The other night I scored a triple crown of poets. All three Missouri poets laureate, past and present, were doing a reading at a local university. Walter Bargen is our first poet laureate, a quiet man known for nature poems. I, however, am in love with his Endearing Ruins (sadly, available only in Germany or directly from Mr. Bargen). This book of poems, in both English and German, features recollections of being a child in Germany, where he played in the aftermath of WWII. It includes poem moments in America, where a classmate discovered for him that his mother spoke with an accent, where he got caught in a tornado that tossed his glasses, wallet, Bible down the streets so “I guess you could say / I was a man about town.” Some of these poems are also in Days Like This Are Necessary.
“On weekends I’d see through the rain-flecked
back window, fields of bomb craters turned
upside down in streaming lenses of rain.
Still the craters filled with water,
working themselves into weed-choked
ponds where frogs exploded into a new season.”
– “Lost Ordnance” from Endearing Ruins
David Clewell was the second poet laureate. He is a brash, big man with white Santa whiskers who brought poem toys that made us laugh and think about tofu. He writes long poems with long titles, many are philosophical or autobiographical (or both) essay poems—no good poem rhymes these days, too restrictive, too contrived. His poems “will tell you it’s not what you think.”
“Riding high in the grocery store cart,
Sometimes Ben would get this far-off look for a minute.
And then he’d be on his way again, unmistakeably grinning
back into the thick of his otherwise nonstop talking.
And once, I heard it, too, or thought I did: my mother’s voice…”
– “The Only Time There Is (for my mother)” from Taken Somehow by Surprise
William Trowbridge, our current poet laureate, is a casual, pleasant man with shocking blue eyes–shocking like his poems. He wrote a series of mostly biting, philosophical poems about “The Fool,” which is many men, perhaps all men and maybe some women. But he made us smile at his young boy self daydreaming in right field—poet’s corner. He recalled the satisfaction of shooting off cherry bombs, “so quick, so blunt, so right to boys / who dreamed of fuse and detonation.” He also wrote:
“…when I donned the Nazi pilot’s gloves
my father shipped from Cologne with the picture
of himself sitting proud in his new mustache
my mother said made him look like Stalin,
gloves with the smell of war…”
– “Home Front” from Enter Dark Stranger
These are serious poets. No dropping pretty words just to hear them sparkle, no mere crying for love lost. Their work speaks of sharp wit and slow, pensive musing, of metaphors that take your breath away. I don’t know why poetry books are a hard sell when reading them can put new words and ideas, new ways of thinking into any writer of fiction or memoir. Poetry is a frame of mind. Poetry expands the mind.