The Poetry of Everyday Life
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off the Shelf, from the Poetry Foundation. I'm Curtis Fox. This week the poetry of everyday life. Steve Zeitlin is a folklorist, an urban folklorist. He's the founding director of City Lore, an organization in New York City that celebrates cultural traditions that are often overlooked. When we think of poetry for example, we often think of words on a page or in magazines or in books, but Steve Zeitlin finds poetry in all sorts of unexpected places: in the private language friends and families invent, in the spontaneous eruptions of language following public and personal tragedies, in science, in jokes, and play. He's written a book about it called, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness. It's part memoir, part essay, and part self-help book. Steve Zeitlin, thanks for coming on.
Steve Zeitlin: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Curtis Fox: I wanted to get started by asking you to read a "poem", and I say that in quotes by Moishe Sacks, a retired baker who lived in the south Bronx. So who is Moishe Sacks?
Steve Zeitlin: Moishe Sacks was the unofficial rabbi for the last Jewish synagogue in the south Bronx on Intervale Avenue and-
Curtis Fox: Unofficial?
Steve Zeitlin: Unofficial, because he was actually not a rabbi, he was a baker. (LAUGHING) So every week he would try to get together a minion in the south Bronx when there were very few Jews there. You had to get 10 people together to have this service so when he could only get nine, he would say, "You know, let God come down and see we have nine and we'll count Him in." (LAUGHING) He was just one of the great philosophical characters that I was just sort of honored to meet in my work as a folklorist.
Curtis Fox: And he said something to you, you must have been recording him and then it so struck you that you decided to put it into line breaks on paper.
Steve Zeitlin: That's right.
Curtis Fox: And would you read that for us?
Steve Zeitlin: Sure. So he was a baker.
Curtis Fox: Yeah.
Steve Zeitlin: And he explained the joys of being a baker to me this way:
I love to braid a challah.
I love to bake a cake.
When I first learned, my hands flew into the process…
I ha a weekly schedule:
Monday, I made a cake called apple ness,
Thursday this or that,
But at the end of Sunday evening, I was happy,
Because by Monday
It went back to apple ness.
(LAUGHING) And so that was his definition. And he said, "And so I was happy." And that's what happiness was when it went back to appleness on Monday. And I was thinking, "God, is happiness just that simple?" (LAUGHING)
Curtis Fox: For Moishe, apparently it was. But that's just wonderful. And so did it strike you in the moment or did it strike you going back over it on tape and think, "Wow, that's poetic."
Steve Zeitlin: Sometimes when you meet somebody who's truly poetic, it seems like almost everything they say is extraordinarily poetic.
Curtis Fox: Yeah.
Steve Zeitlin: And he was just such a person.
Curtis Fox: Yeah.
Steve Zeitlin: He was worried that he hadn't been mugged in a few years because it meant that people didn't even think he would have money if you lived in the south Bronx. And then one day he was pushed down a few step and he's about 75 years old and he went to the doctor and the doctor said, "Well, he has a hairline fracture on his skull. It's going to take 10 years for that to fully heal." So he said, "Steve, I'm trying to live until my head heals." And I just thought, "You know, what an incredible way to look at things."
Curtis Fox: There's another one, another poem I'd like to ask you to read. It's quite different. It's by Fred Bloodgood. Can you tell us about Fred before we hear that poem?
Steve Zeitlin: Well Fred ... Way, way, back I was working for the Smithsonian and we were interested in old medicine shows because some of the people who traveled with them were still alive.
Curtis Fox: And explain what a medicine show is.
Steve Zeitlin: A medicine show is a show that traveled around after the Civil War up until
about World War 2 where the doc, the so-called doc, was not really a doctor, would sell his medicines by hawking snake oil kind of thing from the stage. And from that sale they would have enough money to pay for all the entertainment. And it's also considered one of the beginnings of advertising in the United States, was those medicine shows and that's what television is. You get free entertainment if you watch the ads, and that's what medicine shows were. And we put an ad in a periodical called "The Amusement Business" and heard from Fred who, between 1920 and 1929, had traveled with both a geek show where a person would bite off the head of a chicken, in the winter and in the summer ,with medicine shows. And Fred's-
Curtis Fox: TV hasn't gotten any better by the way. (LAUGHING) Go ahead.
Steve Zeitlin: Fred was a incredibly poetic character and he kind of loved poetry. He was always quoting it. And his geek show pitch to me is just a marvelous example of a poetry that grew up, not the way poets write because poets are usually trying to understate things, whereas people who sell things are usually trying to overstate things.
Curtis Fox: Right, right. He's taken the opposite side. I'm wondering if you can read in your best pitchman's voice Fred Bloodgood's poem. It's on page 24.
Steve Zeitlin: Yeah, because of course you know ... Thanks for asking me to read this thing. (LAUGHING) Beause when I read it I hear him saying it.
Curtis Fox: Yeah, yeah. Well do your best.
Steve Zeitlin: Okay. So standing on a raised platform in front of the geek show tent, this is Fred Bloodgood.
When Ithrow that live chicken you see me now holding
Down deep into that steel-bound cage,
You’re going to see a most amazing change come over the old woman.
The eyes will dilate, the pupils glow just like two red-hot coals of fire.
You’ll hear her emit just one long soul-searing scream,
And then she’ll leap clear across that steel bound arena
Catch that bird between those massive jaws,
Bite off the head with those long and husky teeth.
And then, ladies and gentlemen,
You’ll see her suck, drain and draw
Every drop of blood from that bleeding, throbbing, quivering, pulsating body
With the very same relish as you or I
Would suck the juice of an orange.
It’s one of the most disgusting,
One of the most repulsive,
Yet I’ll say one of the most interesting sights
you’ve seen in all your life.
(LAUGHING) Now if you wouldn't pay a quarter and see this.
Curtis Fox: I would pay a quarter, yes. I would pay a quarter. My god. I would just give that guy a quarter for that. That's amazing.
Steve Zeitlin: One of his sayings was, "Never use one word when four will suffice."
Curtis Fox: Yes, he said, "The bleeding, throbbing, quivering, pulsating body.” He’s just piling up the synonyms right there. I love that.
Steve Zeitlin: Or Tilly Tashman, that teasing, tantalizing, tormenting, tempestuous, tall, tan torso twister from Texas.
Curtis Fox: Oh my goodness. That must have been the freak show or the-
Steve Zeitlin: Yeah, he also had some for the fat lady pitches and all the other terribly inappropriate things that have since fallen by the wayside.
Curtis Fox: So un-pc.
Steve Zeitlin: But you can still hear some of those kinds of pitches at Coney Island, USA in Sideshows by the Sea to this day.
Curtis Fox: And on TV-
Steve Zeitlin: Yeah.
Curtis Fox: In the intonations and the kind of...
Steve Zeitlin: And in late night television commercials as a matter of fact.
Curtis Fox: Yeah. So what we've heard so far, listeners might think that your book is made up found poetry, but that's not quite the case is it? How would you describe the purpose and intent of your book and all that it covers? It's huge. Your book covers ... It's not just poems like this. It makes up actually a small part of the book. What are you doing in this book?
Steve Zeitlin: I'm trying to, like all of us, figure out the meaning of life, okay? I've always felt from childhood that the meaning of life is tied into the artistic expression that we create in our everyday lives. And to me, that's where everything begins and ends. It's in humor, it's in the way we speak to each other. One of the ideas that I've always been fascinated with is the idea that as we fall in love with somebody or as we get close to somebody, our talk becomes more poetic because we have more associations with that person and we can use a little phrase or line-
Curtis Fox: It's shorthand.
Steve Zeitlin: A shorthand. And that shorthand is a form of artistry. As one person said, "I refine my communication with my sister into a work of art." And I feel that's the case and I've tried to explore it in a whole bunch of different ways in which that happens in Everyday Life.
Curtis Fox: It's a creative use of language to interpret the world. That's what you're exploring in many ways.
Steve Zeitlin: That's right. And it comes into poetry especially as poets see it, not only in the idea of who writes poetry but how we use poetry. People often think, "Well, poetry is really not important in this day and age", but just wait until somebody is born or somebody gets married or somebody dies and suddenly the poetry is there.
Curtis Fox: Yeah.
Steve Zeitlin: And it's how we use that poetry that's part of the artistry. We use it to express ourselves even if we didn't write that poem and it was written by William Butler Yeats or Tennyson, it's in how we use it and that's part of our own art as well.
Curtis Fox: Why do you suppose that is? In those intense moments in life, at weddings, at funerals, and when there's great national tragedies, there's this explosion of interest in poetry. So what is the impulse in us, in all of us, to respond in poetry to those big events in life?
Steve Zeitlin: So when the big events happen, things are joined and things are separated. And poetry and metaphor are part of the ways that we join things and keep things together and what poetry is really all about, compared to a story for instance. A story unfolds over time in a kind of linear way, but a poem is connected through patterns, patterns of rhyme, patterns of sound, and it's those patterns that give meaning to things. And I think it's in that pattern that we join and separate things and that's why you see it at birth and at death. I did hear a really interesting thing that kinda ties what I'm saying to what's happened in the election. At the meetings of the American Folklore Society I ran into Wolfgang Meter who's a professor of German and folklore at the University of Vermont and the world's greatest expert on proverbs, and he pointed out that neither Hillary nor Donald ever used proverbs and metaphors. And I got to thinking, "Well, what Donald Trump is about is power relations, not metaphorical relations." And that sort of explains why he's eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, or trying to. There's no sense of that importance and the way we find meaning, not in power relations but in ways things are similar and different and we use metaphors and similes to find commonalities and differences and deeper understandings and patterns in life that are different from just power relations.
Curtis Fox: That's a really interesting political observation that I haven't heard and I'm thinking about. And Hillary in fact, didn't come across as a very poetic candidate. (LAUGHING)
Steve Zeitlin: Yeah, he pointed out that about her too. Yeah, she didn't.
Curtis Fox: Yeah.
Steve Zeitlin: He used an example: she didn't even ... When she asked, "Well we shouldn't do away with Obamacare, that would be a waste." She didn't think to say something like, "You know, you don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water", or some colorful way of saying that in a poetic way.
Curtis Fox: Yeah. Right. It's not in her nature to do that. Politically, it's interesting that since you've written the book, you took a great interest in the signs that were being generated by the marches, speaking in particular in the Women's March in Washington DC and here in New York and other places. And you started collecting some of the signs. Why did you do that?
Steve Zeitlin: Well, it was an outpouring of protests, but it was also an outpouring of creativity.
Curtis Fox: Yeah.
Steve Zeitlin: And many of the signs were just really brilliant.
Curtis Fox: Yeah, and funny.
Steve Zeitlin: And funny, really funny. And-
Curtis Fox: Obscene.
Steve Zeitlin: Obscene and ... One of my favorites was "We're the witches you forgot to burn." (LAUGHING) It is an outpouring of grassroots activity and it kind of shows. People are fighting back with art.
Curtis Fox: Yeah.
Steve Zeitlin: There was a sign up after September 11th, "The only cure for life is art." And that's what we tried to do during those marches is to fight back creatively and I feel like that's important because it's a way in which we also fight back without despairing.
Curtis Fox: Through art.
Steve Zeitlin: Through art. Yeah.
Curtis Fox: Because it allows you to make something. Making something is a way out of despair.
Steve Zeitlin: That's right, that's right.
Curtis Fox: And writing a poem, putting your thoughts on paper, writing something about yourself or your experience ... That's a way out.
Steve Zeitlin: Right.
Curtis Fox: And it's inherently a political act in some ways.
Steve Zeitlin: That's right, and I feel like it's what this country needs. A lot of the election was decided by places that were extremely depressed, towns in rural areas where it's been found that the opioid epidemics are worse. They were great strongholds for that idea that people are depressed and they're angry, but there's very little art there and that's in some ways, part of what the answer is, is to bring art into our lives and really to recognize art in our lives and take joy in it and try to see life ... Try to spin life in a slightly more positive direction. Spin the world in a more positive direction too.
Curtis Fox: Now Steve, you write poems as well and your book is sprinkled throughout with your poems, and I'm wondering if I can get you to read one called, "Narrow Passage”. It's the darkest poem of yours in the book, but it's the one that really impressed me.
Steve Zeitlin: Okay. Well, thank you for asking that. This poem ... I think that death of course, is an overwhelming issue in the lives of every person who is alive today or has been alive and I think somehow, looking at it and trying to create some art based on it is a way of dealing with it, is a way of thinking it through and is a way around death's thud.
Curtis Fox: Death's thud. That's well put, yeah.
Steve Zeitlin: And the poem goes like this, and it comes from a scene I actually experienced as a little boy at a snake farm where I saw a snake eating a mouse but hypnotizing the mouse first so that it just stood there and didn't run away until it was eaten by the snake. It's called, "Narrow Passage".
like a frog hypnotized by a snake
I approach death
haunted by the narrow passage
my body’s painful
squeeze into the
cold womb of
the rat hole of death
toward my un-birth
Curtis Fox: Yeah, that's a powerful last image. Taking the birth canal and turning it into a rat hole (LAUGHING). That is something else, yeah. So your book has this wonderful art to it of personal story and a lot of poems by various people, some which were intended to be poetry, some of which were kind of found poetry, but it's also about the intersection of literary poetry in the lives of ordinary people. And I'm wondering if you could tell us about your family and their poetry evening tradition in North Carolina when your larger extended family would convene on the beach.
Steve Zeitlin: So my wife's family is from South Carolina.
Curtis Fox: South Carolina, sorry.
Steve Zeitlin: And her mom would rent a house at the beach for one week every year where, we still do, where all the sisters and brothers and brothers-in-law, like myself and their dad and mom would congregate. And Amanda's dad was a forester and a great lover of poems, and we came up with this idea at the beach that we would have a poetry night. We did it once and everybody brought their favorite book of poems and we all read different poems that we liked, and Lucas, her dad says, "I think we should do this every night." (LAUGHING)
Curtis Fox: Every night.
Steve Zeitlin: But it morphed into becoming a weekly tradition down there in South Carolina. What I wrote about in the book is how everybody picks poems that somehow say something about them and say something about the family. For instance, Lucas always would read Shelly's poem, "The Cloud", and he would always end it by saying that he just couldn't get over how a poet could understand the hydrological cycle so well.
Curtis Fox: Was he a hydrologist himself?
Steve Zeitlin: He dealt a lot with rainfall and things like that because of being a forester.
Curtis Fox: Oh.
Steve Zeitlin: Lucas was an amazing man.
Curtis Fox: This is your father-in-law.
Steve Zeitlin: This is my father-in-law. And he lived to be 99 years old and he just died recently, subsequent to the book and when he was in the hospital for the last time, we took turns staying overnight with him and I decided even though I'm not one of the sisters, there was a night when sisters had all done it and so I decided to do it myself, and as I'm lying there in the middle of the night kind of doing some work on my computer on a cot that they set up in the hospital room, I hear him reciting, "I am dying, Egypt. Dying. Ebbs the crimson life tide fast and the dark plutonium shadows gather on the evening blast."
Curtis Fox: Wow.
Steve Zeitlin: And I couldn't believe he said that. It was coming out of nowhere and we did not know that he was actually aware that he was dying, but he just read that poem, then said to me, "I'm closing my eyes. I'm thinking of all the billions of people who have done this before me." I just thought that was a pretty incredible thing to say.
Curtis Fox: Very incredible thing to say and that must have deeply moved you.
Steve Zeitlin: Yeah, it did. And then I said to him, which is characteristic with his humor, "Well, at least you'll be remembered." And he said, "Yeah, that's true." He said, "It's not as good as heaven but it's a lot better than hell." (LAUGHING)
Curtis Fox: Sense of humor to the end.
Steve Zeitlin: Yeah, yeah.
Curtis Fox: Well, I have to say that that tradition of getting your family together and reading poems on occasion ... If that gained popularity throughout the United States, that would make the poets of America so happy. That would really bring so much meaning to so many poets. That would be the most delightful thing to have happened in literature in a long time.
Steve Zeitlin: Yeah, but it comes out of an older tradition. I mean, in the 19th century, poetry was extremely popular, recitations themselves were extremely popular.
Curtis Fox: Right.
Steve Zeitlin: I talk about that in the book and give some of the recitations that I've heard through the years as well. A lot of contemporary poets are read. Mary Oliver ... We always read some of Mary Oliver's poems and Billy Collin's poems and things like that. But it's also true that the favorites are poems that rhyme and have meter and really work as almost as a recited music.
Curtis Fox: Right.
Steve Zeitlin: But I do think it would be, to quote Lucas Dargan, my father-in-law, "Poets are people who truly understand the human condition." I think that's a very wise statement and that's our job in life, to try to understand the human condition and our place in it, and we're going to be able to do that through poetry and through music. We need a world that honors that and builds on that and understands that if we're going to try to create communities that actually find some meaning in their lives.
Curtis Fox: Steve Zeitlin is the author of The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness. It's published by Cornell University Press. Do let us know what you think of this program. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you like the podcast, please say something about it on social media. It helps get the word out. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For "Poetry Off the Shelf", I'm Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.
How we use poetry to find meaning and to bring disparate aspects of life together.