All hands on deck! Ahoy! Avast ye, mates! This is your captain Professor Barbara Mossberg of our Poetry Slow Down, a radio show for when nights are long and you’re lying awake, pondering your fate. Fate. How we meet our fate. How we know our fate. How we create or co-create our fate. We will look at this question through the eyes of the poets, who think about these things. We’re all thinking about our fates these days, yours and mine. I suppose that this is what defines a poet. The moment we start thinking about things, not stopping the flow, but slowing down in a sense, heating up our neural duodulas, and wondering. Us being human, at our most human. Poetry captures this. So we will begin with one of the greatest poet minds of the United States, who wrote a book we all know but few have read, even those who were assigned it as students, you know what I’m talking about, Moby Dick, busted! And one of our most distinguished literary critics, award-winning Dr. Susan Gubar, whose books you have read and know, including Memoir of a Debulked Woman(W.W. Norton).
Both Melville and Gubar are taking us to sea to engage with monstrous and epic fate through poetry, from a whale’s literal and metaphoric enormity, to the Holocaust, cancer, and even motherhood, fronting momentous terrain few have braved, with heart-making wit, fierce bravery, showing how writing and reading poetry is a way to live. We consider the lens of poetry in thinking of our own approaches to fate, from Homer to Tennyson. On this note, we explore how poets imagine fate as whales, from D.H. Lawrence, Whitman, Kim Cornwall, Linda Bierds, Marianne Moore, Edward Lear, Maxine Kumin, Norman Dubie, Herman Melville, Theodore Roethke, and Mary Oliver. We hear how poetry can get us to sea, when we’re at sea with our lives, when we have to go—I share my poem about my mother, in her ninetieth year, shackled and tamed, rescuing her and taking her to Happy Isles—in the poem (“this is what a poem can do”), and Billy Collins takes us fishing on the Susquehanna in a poem, Emily Dickinson takes us to sea and heaven. We remember the now outgoing President of the Modern Language Association (MLA) identifying the theme for the annual conference: Vulnerable times, perhaps a finger on the pulse of our sense of fragility of ourselves, our planet, and how it is our imagination that can help us become fearless and mighty, heroic, resisting evil, overcoming apathy and despair, and fighting in defense of right and life itself. So a poetry of vulnerable times and selves, a capacity to be moved, changed in life-mattering ways . . .it is all about significance, living and creating a life that matters to oneself, a way of being in which we know that we matter utterly to our world. Whether it is Herman Melville, who died, not knowing how funny, how tragic, how profound, how absolutely humanly great we would come to find him, or Professor Gubar, who lives knowing how much she is beloved and cherished by friends and strangers alike, writers touch us by their courage to tell their story in the most beautiful way that respects the world, the mind that processes it, the spirit that translates the intellectual meaning into importance for inspiring us to go on. We conclude with Mary Oliver’s “Reckless Poem,” and firefly poems, Ted Kooser’s (and Frank Ormsby’s), in honor of the moment Susan Gubar, taking out her trash one night, years into the years of chemotherapy and horrific surgeries, sees a firefly . . . Something so grand and epic and powerful as a whale, and so ephemeral as a firefly, can stir our minds as we are at sea in this world of ours. Where can a poem take us? To sea, as we slow down . . . I’m Professor Mossberg saying, thar she blows! Or rather, s l o w s! Thank you, my fate of mates of poetry . . . .
THE POETRY SLOW DOWN
Dr. Barbara Mossberg
Produced by Zappa Johns and Sara Hughes
Updated February 28, 2016
© Barbara Mossberg 2016