I write a news column at the Chicago Tribune, and at the beginning of baseball season this year one of my editors phoned with a tough assignment, something, he said, that called for special skills.
Was I being asked to investigate a doping scandal? conduct an exclusive interview? throw out the first pitch?
“Can you write us a poem about opening day?” he asked.
He and I both knew that by poem he meant doggerel—silly verse written with a wink—and I obliged:
Yes, baseball’s back, at last, at last
To bat away the blues
The games arrive like sunshine
In the bleepin’ gloomy news.
The economy’s a mess!
Plus parking, potholes, crooks and crimes!
We need some anti-stress!
—FromAn Ode to Opening Day
It ran on the front page, embroidered with old-fashioned bunting that signaled that rhyming verse, like baseball itself, was a relic of a quainter time.
I’ve always felt slightly sheepish about the pleasure I get from my occasional forays into doggerel. The enjoyment some columnists get from their political fulminations, I get from rhyming “spinach” and “Kucinich.”
I feel only slightly less sheepish about how often I exploit the poems of real poets to make a serious point. Poetry and journalism are like peanut butter and baloney: coupling them is not to everyone’s taste.
But I can’t help myself. Poetry isn’t just a way of writing, it’s a way of thinking, and I’ve been thinking that way since at least sixth grade.
At Alexander School IV in Macon, Georgia, Miss Lois Birch, who seemed as old as God, made us memorize poems. The two I remember spring to mind as often as the faces of old friends. I keep them in my head the way you might keep worry beads in your pocket, reaching reflexively in times of stress for their meaning, rhythm, sound.
One is by John Masefield: “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, / And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.” The other is by William Wordsworth:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils.
Since sixth grade, I’ve memorized poem fragments that range from the wisdom of A. A. Milne (“Where am I going? I don’t quite know. / What does it matter where people go?”) to the wisdom of Wallace Stevens (“She says ‘But in contentment I still feel / The need of some imperishable bliss’”).
Whenever I can, I sneak poems into my newspaper column.
After terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center, I instinctively flipped through my most dog-eared book of poems, Wislawa Szymborska’s View with a Grain of Sand, and plucked a few verses from “Hatred”:
See how efficient it still is,
how it keeps itself in shape—
our century’s hatred.
How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles.
How rapidly it pounces, tracks us down.
Her poem gave my prose a power it wouldn’t otherwise have had.
When W.S. Merwin won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, I used the occasion as an excuse to quote from “Rain Light,” about a mother’s death. I put a link to the entire poem on my column and hundreds of readers sought it out.
I’ve bolstered my own summer musings with Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day,” whose last line electrocutes me every time I read it: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
In autumn, I’ve quoted from Pablo Neruda’s “October Fullness,” though it’s about October as a time of life more than a time of year:
Little by little, and also in great leaps,
life happened to me,
and how insignificant this business is.
The response to the columns in which I quote good poems is always strong, which is another reason to feel sheepish: even with full attribution I’m reaping credit for someone else’s genius.
Poetry also creeps into Brenda Starr, the soap-opera comic strip I’ve written for twenty-four years. Our heroine, Brenda, quotes poetry and muses on it. Heroes and villains alike use it to woo her.
Recently, a mysterious, dashing man named Ringo, from the fictitious country of Kazookistan, dazzled her with verse:
Ringo didn’t conquer Brenda, but he did seduce many comics readers who were grateful to discover Rumi and Hafiz.
Newspaper columns, comic strips, and poems may not seem like related literary forms, but they’re less different than they look. In their own ways, each of them seeks the same thing: to make meaning in a space whose power lies in always being just a little too short.