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Huck Gutman, whom you will know in various roles – professor of English at the University of Vermont, friend, correspondent, former teacher – is currently living mostly in Washington, DC (and partly in Burlington, VT) and working as Chief of Staff for U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.  He is on leave from the University of Vermont.  [If by chance you don't know him, and received this email, just respond with 'opt out' in the subject line.]

 

 

In the past two weeks I have sent four people poems, with a modest commentary to situate them. To a new acquaintance I met at the State of the Union speech, I sent two poems by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney.  To a Washington friend who works in the administration, a poem by Wallace Stevens and another by A. R. Ammons.  To a UVM friend, an excerpt from a long narrow poem (narrow because it was originally written on a roll of adding machine paper) by Ammons, whom I have been reading these days.  Just a few days ago I sent some poems by Melville to a someone in my neighborhood whom I met on the street at a yard sale,

 

Though nowadays I live in a world of legislation and politics, there seems to stop to the poems which suffuse my life: they seem to seep into my consciousness at all sorts of moments, and sometimes I seem to have a need to tell people about them.

 

I realize time and again that I very much miss teaching poetry.  In fact I tell people in Washington all the time that teaching is on some very deep level more fulfilling than working in the Senate.  I think 95 percent of the folks on Capitol Hill I say that to do not believe me, do not believe that I am serious. 

 

But a year ago I was so down about being unconnected to teaching that I volunteered to teach, and in fact did teach, an introduction to poetry course – generously sponsored by the University of Vermont, which provided academic credits to the students without even a dollar of tuition changing hands – at Bell Multi-Cultural High School here in Washington.  My students were wonderful, I loved teaching the class – but I was doing what amounted to a third of a full-time teaching load piggy-backed on to an excessively full time job on Capitol Hill.  It proved sustainable only as a one-time experience.

 

The early twentieth-century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of himself, in the concluding lines to his “Self-Portrait” which I feel like stretching to fit my own situation, that his imperfect face still looked, “as though, from far off, with scattered things,/ a serious true work were being planned.” 

 

No, I am not planning on writing a great body of poetic work, as Rilke did. 

 

But a number of times I have thought that with all that goes on here, swirling around and through my everyday life – legislation being written, political battles and temporary alliances engaged and resolved, cabinet members visiting our office, political strategies successful and un-, new national programs launched at times through the efforts of Bernie and our staff  -- it would make sense to write (or at least take good notes) about life in Washington.  (One of the finest historians at UVM, a retired expert on Russian history, told me to keep a journal every day.)

 

Fat chance.  Though that makes good sense, writing about Washington’s inner workings is somehow not intriguing enough to me to draw me in.

 

Instead, what I think about is poems. 

 

I read them, fitfully to be sure, on the Metro and the busses.  I mention them to my friends, and sometimes photocopy them for, or send them by email to, those whom I think will be interested. 

 

On occasion I used to read a poem to my staff colleagues on the Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, some 20-30 people.  I'd bring them a copy of a poem by Whitman or Williams or Dickinson, hand it out, and read it.  Whew.  I think they were, not always positively, astonished.  (Whitman, in 'Song of Myself': “Do you take it I would astonish?/ Does the daylight astonish? does the early redstart twittering through the woods?/ Do I astonish more than they?”  Oh, that Whitman: he nails it almost every time!)

 

You may now have an inkling of where this is heading.  I have decided that I will send a poem, along with a brief accompanying commentary, each week to a list of people I know, people in Washington (on the Hill, in the administration, folks I have met. friends) and people in Vermont (at the University of Vermont, in local politics, neighbors, folks, friends) and people elsewhere (friends and relations).  And to, insofar as I can locate their addresses, former students.

 

The first weekly mailing will follow in a few days.  I am presuming, by sending this to a long list, upon your epistolary generosity.  I don't mean to fill your mailbox with spam or 'just delete' content.  I've compiled what will from this point forward work as an opt-out list.  If you don't want to get a poem each week, just send this message back with 'opt out' in the subject line. 

 

Why should we read poems?  Not because they are good medicine (though I  suppose they are).  (That Whitman!  He does itch at one's brain.  “I shall be good health to you nonetheless,/ and filter and fiber your blood,” he wrote in ‘Song of Myself.’)

 

Surely not because if we read them we can claim to be in some way smart or special.

 

Not because poems are 'culture,' since culture is – always – around us, in one form or another.

 

Whitman, as so often, got the answer to why we should read poems exactly right.    He wrote two lines which, to my mind, are the zodiacal 'sign' under which lyric poetry is written.  He bravely blurts out, in ‘Song of Myself’ immediately after the lines I quoted above about how he should not be seen as any more “astonishing” than sunlight or a bird or any other natural phenomenon, “This hour I tell things in confidence,/ I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.” 

 

“This hour I tell things in confidence,/ I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.”  To which, across a century, William Carlos Williams responded, affirmatively, about our deep need for those things that poets tell us, in confidence:

 

  Look at

                    what passes for the new.

You will not find it there but in

          despised poems.

                    It is difficult

to get the news from poems

          yet men die miserably every day

                    for lack

of what is found there.

 

Enough already.  The first email about a poem will follow in the next couple of days.  Remember, if you don't want to receive these emails, you can stop them by replying with “opt out” in the subject line.  (If you like what you read, I guess you forward the email to a friend and tell her or him to put 'opt in” in the subject line and send that msg to me.  I'll add them to my list.)

 

Best wishes,

Huck