Time All At Once

Carrie’s Cosmic Seder

Poetry of Everyday Life Blog #14
To be published in the magazine Voices: the Journal of New York Folklore
by Caroline Harris with an Intro by Steve Zeitlin

Brodsky-Stein and Zeitlin Seder, 1946

After celebrating a family Seder in Philadelphia for almost a hundred years, my coterie of cousins became too dispersed, and the celebration gradually dwindled and faded away. So I was happy when Carrie Harris, my close friend and City Lore board member invited me to celebrate her Seder with her family in Manhattan last year. As Carrie led the symbol-laden ritual meal, we re-told the story in the familiar Haggadah booklets given to each of us. We read aloud about the Jews escaping slavery in Egypt, giving thanks that God who “passed over” the Jews during the ten plagues, parted the Red Sea, led them to freedom, and, as noted in the accompanying  Seder song, “Dayenu,” gave the Jews the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, and, after forty years, brought them to the Promised Land.

As is traditional at the Seder, the youngest child reads the four questions, beginning with “Why is this night different from all other nights,” but, after a few glasses of wine, a different set of questions crossed my mind. Considering the current situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, is it productive for us to annually retell a story that points to Israel as a promised land for the Jews? Was the promise of a Promised Land actually a promise of land?  When did the metaphor of a righteous escape become a right to real estate? (Thousands of years later, politicians in Israel regularly make that claim.) Is it helpful, given the situation, for Jews all over the world to exclaim “next year in Jerusalem”?  Jesus is said to have been crucified in that city and, adding to the the contested claims, centuries after the Second Temple was destroyed, the Al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem became a holy site for Muslims. When the Christians talk about home they think about heaven; Jews often think about Israel. Is the Seder adding fuel to the fire?

Like the lamb shank and the bitter herb on the Seder plate, I thought about these questions as food for thought. In conversations with Carrie growing out of her Seder, Carrie suggested that I am short-changing the story. It’s primarily a story about freedom from oppression. It does express the hope that “next year” we will be in Israel, but it has expressed that hope for thousands of years when there has been no state of Israel and still hopes for it now that there is one. Here’s how she tells it.

Caroline Harris

The Haggadah tells a story within a larger story, within an even larger story.  On Passover at the Seder, we transcend time. In one night, we journey into the past through the present to the future—time all at once. These time frames are tracked in the Seder:  the past before the meal, the present at dinner, and the future after dinner.  The past is very deep, reaching back not just to Egypt, and Jacob and Abraham before, but to the beginning of time.

PAST

The Haggadah reminds me of my mother. As my mom is getting older, and might be afflicted with some dementia, her stories, like the Haggadah, always start further and further back. You ask my Mom a simple question and you might to find out where she – or even her father – was born to get to the answer.  For instance, if you ask her about my father who passed away almost 20 years ago, she will tell you the wonderful story of how they met. “My mother and Herb’s sister,” she would say, “both went to the same dressmaker – and one day she told them that the two of us would go great together.”

The Seder is supposed to tell us the story of the Hebrews’ escape from slavery in Egypt. But like my mother’s answers to certain questions, the Haggadah goes back to the beginning of time, to Creation, remembered when we first light and bless the holiday candles separating light and darkness to start the story.

The Maggid, the section of the Haggadah where the official narrative is recited, also doesn’t get right to the point either.  It incorporates portions of Abraham’s and Jacob’s stories that describe the growth of a tribe into a nation.

More significantly, the Maggid introduces monotheism to the Passover narrative. God’s promise of a great nation is predicated on Abraham’s and the Hebrews’ acceptance of the one-God. The Haggadah recounts all of the wonders God performed to free the Hebrews from slavery, showing the one-God’s might over the polytheistic Egyptians’ gods, through the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea.

Throughout the centuries, the Haggadah has incorporated what were then contemporary references to make the story relevant to the day, intimating that the Haggadah isn’t only about a particular place – Egypt at a particular time – but about all “Mitzrayims,” all “narrow” places, at all times.

Today, many Seders emphasize that the celebration is not only about freedom from slavery in Egypt thousands of years ago or just about Jewish history; it’s about freedom from oppression anywhere for everyone. In the 1970s, some added a fourth matzah to bring attention to the plight of Soviet Jews. Modern anti-Semitism is recalled with a reading from the writings of a Holocaust survivor and, this year, anti-Semitism and all hatred undoubtedly will be recalled by reading about the slaughters at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the All Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand.  A challis of water has joined the Seder table symbolizing Miriam’s well and the role of women in the Passover story.  Along with the shank bone, the bitter herbs and the egg, an orange on the Seder plate now stands for diversity, a tomato, for migrant workers’ rights. Thus, “Egypt” is a metaphor for any place where there is slavery, oppression or hatred.

 PRESENT

Caroline Harris and Howard Goldman Seder, 2018

Before dinner, three different themes have been introduced:  slavery to freedom; tribe to great nation; and polytheism to monotheism.  The focus has been in the past, with efforts to make the past meaningful by reference to more recent events.  Finally, with dinner we are fully in the present.

The Haggadahs are tucked away, tossed on a couch or dropped to the floor. There is no script during the meal. We erupt in conversation. Adults find out what’s happened in each other’s lives since the last Seder. Kids run around or play with plastic frogs jumping into wine glasses.  We eat heartily, the smells and tastes reminding us of our family’s and friends’ sweet past, with a dash of bitterness about the brother who won’t join us, sadness about the aunt who died.  Yet, here we are together again, linking the past and the present.

Then the kids (in my Seder, adults, too) scramble around to find the Afikoman. That piece of matzah, raised aloft at the beginning of the Seder, will let us begin to end the Seder, once again merging the past with the present, present with the future. When we bite the small broken piece of matzah from the Afikoman, we bite reality – the reality of oppression and hardship, the reality of a broken world. Yet, we taste our dreams, our dreams of freedom and justice for us and all people.

 FUTURE

We open the door for Elijah, the prophet who is supposed to resolve all conflicts before the Messiah comes, and we pray God will once again redeem us, hoping that whatever Jewish or humanitarian crisis we are facing this year will be resolved by next year.

But the Haggadah doesn’t end with our hope that the immediate problems of the Jews and the rest of the world will be resolved by next year, though indeed that would be, as the beloved Jewish folksong goes, “Dayenu!”–  It would be enough.  The Haggadah’s vision extends further.

Where does the story end?  A story that begins with Creation can only end in the far distant future beyond time, after Elijah, in the world to come—in “ha’olam ha’ba.” The concluding line of the Haggadah, “Next Year in Jerusalem!” is, in part, the hope for the physical place that Jews consider home. (“Hope,” in Hebrew, is “Hatikvah”—the name of Israel’s national anthem.) It also is the hope that the problems we experience today will be resolved next year.  Beyond that, “Next Year in Jerusalem!” is the existential hope that someday—in the world to come—-all of us will enter the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey. “The Promised Land” is a metaphor for universal freedom, the perfect world of peace and justice.

Just before he was assassinated in Memphis, Martin Luther King echoed the Passover story when he declaimed, “I’ve been to the mountain top. . .and I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

In one night, we journey together from Creation, through all time in-between, to the future beyond our imagination in the world to come.  We form a bond that unites us with other Jews now, with Jews in the past and in the future, linking us with all humanity to create a better world.  In the words of Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

The message uncovered is deeply optimistic and challenging.  From the time of Creation of humankind, we have been on a trajectory towards the Promised Land of justice, compassion and peace. The Haggadah teaches us: The light of Creation illuminates our path to redemption.

But we cannot sit by idly. We must walk on that path.  We must take action like Abraham and Jacob, Yoheved, Puah, Miriam and Moses, continuously owning our freedom, striving for freedom and an end to oppression for others, and pursuing justice as we march together through human history to the Promised Land.

And then we sing.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

Corporate Candy

Ungentrified Sweets in a Gentrified City

The Poetry of Everyday Life, blogpost 13

By Molly Garfinkel and Steve Zeitlin

 

Artwork by Bryn Pennetti

In the 1976 film Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, buys some Chuckles from the concessions stand at the adult cinema. He tells the concessions girl that he prefers Jujubes because they last longer. If he were in a movie theater today, he certainly would not find Jujubes and probably not Chuckles, either. He would be given a choice of mostly Haribo candies and varieties of its juggernaut gummy bears. These are today’s gentrified candies. Although the German gummy bear has been around since 1922, the Haribo company recently swallowed up a slew of other confections manufacturers all over the world, and churns out over a hundred million bears in different varieties every day.

If De Niro were looking for Jujubes now, his best bet would be Economy Candy, at 108 Rivington Street, on the Lower East Side, which opened its doors in 1937, and which thankfully is NOT endangered. Where else can you find not only Jujubes but Dots, licorice pipes, Gobstoppers, Cinnamon Bears, Charleston Chews, a five-pound Hershey bar, or a Betty Boop Pez dispenser? This is a place to go for what we call ungentrified candy. It’s a place that offers a plethora of flavors and shapes that you can’t find anywhere else, at least not all together in one extravagant “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Economy Candy sells the sweets many of us above a certain age delighted in as children. It’s a place that resonates with our memories of taste, a place that can still surprise us. This variety of tastes and experiences, this historic resonance, is what the city should—and sometimes does—offer, but not without our vigilance and advocacy.

Artwork by Bryn Pennetti

Let’s imagine that New York City was made of candy. The city’s glass towers and big-box stores would be the Haribo gummy bears: crystalized corporate candy. Places like Economy Candy, Katz’s Delicatessen, Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery, and the Eldridge Street Synagogue might be the venerable but still extant Jujubes, licorice pipes, Chuckles, and Spearmint Leaves – or the spice drops in your grandmother’s crystal candy jar that like older buildings smack of yesterday.  But many candies are now extinct: Chicklets, black licorice dollars, Mary Janes and now –say it ain’t so! – Necco Wafers. They remind us of the city’s bygone places – Mars Bars (the Lower East Side dive bar not the candy bar), 5 Pointz (the famous Queens mural space), CBGB, the Domino Sugar factory, the Lenox Lounge, the house under the roller coaster in Coney Island, Music Row and now even the Cornelia Street Café.

It’s not that we care so much about candy, but we do care about a diversity of tastes, of experiences in the city. We care about the experiential difference between buying a piece of penny candy from friendly soul at a neighborhood bodega and trying to even find a human being to ask where an item is located in a big-box store.

The iconic Economy Candy is a metaphor for these tastes and experiences. The shop has been in the Lower East Side for over sixty years. Before the Great Depression, the storefront housed a hat and shoe store, with a vendor selling candy from a pushcart outside its doors. During the Depression, the candy started selling better than the shoes and hats. When Morris “Moishe” Cohen and his brother-in-law returned from World War II, they took over the business. Moishe’s son Jerry and Jerry’s wife, Irene, inherited the shop in the 1980s, and, like Moishe, took pride in kibitzing with the customers. Currently, Jerry works part time and their son and his wife run the store.

Today, the Lower East Side emporium, which we were pleased to honor in 2011 with a Place Matters Award, is a thriving pilgrimage site. Neon marshmallow Peeps seem to glow from the counters, hollow chocolate bunnies patiently perch on beds of plastic grass, and bins stacked nearly to the ceiling contain every jellybean flavor on record. In parts of the store, mirrors reflect the merchandise below, so shoppers can feel gleefully surrounded by candy.

Artwork by Bryn Pennetti

At City Lore, we have been inspired by the San Francisco Legacy Business Registry, which, as its website states, “works to save longstanding, community-serving businesses that so often serve as valuable cultural assets,” and which uses a nomination process similar to that used for historic landmarks. We urge New York City to follow suit, but with some key differences.

First, the San Francisco registry, which is itself endangered, relies on the government giving grants to landlords to keep legacy businesses affordable. Grants to landlords? Even the registry has come to realize this is not sustainable. Second, commercial rent control is simply anathema to recent New York City mayors and most city council members. When we brought up cultural landmarking at a city council meeting years ago, we were laughed out of the room for suggesting something so economically infeasible. Thankfully, the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which was first introduced in 1986, is currently being reconsidered. We strongly support it.

City Lore’s also proposes a Community Anchors rent-subsidy program for cultural landmarks. Small businesses would be nominated for the program with petitions based on their contributions to neighborhood stability and quality of life. If it’s possible to do this for historic landmarks, as the city already does, we believe it’s possible to do this for cultural landmarks. But the number of Community Anchors would be limited so as not to have a significant effect on the overall city economy: this program would not be commercial rent control to upend the city’s economic viability. We would limit the number of Community Anchors whose rent increases would be limited to perhaps less than 2 percent of any landlord’s properties, with a negligible effect on their profits. City politicians are hesitant to consider or strategize about this, claiming that the state constitution forbids it; yet commercial rent control did exist in the city between 1945 and 1963 under a special law. Yes it will take a bit of creativity on all sides, because last we heard the people make the laws and their purpose is not to serve as a straightjacket for the common sense reforms this rapidly gentrifying city sorely needs.

New York is in a constant state of change. If it weren’t, Economy Candy would still be a shoe and hat shop. Thankfully there are still ungentrified newsstands where you can buy a pack of Chuckles. But let’s find a way to protect Community Anchors. For if we don’t, as the folklorist Alan Lomax once put it, “Soon there where be nowhere to visit and no place to truly call home.” As for the gentrified candies, we’ll just swallow hard.

From a concept book by Bryn Pennetti (https://www.brynpennetti.com/economy-candy-concept-book)

 

The Gravedigger’s Tale

Poetry of Everyday Life, Blogpost 12

Born in Aiken South Carolina, raised in South Jamaica, Queens, Donnie Williams, a gravedigger, spent many long years digging his own grave.

“There was a time when I was actually looking at a death – my own,” he told me.

“When I was growing up, I was in the church – but I strayed.  I first started selling drugs when I was 13 – by 14 I started making real good money.  My grandmother would come and get me and we would go to church and then when I leave church I’d go back to doin’ what I was doin’ – and sometimes I would see my grandmother coming and just go hide so I wouldn’t have to go to church. Like my mother always says, ‘God has a way of bringing you down.’  At 15 I was doing really well. At 17, I ended up in the penitentiary.

Donnie William, Gravedigger

“They gave me 75 years to life – my mother, my grandmother and the church they worked on it and worked on it and after 2 and a half years, they got me out.

“When they finally got me out my grandmother said ‘you’re not going back to jail and you’re gonna get yourself a straight job’ My grandfather got me a job in 1980 in Beth David Cemetery. When I first started out I was just cutting grass with my grandfather. Yeah I used to walk by just to watch people dig the graves and I was wondering when it would be my turn one day –and sure enough one day I came in and a man handed me a shovel. I went in there digging like an old steam shovel.

“I started liking it so after 5 years I cut the drug dealing and stuck with the cemetery. Became honest. If you’re good at something it pays to be good at that – some people are good at writin’, some people good at photography. I was pretty decent at being a grave digger. I learned how to take a rounded spade shovel and make a square hole.“

But when my mother died and I lost my best friend I started drinking heavier and became an alcoholic, and then I became a functioning alcoholic, then I became a functioning fighting alcoholic.

Donnie Williams has mastered the art of digging a square hole with a rounded shovel.

“I used to get out there and tell the guy, ‘you don’t have to dig the grave, I’ll dig it.’  I’d go to the store and get me a six pack and I’d dig the grave 5 and half feet, a little deeper. Then I’d make a square hole down there, bury the six pack under the grave and go.

“But I knew I had to get my life together and in order to do that I had to go somewhere and find somebody and find peace in my life to make myself become who I used to be.  And that’s what happened. I checked myself into a clinic.

“I was in Odyssey Rehab and I was in there for about a year and a half going on- almost two years – and I was beating my own purpose – I was still going out drinking, tellin’ people no I’m not drinkin’, getting dirty urine but you know when I thought about it I thought it’s time to get yourself together – you came here for a reason – so I started stoppin’ little by little.

So one night I came to my room and the light was kind of dim. And there was this person sittin’ on my side of the bed—so I asked this guy, ‘you’re in the wrong room, Sir.’  He didn’t say nothin’ to me – so I said, maybe he’s sleepin’ – I said, ‘Excuse me, Sir, you’re in the wrong room – and if you don’t get out of here, I’m gonna whoop your ass.

He says to me, ‘hmmmm.’

I said, ‘Excuse me, you’re in the wrong room, Sir.’

He turned around and lifted up his head and said, ‘You don’t know me?’

I said, ‘No, I don’t know you. But you’re in the wrong room. If you don’t get up out my room there’s gonna be issues here.’

So the man looked at me, eyes red as fire and said, ‘You don’t know me?’

I said, ‘I don’t know you and don’t really give a damn.’

The man turned around and said, ‘I’m you.’

My head started spinning, really.   I had started thinking, and was thinking maybe he’s drunk.

He says, ‘I’m you.’

I said, ‘what do you mean, you’re me?’

He said, ‘I’m the drunk in you.’

‘The drunk in me?’

Couldn’t figure that one out either.

Then he told me, ‘you’re leaving me.’

I said, ‘leaving me?  If you don’t get out of my room, you right you’re gonna be leavin’ me.’

Then he turned around and told me the whole story.   He said, ‘I’m the drunk in you and you’re leavin’ me.’ And it was then I realized I had stopped drinkin’ for a whole year and I didn’t even know that God was with me then, without the bottle, without any medication. I was sober – and from that day to this day I haven’t seen that person since.

That’s a phenomenon I really would like to understand – but you know what? I ain’t in no rush to try to push it either.  I take it day by day and I let it go and if he show up again, maybe I can ask that question.”

“You know,” I said to Donnie, “you’re a great storyteller.”

“Never a storyteller.  I’m only telling you facts of what’s happened to me. Now I don’t know about anybody else. You asked me about me, and I can only tell you about me. And everything I tell you about me is the God’s Heaven truth. I’m telling you facts, not stories, there’s a difference. I don’t mind telling you because that’s part of what God put in my life.”

The grave digger’s tale is true. These are the facts.  To paraphrase the writer Virginia Woolf these are the creative facts; the fertile facts; the facts that suggest and engender.  I shared Donnie’s story with my friend, the poet and therapist, Marc Kaminsky.  “In Donnie’s story,” Marc said, “facts become images of transformation; they evoke the conversion experience through which the divided self becomes healed and whole through the intercession of grace.  His story belongs to the poetry of everyday life because he is thinking in images. Is the mysterious event in the room a hallucination or a revery or a visitation through the unconscious? The vision confirms that Donnie is leaving his drunken – his divided, dissociated – self behind; it is the revelation that leads to lifelong change.“

Donnie now has five successful children, and is gainfully employed as a grounds keeper in New York City, working with two wonderful women who “regrouped” him.  Long before he sat down with myself and filmmaker Heather Quinlan, Donnie testified to these storied facts of his life each Sunday at Peace Mission Church of Christ in Queens, elevating them to a revelation beyond storytelling, his poetic evocation rising up into the eaves, told before God and everyone – encouraging all of us to walk away from the dark side of ourselves.

 

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Live from the POEMobile – Poems on Steam

Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost #10

My friend and possibly distant cousin, Ariel Zeitlin, expressed the view of many of us when she quipped, “You may be living over a hot air grate, but at least you’re in New York.” I’ve always been fascinated with the steam that billows out from the underground in New York, on and around which many homeless souls have found some cold winter warmth. To me it suggests that the hallowed ground beneath our New York City footsteps is bubbling and gurgling like a witches’ caldron, an orgy of passion or the fires of hell – mirroring the teeming life of the city above.

But for Chris Jordan, who spends his time thinking and imagining and projecting light both from his luminous soul and the hi tech projectors he owns and thinks so much about, the steam from the streets was just another challenging surface to project upon.

And for our poetry team – Bob Holman and Sahar Muradi and myself –the intermingling of words, light and steam was away to express the fleeting evanescence of life.

Ride with us in the POEMobile and watch it now before the steam disappears into the ether.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DnCHiACVKc0&list=PL4slyQodoIv3DexHzk_d3vAHmo3NjPWU6&index=4

 

 

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

 

Spring Burial

Spring Burial:

The Legend of the Service Tree

 

Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost #9

 

Serviceberry tree in bloom, courtesy New York Botanical Garden

“We grew up thinking that if there wasn’t pavement under our feet, we were lost,” Marc Kaminsky said facetiously, as he sat with his longtime friend George Getzel, who lay dying in a hospital bed at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, talking about spring. They were two Bronx kids who morphed into two aging, brilliant intellectuals. They knew each other from their time at Hunter College School of Social Work in the ’70s. Struck by George’s tranquility in the face of mortality, Marc asked his friend, filmmaker Menacham Daum to videotape their conversation, and sent a copy to me.

In his better days, George told Marc, he’d loved to visit the New York Botanical Garden in all four seasons. Each time it would be a totally different world—the garden was a symbol of nature and birth and growth and decay.

“You discover this natural world,” Marc remarked. “You take this literal fact and use it as a symbol of immortal life.”

“I was especially close to the service tree,” George continued. “It’s an indigenous tree in northeast America. It’s a tree that’s barely a tree—it might be considered a bush—but it’s a tree. It actually fruits, it has a sweet little fruit that comes out of it when spring warms up, but it’s the first tree that blossoms in the woods. It has soft, large flower petals, light pinkish-white, and if you can reach out and smell it, the tree has the most delicate perfume—really beautiful. It only blooms when the earth around it is unfrozen.

Serviceberry tree blossom, courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden

“Our ancestors—at least the ones in North America—had a real problem when people died during the winter, because they couldn’t bury them; the ground was too hard. So what they did was wait till the service tree bloomed, and then they knew they could bury the dead because the ground was soft enough. Otherwise the bodies would have to be kept in coffins stacked in barns. That touched me deeply.

“So for the last few years, when I could still walk, I’d been trying to hit one of my holy places—the service tree. I would go into the Bronx botanical garden to walk on a trail through fifty acres of virgin forest that had never been cut, and there is the service tree, and I try—it has a life of flowering of, like, three days—so I always try to imagine, ‘Is the ground soft?’ ‘Will I make it?’ And sometimes I make it and sometimes I don’t, and the service tree’s spent flowers are on the ground, but I think that it is emblematic of my notion of immortality in life: a brief time, a beautiful fragrance, and then passing, disintegrating, falling to the ground, and renewal.”

Alone with his mortality in the hospital late one night, George spontaneously texted Marc some of his spiritual musings. Marc later lined the text out as a poem. It ended

Humankind calls out for compassion
For one’s self and then the other
The spent perfume of the petals
Of the service tree
Fall to the forest bottom
When earth loses its chill

“The last four lines” Marc told him, “sound like the poem that Zen priests wrote just before they died.” It was as if George were musing about an eternal spring, with ground soft enough to accept his body, a universe that still had a place for him even after his death.

George Getzel

“So here I am in bed, and I’m fading away, I’m losing weight, there are changes, and people visit me and they say, ‘I really want to go to the botanical gardens with you,’ and then a little sadness comes over me—’cause that’s not possible anymore.”

George was a faculty member at the Hunter College School of Social Work, now the Silberman School of Social Work for more than 30 years. As someone who avoided the limelight, he wouldn’t have wanted anyone to walk in his footsteps. “If anything I do is truly worthwhile in my eyes or in the world’s eyes, I don’t want to be copied,” he said. “I just don’t want it—I’m me, you’re you. But I do want to inspire.”

And so as spring rolls around after a bitter winter, I was inspired to call the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and ask if they knew about the service tree. The Garden arranged for horticulturalist Jessica Schuler, Director of the Thain Family Forest, to meet my wife and me at the reflecting pool the next Saturday. We traveled into the woods she knew so well and we stood in front of the tree George had loved. Though it was the first beautiful day of spring, the service tree had just a tiny splash of pink on the buds. Perhaps the ground wasn’t yet soft enough to bury the dead.

Checking for blossoms on the serviceberry tree, photo by Amanda Dargan

I told Jessica about George, whom I never met, and his metaphorical interpretation of the service tree. Jessica told us the tree’s Latin name was Amelanchier arborea but that it had had a variety of common names and etymologies in early North America. Shadbush because it often grows in riparian forests at the edges of rivers where the shad run. It was also called “Juneberry,” because it often fruited in June. And it was called “serviceberry tree,” because it bloomed when the ground was no longer frozen and it was time to bury the dead and hold a service.

Back in the hospital room, Marc felt that the space around himself and George was getting greater and greater, and that on the other side of that space was death, but that the space of life was also looming larger. George continued to express his deep and thoughtful perspective on life in the face of imminent mortality, making connections between blossoming and withering, growth and decay. “I remember holding my wife’s hand when she was dying,” George told Marc, “and having a great sense of intimacy, the same as when I held my hand over her belly when she was pregnant. There’s this mixture. Even in the face of the grim realities of life that nauseate you and shatter your dreams, I’ve found—with difficulty—deeper meaning.

“We all hold down to something that we would hope would have permanence,” he continued. “Something that would lead us beyond our grave and have something of eternity tied to it. We discover that the idol—be it money, position, your own children, the neighborhood you live in—it’s not forever and it falls apart and isn’t what you thought it was when you were a young man. It becomes moth-eaten and dissipates, and then with that—and here is where I think the faith of an older person, the circumstance of an older person, is useful—it’s followed by new growth, new possibilities.”

George Getzel died on January 7, 2018. The serviceberry tree he loved so well will bloom again this spring.

 

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

Love in the English Language:

A VALENTINES DAY MISSIVE

Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost #8

Graphic by Eva Pedriglieri

A story. It is said that once when the famous violinist Itzhak Perlman was playing a concert in Carnegie Hall, a string on his violin snapped. His playing came to an abrupt halt. The audience expected the violinist to disappear backstage to restring his instrument. Instead, he motioned to the conductor to begin the movement again. Then, through sheer genius and determination, he proceeded to play the entire length of the piece on only three strings. The audience was stunned. He silenced them with one simple sentence: “The challenge in life is to make music with what remains.”

In the wake of tragedy or true love, both of which leave us at a loss for words, we look for the terms that can express something meaningful in the face of the unfathomable. The word love comes from the Old English lufian, “to feel love for, cherish, show love to; delight in, approve.” Sources say that the romantic use of the word to mean “being in love” dates back to the mid-thirteenth century.

When it comes to expressing love in our time—and I write here of the word itself—the English language harbors some of the qualities of that three-stringed violin. According to one set of rhyming dictionaries online, Spanish poets have 636 words at their disposal to rhyme with amor,. The French amour has 928. The English love, however, has a mere 6: glove, above, dove, shove, of, and thereof. A friend, George McClure, suggested we might add “.gov”. Lufian would certainly have made for an easier rhyme, but love is what remains.  As my friend Carolyn Wells put it, “They don’t call them Romance languages for nothing.”

The poet Bob Holman simply suggests new pronunciations for English. “What I’d like to see is love rhyme with stove, ’cause that’s what heats it up and gets it cookin’.”

The challenge for the poets writing in English is to create poems using the words at hand. And yet the best English-language poets compose beautiful music using just those six rhyming words. They find ingenious ways to turn what my wife, folklorist Amanda Dargan, calls a “creative constraint” to their advantage.

William Shakespeare (1564­–­1616), from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: act II, scene II

                                                  Not Hermia, but Helena I love:
                                                  Who will not change a raven for a dove?

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806­–1861), from “Sonnet XV”

                                                    Beholding, besides love, the end of love
                                                    Hearing oblivion beyond memory

    As one who sits and gazes from above,
Over the rivers to the bitter sea.

William Butler Yeats (1865–­1939), from his exquisite poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”

                                                    I know that I shall meet my fate
                                                    Somewhere among the clouds above;
                                                    Those that I fight I do not hate,
                                                    Those that I guard I do not love;

English words don’t rhyme as easily as words in other languages, particularly Romance languages, in which conjugation and gender are expressed in easily rhymable suffixes. Often, translating poets who write in seamless rhyme from other languages can strain the syntax and result in the poem sounding sing-songy in English. Most contemporary English-language poets forego rhyme, but songwriters, beginning at least with Stephen Foster, have rarely shied away from it.

Stephen Foster (1826–­1864), from “I Would Not Die in Springtime”

… let me die in Winter
When night hangs dark above,
And cold the snow is lying
On bosoms that we love
Ah! may the wind at midnight,
That bloweth from the sea,
Chant mildly, softly, sweetly
A requiem for me.

Billie Holiday, “Like Someone in Love” (1957)

Each time I look at you,
I’m limp as a glove,
And feeling like someone in love

The Everly Brothers, from “Bye, Bye Love” (1957) love.

I´m a-through with romance, I´m a-through with love
I´m through with a-countin´ the stars above

Dolly Parton, from “Coat of Many Colors” (1971)

Momma sewed the rags together
Sewin’ every piece with love
She made my coat of many colors
That I was so proud of

Def Leppard, from “Fractured Love” (1993)

Fractured love, fractured love
Iron fist in a velvet glove

50 Cent, from “Get Up” (2008)

I came to bring you that California love
And a lil’ New York hatin’
It’s all of the above

Certainly the great songwriters of the twentieth century have been undaunted by the limited rhymes for love.

Bob Dylan, from “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” (1975)

Dragon clouds so high above
I’ve only known careless love
It’s always hit me from below

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

But I’ll see you in the sky above
In the tall grass, in the ones I Iove
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.

Some have also ingeniously used the ghazal style of using the same last word in each line, and rhyming the next to last. They use the same end refrain and a rhyming word before it, or simply use identical rhymes.

Lyle Lovett, from “Farther Down the Line” (1986)

One day she’ll say she loves you
And the next she’ll be tired of you
And push’ll always come to shove you
On that midnight rodeo

Tammy Wynette, from “They Call It Making Love” (1979)

And they call it makin’ love
Makin’ love, makin’ love
Throw it down, pick it up
Dress it up and call it love

Susanna Lee, a member of my Brevitas poetry group, commented in rhyme that there are ways around rhyming the word love:

If there were more
rhymes for “love,”
I’d be sure
to write poems galore
about my sweet dove, Lenore!

Maybe there are more.

Shall I go door to door,
tour libraries,
search cover to cover,
from edge to the core,
the tomes of poems
to discover if there are more
rhyming words for this lover to use,
to write of love?

I’ll pace the floor,
explore the world
from shore to shore,
and surely I’ll find just one more
word that rhymes with “love.”

Shall I use my head, instead,
pore over a thesaurus?
Or is that a chore,
too much for us,
just simple poets?

If I choose instead a word for love,
such as “adore,”
I am sure to find many more
words that rhyme,
like “lore,” “gore,” “nor,” and “door.”

I hear you.
“Adore” is not the word you’re thinking of.
You want more
words that rhyme with “love,”
and nothing more.

So how do I love you? Let me count the words…that rhyme. What does the fact that there are only six words that rhyme with love tell us about love in the English language? “Maybe because nothing can even come near love,” says the poet Sahar Muradi, “it’s fitting that so few things rhyme with it—it’s either love or nothing.”

There may be only six words that rhyme with love, but often there are no words to express how much we love one another. A child asks his mother how much she loves him. She spreads her arms as wide as she can and says, “This much”—as far as she can reach, but more. Then she throws her arms around him like a circle around the sun to show just how much she loves her child.

Fortunately, we don’t have to express our love for one another in rhyme, which would be particularly difficult in English. Certainly, sometimes it is not easy to say the three words that we do have: I love you. There are not six ways to say it, only one. And we water it down by saying, “Love you,” “Luv you,” “or, in writing, “Much love” or “Lotsa love,.” or “ILY.” Some of us are willing to sign some of our letters “Love,” while others feel that it might be sending the wrong message. How often have you wondered, “Will she sign her letter ‘Love’?”

We can all find ways to express our love within the limits of the English language, where there can be six words that rhyme with it, three words that say it, or no words at all. Perhaps this Valentine’s Day, we can find those three words and tell someone, “I love you.” Or, as my high school girlfriend Tilly Lavenas signed a yearbook inscription to me, “I love you madly, endlessly, insufferably, etc.”

In the words written by my wife, Amanda, for her song “Better Angels,” she finds still new and ingenious ways to rhyme the words for love.

Reach for those who love you, angels
Let them fly above you, angels
Singing like a dove, your angels
Hallelujah by and by

* * * *

 

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

Botnik versus the Romantics

The Poetry of Everyday Life Blog Post #7

CAN A NEW APP HELP YOU WRITE LIKE A ROMANTIC POET?

By Bob Holman and Steve Zeitlin

John Keats might have called the computer “a thing of beauty.” Or perhaps “an unravish’d bride of quietness.” Coleridge’s question “Is very life by consciousness unbounded?” could just as aptly apply to the computer.

What Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats did with pen and paper is still accessible 200 years later. But can our new computers help us write in the style of the Romantics? Can the zeros and ones of digital technologies collaborate with us to write poetry? Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor of Esquire, says Yes.

Along with Jamie Brew of the Onion’s satirical website the ClickHole, he founded the app company Botnik, which is “very semi-seriously” looking into this question. Its new app Predictive Writer can harness the vocabularies of Seinfeld episodes, recipes, Bob Dylan, country music, and more to create playful word games that enable you to write in different styles. When you go to the Predictive Writer app, you can select from a number of idiom-specific “keyboards” that the Botnik community has uploaded: Seinfeld season 3, cooking recipes, Savage Love (a syndicated sex-advice column), and the Romantic poets that we ourselves suggested to them. Say you want to write a poem in the style of Keats. You choose the Keats option, enter a word or two into the app, click on the eighteen choices they offer for the next word à la Keats, and on it goes. Try it at apps.botnik.org/writer/. But why, pray tell, would anyone want to do this?

 

Bob Mankoff: Former New Yorker Cartoon Editor, Present Cartoon and Humor Editor of Esquire. Rejected Chairman of The Federal Reserve

MANKOFF

Why

Why do some people surf? Certainly not just to get from the water to the beach. Why fall down ten times in the process? Because you want to ride the wave! It’s fun to see if you can surf this chaos of information that is coming at us from all directions, all the time.

 

 

 

 

Bob Holman, poet, founder of of Bowery Poetry Club, frenetic Romantic (image from the New York Times’s “Poetry Pantheon”)

 

HOLMAN

Predictive Writer may be great for writing a meta-Seinfeld, but now Zeitlin wants to challenge the app to a poetry writing episode—a Romantic poem, to be specific—and wants me to be the first poet in history to take a plunge into the ice-cold computer waters and generate a poem with this app. I mean, after all, Seinfeld is famous for being about Nothing, right? Predictive Writer is right there, pure vocabulary. Or you can spice it up by adding some octopus-pancake-recipe language from a different part of the app.

 

 

 

Steve Zeitlin, folklorist, Poetry of Everyday Life blogger, Ping-pong player (image of Zeitlin’s avatar, painted by Brazilian street artist Deçio Fereira)

ZEITLIN

We can’t begin to surmise what the Romantics might have made of computers, let alone Botnik’s app. According to Mankoff, it would be akin to asking a fourteenth-century monk what he thinks of Monty Python. (Wait a minute, wasn’t there a fourteenth-century monk in Monty Python?)

 

 

 

 

 

HOLMAN

I’ve never been one to shy away from inspiration. Poems make imagination real (don’t forget that).

Some topics of my earliest poems include George Washington following Indian trails (my first poem, age nine), the big natural bump on my foot (first poem for Kenneth Koch, my teacher at Columbia, age nineteen), and Life itself as a Poem (Life Poem, a book-length poem, written when I was twenty-one, will be published by the Operating System in 2018). As I’ve aged, I’ve found inspiration in other poets, Baraka and O’Hara and Stein et al. If I were stuck, I’d just open Kyger and there’d be the word, waiting.

Then came the computer. The “word processor,” as we first called it, taking a Cuisinart to the dictionary. Tzara and Burroughs used scissors for their cut-ups; we just highlight, hit control+C (Ted Berrigan’s zine?), go to exact point in the poem where we want the text, and hit control+V (Pynchon?) and drop it, you know, wherever.

Which brings us to Botnik and the wonders/horrors of its Predictive Writer software. It’s like the suggestions your smartphone makes, except instead of being drawn from domain of general English, they come from the lyrics of Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, or Romantic poetry. One is expected to just “feel” or randomly strike a letter or two, no thought needed, and then select a word from a grid of up to eighteen choices, insert, and keep going.

MANKOFF

Hey, other Bob (to whom I’m the other Bob): you don’t have it quite right. The process of creating sentences from a specific source with Predictive Writer—whether the source is a poem or anything else—is anything but random. They are the most likely next words from that vocabulary, given the ones you selected. We’re still in the process of developing the app to make it more intelligent in terms of knowing which parts of speech are permitted, as well as layering on more rules of syntax. But the more intelligent it becomes, the more intelligence it will require from humans to turn linguistic anarchy into poetry.

 

Screenshot of Botnik’s Predictive Writer app

HOLMAN

But, other-other Bob, to come up with anything resembling a Romantic poem, I would need to write not just according to syntax, but also rhyme and meter. So when I found myself stymied by Predictive Writer’s limitations, I resorted to old faithful print rhyming dictionaries (though I could have used one of the many rhyming sites on the Net).

Once I got over my pique, I settled in, using all the tools available—digital, print, or muse—following the predictives to lines on love for Keats and Shelley, using forms and meters familiar to each, with some shadows of larger issues floating like a cloud. (I went with “azure-lidded” regardless. Couldn’t resist.)

ZEITLIN

I shared this essay with the writer Caitlin Van Dusen for her comments, and when she got back to me and I started to reply on my iPhone, the predictive writer on the phone suggested that I write “Thanks for the feedback” or “Awesome, thanks!” How long before the phones can predict our questions as well as our responses?

Botnik’s Predictive Writer is playful, only “semi-serious”—I know that—but it raises some provocative questions about where all this is going. Beyond the storage of information, search engines such as Google and the other ubiquitous apps of our times are so integral to our lives that it is fair to consider them extensions of our brains, expanding our access to knowledge beyond that of any genius who ever lived. But where does the computer end and “I” begin? And think how much more difficult it would be to tell the two apart if a computer chip were installed in each person’s brain—something that anyone with half a brain can see coming.

A computer can take you (virtually) anywhere you want to go, tell you anything you want to know, or, as in the case of this app, access vast databases of language—but a poem you write yourself illuminates who you are. Do we forego our limitations, the way our minds mold and hold memory, when we express ourselves through poems that are wholly or partially computer-generated? Are we the last generation to experience a distinctive, genuine personhood as future generations increasingly integrate their brains with computer programs? Are we the last generation that believes creativity springs eternally from the human breast?

HOLMAN

My writing was well under way—I was creating Romantic poems with the vocabulary of Shelley and Keats—when Steve lay a content demand on me: your Romantic poem, he opined, wants to mirror the consciousness shift you are using and talking about. From pen and paper to the digital world? Whaaaaa?!!

That would have to be Coleridge. But this time, I dictated the poem using Predictive Writer the way I used to use the books of Ashbery—as in: now I need an Ashbery word, now a Hopkins word (“dapple-dawn-drawn”). So when I wanted predictive, I took it; otherwise, folks, the vocabulary is that of the Coleridge I know, not the limited choices available on the current early iteration of the app.

I ended up with twelve lines. I figured if I was this close to a sonnet, why not just close it off with a couplet? But for the final two lines, I’d let Predictive Writer pick the words.

THE ROMANTICS VIA BOTNIK ASSISTED BY HOLMAN

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 –1834)

 

ZEITLIN

So Bob did “Bobnik” the poem—and whether the results sound more like Coleridge than Holman, you decide.

But perhaps it’s a bit futile to ask the vocabulary of the Romantics to comment on a digital world they couldn’t possibly conceive of, because, for starters, they simply didn’t have the words for it.

In the movement to revitalize the Hawaiian language in the early twentieth century, a Hawaiian word was needed for “computer.” There were three schools of thought on how to find one: first, go to the elders, who have lived the language; second, go to the linguists, who knew the history of the Hawaiian language; and third, go to the street, where the approach is to take an English word and make it sound Hawaiian.

The issue was ingeniously resolved. The Hawaiians had electricity—and they had the word “brain.” So the elders coined a marvelous term for “computer”: the “electric brain.” What are we to make of poetry composed in part or in full by an electric brain? Certainly it’s better than the electric chair, but is it limiting or furthering our humanity?

HOLMAN’S ENDING

And what better place to round off the Romantics’ sonnet than with Seinfeld, season 3, “Kramer”?

Go n sweeper george fruit greatest jerry stub
Forever lid bother elaine’s martinizing club

ZEITLIN’S ENDING

Lord Byron: All farewells should be sudden.  Force quit.

 

 

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

The Bell Tolls for Ringling

The Poetry of Everyday Life Blog Post #6

This past spring I bought two tickets to the last show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus,  scheduled for May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, New York. The iconic three-ring circus, mother of all American circuses, was closing its doors after 146 years.

At the time, my friend the circus historian Richard Flint was busy researching a book commissioned by Ringling Bros. to commemorate the history of the famed circus for its 150th anniversary in 2021. Ringling didn’t make it that far.

Ringling Bros. image with circus performer Gleice Gillet on the lead elephant.

“People call it the Greatest Show on Earth,” Richard told me, “but it was literally the Greatest Show on Earth. A large, profitable circus, Ringling was able to deliver grandeur no other show could match. Not just horses, acrobats, and clowns. Not only numerous elephants, but lavish costumes, state-of-the-art lighting, three rings, five weeks of rehearsals, Broadway choreographers to help train a bevy of showgirls and clowns, original music composed annually for each show, a live band, the best acts from around the world, and an entirely new show each season. As one friend said to me, Ringling’s demise is something like the Catholic Church shutting down.”

I attended a three-ring circus once in my childhood. My uncle Walter took my brother and me to Ringling sometime in the early 1950s, and I can still remember walking through its legendary sideshow tent past giants and fat ladies, and seeing the elephants lined up as an attraction. That one unforgettable visit sparked my imagination. You need to see the circus only once to experience its magic—and you can’t experience it on your phone. Once the images of the circus and the sideshow enter our lived experience, they emblazon our imaginations with unforgettable imagery.

The circus serves as a powerful metaphor for the poetry of everyday life. It often harbors its own elevated language: circus impresario Milton Bartok, for example, pointed his audiences’ attention to the aerialists not at the “top of the big top” but to the “lofty recesses of the big top.” The circus  has kindled the imaginations of countless writers, poets, and musicians. In his poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” William Butler Yeats wrote: “Winter and summer till old age began / My circus animals were all on show / Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot / Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.”

In his song “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” Bruce Springsteen sings of a circus where “the flying Zambinis watch Margarita do her neck twist” and where the “circus boy dances like a monkey on barbed wire… / And the Ferris wheel turns and turns like it ain’t ever gonna stop / And the circus boss leans over, whispers in the little boy’s ear, ‘Hey son, you wanna try the big top?’”

Years ago, I used a circus metaphor to write about a crazy and wonderful girlfriend: “Rosemary, lioness of rare beauty / struts across her cage / scratching with her claws / rattling her cage! / Yet she pats with velvet paws / the keeper of the neurotic woman / who puts his head between her jaws.” Not just poets but all of us need the circus as a world apart, a world of daring, extravagance, and wonder.

A few weeks after the final Ringling Bros. show closed, the Smithsonian Institution featured circus arts as part of its Folklife Festival on the National Mall, in Washington, DC. Among the performers were members a number of youth circuses and small circuses, along with a few veteran, multi-generational performers, including Dolly Jacobs, who just two years earlier won a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts for her career as an aerialist with Ringling Bros. and other circuses. From June 29 to July 9, visitors to the festival could see aerial acts, jugglers, tightrope walkers, and trapeze artists, and attend panels on circus lingo and circus life. This magnificent array of circuses included the Hebei Golden Eagle Acrobatic Troupe, which features two dozen of China’s top acrobats; UniverSoul Circus, which is a unique celebration of urban pop culture; the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, based in New York City; and a number of youth circuses, including Sailor Circus Academy, from Sarasota, Florida. In contrast to the Ringling Bros.’ demise, these were ten banner days for circuses in the nation’s capital.

The Hebei Golden Eagle Acrobatic Troupe performs in the Open-air Ring at the 2017 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Photograph by Art Pittman. Courtesy of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archive and Collections, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Smithsonian Institution.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I attended the festival, and a number of the participants suggested that Ringling Bros.’ closing was just the end of an era, a business decision by a circus too big and unwieldy to survive (which does not appear to have been the case). One person likened it to a large oak tree that came down but that now would allow the underbrush to grow, suggesting that the small youth circuses sprouting across the United States would now be able to blossom.

The Circus Historical Society convened in the same hotel where the Smithsonian participants were housed; it promised the Greatest Convention on Earth for 2017! The meeting showcased a film about renowned tiger trainer Mabel Stark (December 10, 1889–April 20, 1968). The film depicted times when she had been mauled, her heroism, and her love for the tigers. Circus historian Charles Taylor met Mabel Stark when he was eighteen years old. He was, he said, “naive and precocious enough to ask her why she had so many wrinkles. She sweetly answered, ‘Why, dear, they are all places where I have been bit by lions or tigers. There is not a square inch on my body that doesn’t have a scar!’” Legendary juggler and Big Apple Circus performer Hovey Burgess told me that the youth circuses on the National Mall were, to use his crazy pun, a “stark” contrast to the film about Mabel Stark.

No animals—no lions, no tigers, no horses, no animals at all—were featured in the circus program. A sign at the festival read, “major compliance regulations and costs relating to sanitation, safety, and welfare (both human and animal) eliminated the presentation of exotic animals. Nonetheless, several sessions in the Circus Stories tent will discuss the role of animals in the circus.”

Mabel Stark

One of the circus participants said that if indeed animals had been allowed, protesters from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) would have lined the walkways to add controversy to the event, generate publicity, and put a damper on the occasion. The circus, they suggested, is a perfect target for PETA’s cause, because it guarantees publicity.

PETA and other animal-rights groups did picket Ringling Bros.’ performances for a number of years, holding up graphic signs purporting to depict the disputed mistreatment of elephants in the faces of children and families waiting to enter the big top. The Humane Society of the United States and other groups sued Ringling Bros. for its alleged mistreatment of elephants, but in 2014 their suit was thrown out by the judge when it turned out that they had paid a low-level elephant groomer to bring the suit claiming that the mistreatment hurt his personal relationship with the elephants. Despite losing the battle, the protesters and the PR nightmare they created ultimately forced Ringling Bros. to retire the circus elephants to a preserve in Florida. Without the legendary elephants, the circus seemed doomed to fail, and its demise came a year later. The Humane Society lost its legal battle against Ringling Bros. but won the war; children of all ages lost.

The Ringling Bros. elephants had been part of New York City folklore for generations. When the show was over in Madison Square Garden, the elephants paraded from the circus train through the Lincoln Tunnel with pomp and circumstance, often paying the tolls with great fanfare. New Yorkers lined the streets in the middle of the night to watch the procession. These elephants hearkened back to the beginning of Western civilization, from ancient India to the early nineteenth-century circuses. Until recently, at the Blessing of the Animals at Saint John the Divine in New York, Episcopal priests sometimes paraded an elephant in, at least once led by Gunther Gebel-Williams, Ringling’s star animal trainer in the 1970s and 80s.

Elephants on parade

The animals, clowns, and aerialists that make up the circus free the human imagination to consider the glorious possibilities of how the body moves, how animals can be trained, how human beings can choose to live dangerously, and how human beings interact with the natural world. As a child, ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson recalls that he thought the festooned horses he saw at the circus were actually unicorns. He told the Times reporters Sarah Maslin Nir and Nate Schweber that the world is losing “a place of wonder.” The athletic youth circuses cropping up across the country are healthy and wonderful—they are a form of gymnastics in which young acrobats await the audience’s applause rather than the judges’ scores; they are a place for retired circus performers to teach; they support many thousands of underserved young people; they are a boon to physical fitness and youth camaraderie. But no one runs away to join a youth circus.

Cruelty to animals is a serious offense. No one questions that. As Richard Flint put it, “In this day and age, those who insistently shout the loudest prevail.” I don’t believe there is any point in debating the impossible question of whether elephants are happier in their natural habitats in Africa and Asia (where they are frequently killed for their ivory tusks) or in the zoo or the circus. I’ll leave it to others to ask the elephants that question. But who is there to raise a whisper in honor of the collective creative genius that created the modern-day circus and the role it plays in sparking our imaginations. The circus in all its glory is one of humanity’s great imaginative constructs—like the opera or the sonnet. And the circus, I believe, needs to be experienced in its fullness, with animals and acrobats and clowns; those diverse attractions have defined the circus since Philip Astley, an English cavalry officer, brought the three together to create the first circus in his London amphitheater in 1770; without that combination of elements, it’s an opera without the music.

The artist Philomena Marano drew this picture of the circus after seeing it as a child.

My wife Amanda and I never did get to see the last show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. We had a family emergency—so two seats were still available. Here’s hoping that two curious children, their eyes filled with wonder, snuck under the big top and found those seats for the last performance of the Greatest Show on Earth—and that children everywhere will always have the chance to see clowns, acrobats, tightrope walkers, tigers and elephants gallivanting under “the lofty recesses of the big top.”

 

 

 

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

Consulting Hafez on the Trump Administration

Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost, June 15, 2017

In a bedroom she shared with her three siblings in Elmhurst, Queens, 9-year-old Sahar Muradi snuggles up to her mom. Sensing her daughter feeling pensive, her mother asks, “Is there something on your mind?” Then her mom reaches for the magical red book. Sahar remembers, “I can picture it – the book was leather-bound, frayed from overuse. It was small and fit perfectly into my little hands.” This was Hafez’s divan, the collected works of a 14th century revered poet from Iran, where great poets are considered seers. Hafez’s sobriquet or nickname is lesān-al-ayb, or The Tongue of the Unseen.

Sahar Muradi, Director of Poetry Programs, City Lore

“My mother received her book from my grandfather (my dad’s dad),” Sahar wrote to me. “My grandfather had bought it while visiting family in Mashad, Iran, and he eventually brought it with him to NY. My grandfather left Kabul for NY before we did (my dad came in 1981, shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Mom and we kids came in 1982). He gave us the book when we arrived. As new immigrants, he probably knew we’d need all manners of guidance.

“My mother had taught us to turn to Hafez’s divan with a harrowing decision or a life impasse (apparently, she had even consulted him on whether to marry my father!). With the book in my hand, I would start the ritual by reciting aloud in Farsi the invocation one makes prior to posing their burning question:

Ya Hafez-e-Shiraz
Tura ba shakh-e nabat-et qasam meytum
Agar ras-e-ta ba ma bogoye bareh azee

Oh, Hafez from Shiraz
I ask you to swear on your branch of sugarcane [i.e. your beloved]

That you will tell me the truth about the following

“I would hold the question silently in my heart. To tell your question aloud would surely jinx it. And to tell your mother your question – well, that would be self-sabotage! My secret was with Hafez, immune from any parental judgment. Then I would open the book at random and hand it over to my mom to read the Farsi. Oddly, she wouldn’t read the poem on the page it fell on – she would read the preceding one as if reading the obvious one wasn’t chance enough.”

 

Sahar Muradi and her mom, Shaima

She then would interpret the poem for an answer to my tortured question. As I grew, I often asked silly questions – ‘Does so and so like me?’ ‘Is this popular girl going to be my friend?’ and, later, ‘Will I get into the university?’ ‘Will my father’s health improve?’ My mom would offer her interpretation of the poem, and she usually made it sound as if some good would come of it. I would sometimes try to manipulate the outcome. I would test to see if the ‘best’ poems, the ones with the most affirming answers, were more in the middle of the book or towards the front or the back. Of course, that never worked.”

“Turning to Hafez was a family thing we did, although my mother was the guardian of the divination. It was part of the way we bonded (and continue to). Because of our reverence for him, we’ve even done family translations of Hafez’s poems. This is one we love:

What is better than pleasure, conversation, a garden, and spring?
Where is the cup-bearer? Tell me, why are we waiting?

Seize every joy that reaches your hand.
What anyway is the end of all our efforts?

Fathom: we are tied to life by a hair. Think twice.
Be kind to yourself; what do the little griefs matter?

          ~translated by Ali, Shaima, and Sahar Muradi

“During my childhood, my father did not engage in the tradition as much as my mom did. He would really only turn to it if something bad happened or he couldn’t make a decision on his own. But my mom says that in the last year or so of his cancer, before he passed away last October, he would turn to Hafez after morning prayer.”

Fal-e Hafez is the name of this ancient tradition in which a reader asks Hafez for advice, often when facing a difficulty or an important juncture in life. People open Hafez’s divan the way they might consult an oracle, with a deep wish for a soul requesting guidance. This custom was so well known that even Queen Victoria was said to have consulted Hafez in times of need.

Why Hafez? Hafez is known for his lyrical dexterity and his philosophical musings, for calling out moral hypocrites and for elevating social outcasts. Hafez describes himself in one poem “with hair disheveled, face flushed, and smiling drunkenly / Wine cup in hand, shirt open, singing poetry” (translated by Jawid Mojaddedi). He sings the song of the sinners and sees the beloved in their wine cups. One poem:

When Hafez’s coffin comes by, it’ll be all right to follow behind.
Although he is a captive of sin, he is on his way to the Garden.

~translated by Robert Bly and Leonard Lewisohn

“He is the Persian Leonard Cohen,” Sahar said. He is perhaps a patron saint of sinners and I was reminded of Cohen’s line, “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

Fal-e Hafez is part of a larger tradition of bibliomancy—using books for divination—found in many cultures and religions. Christians often open the Bible in the same way, as my friend Ruth Campo pointed out to me. “Did you do that when you were a kid?” I asked her. “No,” she answered. “Only as an adult. Back then I thought I knew all the answers.”

Hafez volume with interpretations for divination

Hafez died in 1390 and for more than 600 years Persians, Middle Easterners, and lovers of Sufi poetry have turned to his poems for advice. The tradition persisted through times of war, despots, torture, love and death through the centuries. Certainly today the political and personal situations have changed, to say nothing of the technologies. So whether the issues came up in the 14th or 19th or 21st century, the answers come in the form of a poem. Why a poem? Perhaps while the options being considered in the question may be simple, they may require an answer deeper than a yes or no because our lives are not so clear-cut.

“Unless your mother is doing it for you,” Sahar told me, “you are interpreting for yourself. Hafez is the intermediary, if you will; you draw your own conclusions and find the meaning in the poem that serves as a useful metaphor for your life.” The poem connects divergences and gaps with metaphor. Then the poem, in turn, becomes a metaphor for your life, encouraging you to think poetically and philosophically about decisions in your life. In the end, you find your own solution. As Jackson Browne sings, “bring your own redemption when you come.”

So how can we use this ancient tradition to survive these troubled times? A question that many of us have in our hearts is, “how do I survive the Trump administration?” If I were to pick a work of contemporary poetry to open at random for this question, I would probably select the Collected Works of William Butler Yeats. (Of course, telling you the question would probably jinx it.) And when I open the book like cutting a deck of cards, I feel sure the page would fall on Yeats’ “Second Coming”


Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Or perhaps we would do better to consult Hafez, and not only because he calls out hypocrites. “My poems,” he writes, “lift the corners of the mouth – the soul’s mouth, the heart’s mouth. And can effect any opening that can make love.”  Since now it is possible to experience the Fale-e Hafez online, I decided to pose my not-so-secret question at https://www.hafizonlove.com/fal.htm. Here is a verse from Ghazal 327 that the webmaster of randomness found for me: 

Tending to desires of the heart
Privately I make a start
Let the liar’s venom part
And let friends play their role

~translated by Shahriar Shahriari

The poet, unlike the politician, always tells the truth, at least a truth. Perhaps the tradition of the Fal-e Hafez is a way to seek wisdom in poetry rather than politics and to find our own pathway and meaningful ways to engage with the world. “At times like this,” Sahar told me, “when so much appears corrupt, the clarity of a poem can seem sacred.”

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Treasure Language

Poetry of Everyday Life, blogpost #4

“There are nine different words for the color blue in the Spanish Maya dictionary,” writes Earl Shorris, “but just three Spanish translations, leaving six [blue] butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya, proving that when a language dies six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth.”

6,500 languages – with at least that many words for butterflies – are spoken in our fragile world. By the end of the century more than half will disappear. Our languages are melting like the icecaps.

KHONSAY: POEM OF MANY TONGUES, directed by Bob Holman, produced by myself and City Lore is a tribute and call to action for linguistic diversity. A 15-minute motion poem (poem on film), each line comes from a different endangered or minority language, currently referred to as treasure languages. 48 speakers each speak in their mother tongues, as line by line, language by language, the poem is created. In the Boro tongue of North India, itself a treasure language, Khonsay means to pick up something with great care, as it is rare or scarce. We invite you to watch it here:

The written poem, along with background information, and information on how to contribute to endangered language revitalization appears at www.khonsay.com .

It was a screening of KHONSAY that piqued the interest of Robert Rosenwasser, Creative Director of Alonzo King LINES Ballet. The ballet, which will premiere in San Francisco on May 4, was choreographed buy Alonzo King to stories, chants, songs in endangered languages; the theme of the ballet is the loss of cultures and resultant disruption in the Ecology of Consciousness. A taste of the ballet was recently seen in “Let the Body Speak,” an event produced by Amy Schoening at the SF Opera. KHONSAY was playing silently in the lobby as the audience gathered, a visual parade of diversity of the world’s language speakers. Then the audience entered the Atrium Theater to the many voices of KHONSAY rising to a crescendo and then then an abrupt silence and blackout – a world without language diversity is a silent world. “Let the Body Speak” was performed by poets, musicians, and dancers from a variety of cultures, and in Chochchenyo Ohlone, Hawaiian, ASL, and Nisenan languages. Bob read the English version of KHONSAY from a scroll as the LINES Ballet dancers swirled around the stage.  The audience joined the Nisenan rock band Walan Amana to end the show with “Isimdiw,” “Stand By Me” in Nisenan, which now has a single fluent speaker. But that night 500 people were singing in this treasure language.

As the poet WS Merwin notes at the close of Bob Holman and David Grubin’s film Language Matters, “where will meanings be when the words are forgotten.” Scholars have shown that many of the world’s most endangered languages and many of the planet’s endangered species appear in the same geographical areas, tying the disappearance of languages to the fate of the planet. Languages like the flora and fauna of the planet are part of a world ecology.

We need to treasure language. “The true author of a poem,” writes Octavio Paz, “is neither the poet nor the reader, but language.” The Poetry of Everyday Life – the wellspring of meaning in our everyday lives – is embedded in words. With the loss of languages around the world humanity loses a portion of its inventive and creative genius, and six blue butterflies disappear from the consciousness of earth.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

 

 

 

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