Monday, April 17, 2017

Miracles for Breakfast or How I Learned to Love Poetry

The professor I was secretly in love with gave me the book. I’d never heard of the author, Elizabeth Bishop, and I didn’t like poetry.

“I have an assignment for you,” he said.

“I won’t like it if it’s work,” I warned.

“Keep the book by your bed, and every night read a poem until you find the one that speaks to you. Then read it over and over, dream about it, write it out word by word, sing it, draw it, eat it, drink it… until it’s inside you.”

“Then what?”

“Then read it to me.”

The book was slim with a torn cover. It had belonged to him. On the title page he’d written, “For Ruth,” in his confident black scrawl. I breathed in the pages to see if I smelled his solid, sensual, hard scent. Then I set the book on my windowsill, where it absorbed fresh air and sounds from other windows. Each night I restlessly searched the pages, but
“A Miracle for Breakfast.” found me.

At six o'clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony
--like kings of old, or like a miracle.
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.

Each night I read it like a prayer… a love letter… a note thrust into a crevice in the Wailing Wall. I knew nothing about the poet, nothing about poetry, nothing about form. But I knew about miracles, and I knew how breakfast—coffee, a roll, eating crumbs off my palm, the sun rising over water—could be a miracle. I knew nothing... but I tasted this poem. I tasted the poet.

Winter turned to spring, and each night I kissed the words. My bedtime ritual. No matter how late I came home to my tiny apartment, the last thing I did before sleeping was to read my poem. Sometimes only the first and last stanzas. Sometimes I skipped around. I loved these lines: 

Was the man crazy? What under the sun
was he trying to do, up there on his balcony!  

Was the man crazy? Was I? One night, stunned, I discovered the pattern. Six words were repeated creatively, wildly, in each stanza: coffee, crumb, balcony, sun, river, and miracle. I looked it up: a sestina! I was as awed as if I’d discovered a new country, scaled a mountain peak. 

The pattern made me fall in love with the poet. To be able to do that—to disguise the pattern, to use the same words in different order, and yet to tell a story—that was a miracle. That was art. I cried that night, alone in my bed crammed with books, papers, dreams of stories half-written and travels not yet taken. I cried for Elizabeth Bishop, for the narrator of the poem, for my professor, for myself, for all of us waiting for a miracle for breakfast. 

Months after he’d given me the book, I went to his office and read him the poem. His eyes teared. So did mine. I thanked him but it took me years to understand the power of the gift he’d given me. The gift I try to share whenever I can. 

Years later, I learned the poem, written in the mid-1930s, was about the Depression.
Decades later, I read Billy Collins: “They want to tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.” And I thanked my professor again for showing me how to fall in love with a poem.  

Last week, I watched Jim Jarmusch’s film, Paterson, about Paterson, a busdriver (played by Adam Driver), who creates poetry out of the miracles of everyday life. Each morning over his breakfast of Cheerios, he ponders the beauty and power of a humble Ohio Bluetip Matchbox and transforms it into the flame of his love for his wife. The poem (written by poet Ron Padgett) begins with these lines: 

We have plenty of matches in our house.
We keep them on hand always.
Currently our favorite brand is Ohio Blue tip . . .

Simple, concrete words. William Carlos Williams, the patron saint of the film, said, “No ideas but in things.” He called poetry, “a necessary guide amid the bewilderments of life.” 

Throughout the day Paterson eavesdrops on conversations, walks his dog, drinks at a neighborhood bar, and jots down his lines. Slowly, we see what it means to live life as an artist: to be here in this world, and simultaneously to be there in the world you’ve created. The artist merges the two. 

Every art teaches us how to see. It takes strands of reality and weaves them into something that makes others see what you see, and in the process helps them to see their own reality, transformed into a poem, a painting, a song, a story. Poetry shows us how to see the miracle in the matchbox. 

We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee.
A window across the river caught the sun
as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony. 


Unknown said...

Every art teaches us how to see...... the essence of truth and enlightenment. The joy of discovery.

Kate Brandes said...

Wonderful post, Ruth.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Kate!

Unknown said...

This post so speaks to my heart, Ruth. And with your permission, I'd like to share it with my poetry students at Moravian tonight. I saw Jarmusch's PATERSON a month ago or so, one afternoon in New York, and all day after seeing it I felt like my vision had been transformed--in the same way the poems of Williams, and of Elizabeth Bishop, have been transformative for me. Thank you for this! And we have to talk about that film soon!

Ruth said...

Of course you can share it, Joyce. My pleasure! And yes, let's talk about the movie. It touched me so deeply. I'm still thinking of it...

Kim said...

Beautiful, Ruth!

Ruth said...

Thank you, Kim!

Kit Grindstaff said...

Loved this post, Ruth - and it's very timely for me. I've rarely dipped into poetry (let alone dived deeply) but have recently been caught by Mary Oliver's work. I can't even remember how I came across it. Then Jon and I watched a TV movie about the Brontes, during which Emily's poem "No coward soul is mine" is read aloud by Emily's character. We were both absolutely blown away.

I'd love to understand the forms, as you describe...but for now, at least, some exploration has begun!

Ruth said...

Thank you, Kit! So glad you liked it. I know what you mean about your experience with the Bronte poem. Certain poems just blow me away too, and I feel like I'm seeing something for the first time!