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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Gray Matter: Appreciating the beauty of poetry

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

If you have read this column on occasion, you will not be surprised to hear me say how much I love poetry. I suspect anyone who enjoys fooling around with words as much as I do just automatically admires writers who master the art of verse. It's too bad so many people don't seem to really enjoy that art. If you are one of those, please bear with me. After hearing my story, you might have a change of heart. I think I was born loving things that rhymed, and various teachers fueled that passion. In junior high Miss Handley had us memorize things like Joyce Kilmer's "Trees" and a wonderful little piece about autumn, ending with the line "some of us call it autumn while others call it God." After high school literature courses, I knew I had to study English in college. Then at Iowa, it was my good fortune to have Dr. Alvan S. Ryan as my sophomore English professor. He had just earned his Ph.D. there the previous year. A tall rangy fellow, he looked every inch the part with his tweed jacket, his pipe, and a most engaging New England accent.

We learned so much so effortlessly from that remarkable man. As an extra bonus, every few weeks he would manage to end his lecture early, leaving enough time to bring out his well-worn copy of Robert Frost's poems and read from his favorites. "Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Eve," "A Road Not Taken," "Mending Wall," "Death of the Hired Man," were some I remember most vividly. What a perfect introduction to one of our greatest American poets! I wish I could re-create that experience for all of you. Some twenty years later, I read in an area newspaper that Dr. Alvan Ryan, head of Notre Dame University's English Department, was to be the commencement speaker at Briar Cliff in Sioux City. It was my good fortune to have the daughter of close friends graduating there that year. Things were all set; I could accompany the family to the exercises and hear my favorite professor once more.

But, as any mother of a large family can tell you, things don't always work out as planned. That time it was the chicken pox. With three youngsters ill at the same time, there was no way I would leave them with a sitter, so I missed that golden opportunity. I have since learned that Dr. Ryan, now deceased, had gone on to Notre Dame the year after he was our instructor. He taught there for some time, serving as Chairman of the Department the last three years of his tenure. In 1965 he left Notre Dame to return to Massachusetts where he helped establish U Mass Boston, serving as their first chairman of humanities and then teaching English until his retirement in 1978. But back to Frost -- I urge you to find some of his poems on-line or in the library, and read them. In a piece once taped for PBS he said that his eight-line poem, "Nothing Gold Can Stay," was his personal favorite, telling the interviewer that in it he had finally learned to pare his thoughts down to the essentials. He went on to apologize for his longer early works. Well, I tend to disagree with the great man. If he had shortened "Death of the Hired Man," some of my favorite lines of poetry might never have been penned, and that would have been a real shame. I am grateful they were, and truly grateful to Dr. Ryan for introducing me to them. Too, I am grateful to all of you for patiently listening to my ramblings today. F.Y.I. Here is Frost's favorite, "Nothing Gold Can Stay" which he had written when he had reached middle age, following the death of a dear friend and two of his sons, one a suicide. Nature's finest green is gold

Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf's a flower: But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay. In case you are curious concerning my favorite line of his. I think it is the one from "Death of the Hired Man" where the young wife attempts to explain why she believes the old fellow who had worked for them some years back, had returned to their farm in his final illness. Her husband argues that he has blood relatives, to whom it would have been logical for him to go, but she flatly states, "Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."