Dinner and a Poem

It was a custom of ours for some time in our home, after we were through with our dinner, for one of us to grab Bartlett’s Poems for Occasions off the shelf and partnering with someone else at the table fan the pages until they would holler, Stop. Whichever poem the one fanning the pages landed on was theirs to read aloud. Then it moved on to the next person and so on and so forth until we’d all taken a turn. Outside the obvious pleasures and enlightenments of reading wonderful poetry, this practice for our family was akin to using a divining rod to find water. There was always the fated chance the someone would stop on a poem that revealed some precise and meaningful thing about ourselves.

It was a silly little game, but we all liked it, even when the supernatural was not tempted and the poems made little personal sense to the reader or anyone else, which was often. Lia, for instance, seemed to have the knack for always stopping on Robert Frost’s, Whose Woods These Are I Think I Know, (which may have made perfect sense looking back). She liked the poem so much, she had the page dog-eared and went ahead and read it anyway, whether she was commanded to stop or not. To her, life can be both mythical and in our power to control it, such was her dinner and a poem.

Often, people took more than one turn in the hopes of fate giving them a better verse, something lovelier or simply more direct. Disappointment, even in something as fickle as chance, is a difficult thing to accept. More than once, we had to just close the book, leave serendipity for another day, and get on with cleaning up the table. But, as I said, we all liked the game and out of it grew some appreciation in all of us for poetry, family, and tradition.

I don’t write poetry — well, I don’t write poetry well, that is. I don’t think so anyway. Other than one recent occasion (in case you missed it, here is the link to the very special, Six Until Me), I haven’t tried my hand at it in many, many years. But I love poetry and when I write prose I write with the same love and gratitude for the way words can be carved and shaped into an evocative, aesthetic rhythm. Poetry is to storytelling, what music is to sound.

Unfortunately, we haven’t been cracking Bartlett’s or any other poetry book after dinner lately. There is no good reason why. Energy. Focus. Desire. So much has been on our minds. What time has there been for daydreaming poets, for lyrics, or irony, when there are boluses and blood checks and other worries on which to attend?

The truth is there is no excuse. This occasion means too much to us as a family. So in honor of returning this tradition to our table, I offer this, the very first poem I turned to this morning (honestly). It’s by Henry David Thoreau. The title is My life has been the poem I would have writ:

My life has been the poem I would have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.

Now just to show how well this “diving rod” doesn’t work, the second one fate picked for me was To My Dear and Loving Husband, by Anne Bradstreet.

Good thing we aren’t relying on this to find water.

4 thoughts on “Dinner and a Poem

  1. “What time has there been for daydreaming poets…” Hopefully there will always be time in our lives for such. I’m glad you’ve found the time again. I’m looking into copying your tradition and making it my own. Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. Steve: thank you so much for this wonderful writing about your family’s tradition. It makes me reflect on my younger days when poetry was more than periodic, and some even ventured to say it was decent. Your poetry practice gives me the boost to finally embrace something I’ve long pushed to another day, and so for that I’m incredibly appreciative and inspired. Hope you and yours find that time more regularly to once again open up Bartlett’s or other pages of poetry, and embrace your inner poets.

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