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Poetry Hot Tub Time Machine

If you miss Kid ‘n Play and Red Dawn and cocaine, then, by all means, see Hot Tub Time Machine. I watched it this afternoon; I recommend it. But I don’t need, at least for the purposes of this post, to go back to 1986. I just need to go back a few days, to March 26, and properly celebrate a remarkable day in poetry — a veritable constellation of endings and beginnings. Whitman died, which proved both an ending and a beginning. Housman, Frost, and Nimoy were born.

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On March 26, 1892, Whitman did precisely what, nearly forty years earlier, he had predicted he would do: “I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun.” The cause of death was pulmonary emphysema; the poet’s brain was removed and sent to the American Anthropometric Society, where it was to be measured and weighed. (Instead, a lab worker dropped it on the floor, destroying it.) As Whitman wrote in “So Long!” (an idiomatic phrase he loved), “Remember my words, I may again return, / I love you, I depart from materials, / I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead.” The news this week includes speculation that Whitman may be losing his turnpike stop. To James Simpson, the new commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Transportation: Are you insane? Do you have any idea who you’re up against?

Closer yet I approach you,
What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you — I laid my stores in advance,
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.

Who was to know what should come home to me?
Who knows but I am enjoying this?
Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?

(“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” 1856)

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For a word (or more) on A. E. Housman, I defer to Wendy Cope, who writes, in “Another Unfortunate Choice,”

I think I am in love with A. E. Housman,
Which puts me in a worse-than-usual fix.
No woman ever stood a chance with Housman
And he’s been dead since 1936.

(Wendy Cope hates seeing her work reprinted online. And since I love Wendy Cope and would hate for her to hate me, I’ll make a plea: Buy her books! Don’t be satisfied with the four lines printed here! Order copies of Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis or Serious Concerns or any of her other books here or here or here!)

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Though most people associate Robert Frost with New England, he was born in San Francisco and lived his first eleven years in the Bay Area. He also spent time in Ann Arbor in the 1920s, serving as the University of Michigan’s poet in residence. (An Ann Arbor drugstore named one of its ice cream treats, the Frost-Bite, after him.) About seven months ago I promised a report on my visit to the Robert Frost Stone House Museum in Shaftsbury, Vermont. Will a quote suffice? Here’s the would-be farmer-poet, from an interview with Paul Wyatt that was conducted in 1921 and is now available (for a mere $3.50) in the museum’s gift shop:

Occasionally a man comes along who says, you can’t tell me there is any poetry in the process of scratching a pig’s back! But I don’t know. The farmer on the Sunday holiday is apt to stray out just to scratch the back of his pig or to salt the cattle. It is a little ceremony — a kind of poetic ceremony — tender-like.

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The Introduction to Leonard Nimoy’s Warmed by Love begins, “I must have been quite a sight driving through Hollywood on a rainy night. Tears were rolling down my cheeks, and I was shouting poetry to no one in particular.” On Goodreads.com, a reviewer named Brian gives the book five stars and writes, “Leonard Nimoy writes poetry. The complexity of my love for this book defies description.” I’m with you, Brian! About twenty years ago I had a long argument with a clerk at a no-longer-extant bookstore in Towson’s Kenilworth Bazaar. The store’s copy of Warmed by Love had been reduced from $15.95 to $0.50; I wanted to buy it, but I only had a credit card. Forget it, the clerk told me; the store would lose money on the transaction fee. I told the clerk how important the book might be to me; I got all Whitman-like, peering far into the future. He finally gave in, and I’ve kept to my vision. In fact, just the other night (the 26th, of course: Poetry Hot Tub Time Machine powers, activate), I recited several Nimoy poems to friends. I’ve taught the following poem to thousands of college students (thousands: I kid not) —

Rocket ships
Are exciting
But so are roses
On a birthday

Computers are exciting
But so is a sunset

And logic
Will never replace
Love

Sometimes I wonder
Where I belong
In the future
Or
In the past

I guess I’m just
An old-fashioned
Spaceman

— and I’ve published my own respectful riff on the work. Several years ago, Nimoy gave my friend Eric McHenry a $10,000 check and read several of Eric’s poems on stage at Claremont Graduate University. When I told another friend last week that Nimoy’s birthday was approaching, he replied that he once almost slammed into the actor on Sunset Boulevard. What could have been distracting Nimoy? Photography? Hobbits? Highly skilled technicians? Whatever it was, thank God he survived. He’s not just our Spock; he’s our McGonagall.