Two weeks ago, when I reviewed Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry, I made mention of the highly-anticipated collection of contemporary Mormon poetry, Fire in the Pasture, which will soon be available to readers like you and me. It promises to be the most important piece of Mormon lit published this year.
I also may have mentioned that poetry and I aren’t the best of friends.
It wasn’t always that way. Once upon a time, in a town called Rexburg, I used to retreat to my room, turn on Bob Seger’s Greatest Hits (I kid you not), and write poems about snowfall and girls who didn’t like me. I also had dreams of becoming a successful poet.
This was before I learned that there is no such thing as a successful poet.
Perhaps my best poem from that era was this one. In it I mock Billy Collins, who was poet laureate at the time. Everyone in Rexburg seemed to have a crush on the guy.
Imitating Billy Collins
“Nobody else today writes quite like Collins, and few
indeed write any better.”
X. J. Kennedy
I think I’ll imitate Billy Collins for a while,
becoming the Poet Laureate of my apartment
through small, accessible stanzas almost lost
among bookshelves and dirty dishes.
I’ll start off with a poem about a hunting catalog
instead of Victoria’s Secret, asking
my imagined reader why the hunter chose
to wear the neon orange instead of the leafy cammo
as he reclined in the handy light-weight
camping chair. Then, after I become bored
with that train of thought, I’ll explore the intimate
details of Dish and the Spoon’s illicit elopement
in the not-so-tiny darkness of the china cabinet
as I chop cucumbers and listen to Bruce Springsteen,
who, as far as I know, never sang a song
about a nursery rhyme. If that fails, I’ll write
about turning ten-and-a-half or create a form
called the perpendicularnelle.
Maybe, if I’m feeling particularly daring, I’ll
undress Elizabeth Barrett Browning instead of Emily
Dickinson, counting the ways I make
her husband jealous as I take this liberty
with his Portuguese in all the depth and breadth
and height my soul can reach.
By the afternoon I’ll be a true poet, looking
out of my study window as I write a poem
about my polka face or what I thought about
this morning as I ate my breakfast
in the unmodified silence of my kitchen.
I imagine this will continue until evening,
when my first original thought of the day will come
in a flash of (picnic) lightning–just as I begin
to dream about Buddha beckoning with a snow shovel.
Later, I lost interest in poetry. I think it happened on a day when I heard someone read a poem and groan over its “luscious” L’s. I’m not a fan of the word “luscious,” particularly when it is applied to a letter in the alphabet that has no inherent lusciousness about it. And the groaning didn’t help either. It just made me want to buy mouthwash.
I have written Mormon poetry, but I never published a good Mormon poem. I did publish a lousy Mormon poem in the student literary journal at BYU-Idaho. It wasn’t the worst poem in the collection, but I wouldn’t be bothered if every copy of the journal spontaneously combusted.
My only real personal connection to published Mormon poetry is this poem, which Clinton F. Larson, the Father of Contemporary Mormon Poetry, wrote for BYU’s centennial celebration. It was inspired by my great-grandfather, Wayne B. Hales, who was a long-time physics professor at BYU. In fact, if you ever take a science class at BYU, it is possible that you will take it in a lecture hall named after him.
This was the case with me when I took a basic chemistry class. Except I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the lecture hall since I quit attending class after the third day. Attendance wasn’t technically required and I couldn’t understand half of what the adjunct professor was saying anyway. So, I taught myself chemistry and ended up with a satisfactory B.
At any rate, the following poem was written for the BYU centennial and later published in a book appropriately (if not redundantly) called Centennial Portraits: Brigham Young University Centennial, 1975-1976: Poems.
Wayne B. Hales
by Clinton F. Larson
Prize faith that tapers like a spire,
Becoming nothing that one can see
Among myths that flower and aspire
To polarize themselves in higher air
As ethereal meaning that ought to be
Less hypothetical and rare.
What else might their advocates expect?
Why should not the holiest defect?
See how every steeple tapers away,
Inspiring, though some folk stray
From useful faith with conversions
That conceal the gloss of diversions.
But others softly give themselves
Into peace where wishing delves
Like starlight into quiet thought.
Sadly, “Ethereal” is not a good poem. I have read it several times, but Larson always loses me at “To polarize themselves in higher air.” Still, it is nice to be able to say that Clinton F. Larson wrote a poem about my great-grandfather–even if I’ve never been able to make much sense of it.
Incidentally, my great-grandfather figured into a poem I wrote back when I was still at BYU. I was reading his autobiography and came to a section where he reflects on what it was like to grow up in a polygamous home. Basically, he wasn’t a fan of the institution since it left his mother alone a lot of the time. So, I sat down and wrote this:
My third great grandfather
married a second wife in 1856, assured
by Reformation and the promises
of the Brethren. She was nineteen, young
enough to be his daughter. They lived man
and wife and wife in Big Cottonwood
until the crickets came early, the seagulls
too late. By 1870 the wives had neighboring houses
in Spanish Fork: signs of a growing family,
not necessarily discontent. The institution seemed
to work for them. Though family lore is always
suspect, mine provides an image of a road
and three travelers. One generation later
tells a different story: What my great-grandfather
remembers was not one road, but two cities,
two families. His father, a miner in Eureka,
never knew a world without polygamy;
he was but an occasional visitor, a near stranger
to the small home on Center Street.
So my great-great-grandmother, needless
to say, was always alone, always
waiting with her children at the post
office or train station, endlessly anticipating
arrivals, accumulating disappointments.
It’s not a good poem either, but I have fond memories of writing it. And mostly, I feel bad that poetic tributes to my great-grandfather, who died a few months after I was born, haven’t been any better. He seems to have been a great man and an excellent teacher. I’ve never met anyone–in the family or out–who has had anything bad to say about him.
One of his students, however, did write this poem, which was given to him anonymously. It beats out all the other poems in this post.
I have a physics teacher,
I shall not pass.
He maketh me to show my
Ignorance before the class.
He giveth me more than I can learn.
He lowereth my grade.
Yea, though I walk through the
Valley of Knoledge, I do not learn.
He fireth questions at me
In the presence of my classmates.
HE annoiteth my head with problems.
My eyes runneth over.
Surely thermometers, barometers, and cyclometers
Shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in Physics 137 forever.
In his autobiography, my great-grandfather had this to say about the poem: “I told the class that this anonymous, who had a mind keen enough to write this kind of poetry, surely has it in him or her to get a ‘B’ grade, at least, in this course.”
Which was more than he had to say about “Ethereal.”
Props, Anonymous. Props.