
Blog for Hufington Post
Senator William Fulbright once had a vision of bettering the world with what the U.S. produced. It was not any product, technology, or service. It was the education of its citizens. It was not just what our citizens knew; it was what our citizens could learn. It was the opened and opening mind of the republic as a precious resource. We would send forth our citizens to share what we know, and study, and other countries would send their citizens to us. The theory was that for the price of one third of one wing of one bomber, the intersections of minds serve peace and wise governance to save on military expenditures—and at the very least, such cost of a fraction of a plane’s wing could fund a global program of good will impacting thousands of scholars and teachers and students around the world. And thus was born what is known today as the Fulbright program.
I am reflecting on this today from Washington, D.C., where I have flown on a red-eye from California to take part in a celebration of the Fulbright program at the Finnish Embassy, and to conclude the evening reading my own poetry on my experience as a Fulbrighter in Finland. I began my career as a fairly traditional academic scholar; my first book was with an academic press, on Emily Dickinson. I think it is a lively book, but I won’t lie to you, it was printed in 8-point font and reading its analysis of Dickinson’s poetry is not chaise lounge or beach towel scanning—Jerry McGann once told me he needed a magnifying glass and could only take it in small doses. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is an exciting book, and wish you could read it, and the fact that it is no longer in print does not mean that I think it does not have something important to say to each of us about the hungers and capacities of the human spirit which longs to rise above the ways we are seen, or not seen, the spirit which longs to matter utterly to our world. Emily Dickinson longed to be important to her world, finally settled on being important to our world, having faith in an immortality in which she would arrive in our age like an intellectual refugee, finally heard for the indomitable spirit and brilliant flaming and tempered and keenly chiseled, original mind, on the order of a William Blake—an immensity of intelligence. Meanwhile, however, I was an academic at my beloved University of Oregon, teaching American literature, winning tenure, publishing papers, going to conferences, and having my say. At my sabbatical, I applied for a Fulbright, and was named to a fellowship in Sicily, my ancestral home on my mother’s side, but received a phone call one morning at 5 am, Washington, D.C. beltway timeframes innocent of different timezones. I was offered the position of the Bicentenntial Chair in American Studies at the University of Helsinki, a Senior Fulbright Lectureship. When I say “Helsinki,” I do mean Finland, which is not the same as Sicily, especially in winter, but I said Yes, because it was so improbable that I would go to Finland, in American Studies, which wasn’t even my field, that I had to respect whatever the Universe had in mind for me.
My point is that I did not arrive in Finland for this Fulbright as a poet, the way I am known today in my hometown of Pacific Grove, where in fact I am the Poet in Residence, a title that is probably the best title on earth besides mom and professor or “buddy.” I arrived as a know-it-all scholar , comfortable with the state of my knowing, with charges to profess knowledge. But knowing what you know in your own home context is one thing; transplant yourself to a new place, even if you are supposed to impart wisdom, and you are no longer who you are. You no longer can know what you know, because everything you assume is now called into question by the fact that you are new. You are transformed from a smarty pants into a not knowing-it-at-all humbled person—which is to say, into a mind that is opened, a mind that is conscious of being new to itself, of feeling strange. In this opening of not knowing, rushes in the poet.
It was poetry that made me understand what I was going through: T.S. Eliot’s lines came to mind:
And it makes sense that he would say this, as someone who went on a self-styled Fulbright from Missouri to Cambridge at Harvard, to London town, always conscious of how things were where he was raised, and the difference between where he was now. Dislocation, being strange, things seeming strange, stir up consciousness, that the mind works through language. And so it was with me, striving to do justice to the experience of being where I was, but not knowing exactly what this “here” meant, what I was seeing. The only way I could come to terms with this was in wrestling language in poetry.
If one is not a poet at the outset of the Fulbright journey, one becomes a poet; the poetic sensibility is invoked by the experience of strangeness which awakens the mind, keeping it on the alert with the questions, “what am I seeing? How can I translate this into words? How can I make what I am experiencing understood by others?” This is poetry’s call.
Excerpt, c Barbara Mossberg 2012