BEFORE CHILDREN, I read a lot of poetry. Now I read a lot of
shampoo labels. Goodbye, Neruda and Dickinson. Hello, Johnson &
My poetry books are still packed in cardboard boxes from the
last move, six years ago. Down in the basement, digging out the
Halloween junk, I lifted the flap of a box marked "20th Cent. Brit.
& Am." Inside, a family of cannibal crickets was devouring - as
once I did - William Butler Yeats. I admire their taste, if not
I have mixed feelings about poetry. It's easy to make fun of
its pretensions. Yet it can touch us as few other forms of human
But I'm impatient, even a little irritated, with poetry as with
nearly everything in my life. It takes too long to downshift into
the poetry mood, and then I'm asleep.
Poets don't make it easy for those of us accustomed to
information-driven, lowest common denominator American English.
Poets use phrases like "fouled magma incubate." We are not allowed
phrases like fouled magma incubate in a family newspaper. Even if
we were, they would sound pretty silly. Deep down, I suppose I'm
jealous of the liberty poets have.
Poems and poets also take themselves a mite seriously. I
remember the first poetry reading I ever attended. A famous Russian
poet was reading at a college near mine. I sat cross-legged on the
floor of an overheated room jammed with starry-eyed coeds like me.
Enter The Poet. All eyes on The Poet. Nobody dared cough.
Nobody dared breathe. Nobody dared move. The silence between
selections was excruciating.
Then, in the middle of one terribly deep, lugubrious stanza, a
golden retriever wearing a red bandana - (this was the 60s, man,
when dogs looked as dumb as their owners) - heaved up a hairball
the size of a guinea pig. At the feet of The Poet. Everyone, The
Poet included, was too stunned to acknowledge what had just
So everyone pretended it hadn't happened. Everyone except the
dog. It proceeded to bat the hairball playfully between its paws
for the next hour and a half, as if it actually were a guinea pig.
I struggled to stifle myself.
But when Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature last
week, I decided to rescue him from the cannibals in the basement.
In a previous life, I met Heaney at a cocktail party. I was
teaching at a small college in Southern California, and some of my
students had begged me to take them to his reading. …