Unfortunately I've lost the habit of relaxing in the grass outdoors. Not that I’m too lofty and proud to do so; I’ve little pride at all in that regard. But I’ve a fair complexion and every health expert advises people like me to smear on sunblock (SPF 5000) any time we even glance out the window. A news report this week even stated that tanning beds (which I’d never use anyway) are as deadly as arsenic. (“Tanning Beds and Old Lace”… doesn’t have the same ring…)
When I was a teenager in the early 70s, I liked to work on my tan. A dermatologist actually advised me to get a lot of sun because of my acne! Those were the days.
I read poetry in the sun. I knew little of poetic styles, virtually nothing about 20th century poetry, but my hometown library had a book The Chief American Poets (ed. by Curtis Hidden Page, Boston, 1905, 1933). I liked the blank verse of William Cullen Bryant.
To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language …
Such cadences appealed to me compared to the more conventionally “poetic” styles of the other poets represented therein, but not only that. My grandmother had recently died, and I suppose the poetic expression of Nature as care giver---the image of going to death “sustained and smoothed By an unfaltering trust” --conjoined with my immature efforts to comprehend her death. The celebration of the American wilderness corresponded in my mind to the pioneer history associated with Grandma's farm (her father was a descendant of early settlers of the locale). According to the book's footnote, Bryant had written “Thanatopsis” when he was sixteen or seventeen. Could I learn to express myself like that at the same age, I wondered? (The answer is a resounding No, but nevertheless, Bryant remained a favorite.)
I enjoyed Walt Whitman for similar reasons. One passage in Whitman reminded me of Grandma’s farm.
In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac bush, tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle......and from this bush in the door-yard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig, with its flower, I break.
Whitman's carefree persona was inviting.
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
I dug my toes into the hot grass of our backyard and said, too,
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
Here was an exuberance and an affirmation of life which I appreciated amid my shallow-seeming, adolescent dreams of popularity.
A vast similitude interlocks all,
All distances of space however wide,
All distances of time,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different …
Another favorite book was Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. I imagined his chatty graveyard as a pretty country place. I liked the honestly with which the Spoon River people spoke, including the overly dramatic. "Fiddler Jones" was a happier spirit than some:
The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you…
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river? …
I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic. I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.
"Not a single regret:" that's impossible for even the most adventurous person. But I liked, and still do, the idea of embracing your gifts. Unlike the teenaged me, I now know that we often realize our most precious gifts in just that way: people affirm and validate them for us.
These are quiet, solitary memories amid other, more sociable teenage summer moments. I never did get a deep, rich tan, and I never wrote much poetry besides a few pieces. But I'd still rather read a book of poetry than almost any novel. That's because I needed the guidance and assurance of authors at this time of my life, and poetry provided. Thank you, old anthology, Edgar Lee Masters, and summer sun!