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When people are in crisis, whether it be war, pandemic, or natural disaster, we have always gravitated to the arts for solace and comfort. So it is today with the coronavirus pandemic. Tied more to the home as we are, we look first to the news and media for information, entertainment, and social contact. But the arts offer something more, something deeper, whether it be music, plays, a book, or poetry.

It is this last art form that I have recently explored. Poetry has always been appreciated in music, but sitting down with a book of poems is somewhat foreign to most of us. I decided to do exactly that a few weeks back. My plunge into poetry centered on three renowned Arkansas poets: John Gould Fletcher, Maya Angelou, and Miller Williams.

My first adventure was with Fletcher. I knew a lot about him because Charlotte and I had bought his home, Johnswood, from the estate of his widow, Charlie May Simon. Fletcher was a 20th century imagist poet as well as a social critic, historian, autobiographer, and Pulitzer Prize winner. His poems are always lyrical and alive and paint a vivid picture of his subject matter, whether it be a Christmas tree or a graveyard scene.

First, "The Christmas Tree":

After a long hard journey,

and mighty cities seen:

The pure sweet scent

of a southern long-leafed pine,

Dangling with chains

and balls of glass and toys,

Into my nostrils breathed, soft,

rich, and clean.

And then this image of his own burial:

On a hilltop

There were two men making

a hole in the ground:

And beside it, his own

dead body lay.

The thin man stroked his beard,

And wondered if the grave

was deep enough;

The fat man sweated and dug,

And longed for a glass of beer.

Meantime his body lay there,

In a shabby suit,

on a bed of wet leaves.

Maya Angelou was totally different. Her pulsating, rhythmic renditions of her themes--freedom, equality, songs of triumph, are captivating. Angelou was a poet, autobiographer, and Bill Clinton's primary speaker at his first inauguration.

The image of the caged bird is linked by Angelou to her autobiography (I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings) and to the following verse:

The caged bird sings with

A fearful trill of things unknown

But longed for still and his

Tune is heard on the distant hill

For the caged bird sings of freedom.

And then equality:

Hear the tempo so compelling

Hear the blood throb in my veins.

Yes, my drums are beating nightly,

And the rhythms never change.

Equality, and I will be free.

Equality, and I will be free.

Miller Williams' work is more conversational. He writes of everyday life with poems that have an off-beat cadence. He read his poem, "Of History and Hope" at Bill Clinton's second inauguration. "Compassion" is his brief ode to love, understanding, and forgiveness:

Have compassion for everyone

you meet

Even if they don't want it.

Whatever seems conceit,

Bad manners, or cynicism

is always a sign

Of things no ears have heard,

no eyes have seen.

You do not know what wars

are going on

Down there where the spirit

meets the bone.

But then, to put things in perspective, he compares sermonizing about Judgment Day to a seduction as part of an anniversary celebration:

I walk around them in silence,

those who say

That making ourselves ready

for judgment day

Is the one reason we're here ... .

But all these finer subtleties fell

to the floor

The night you opened the

window and closed the door

And smiled in a frozen curve

that burned to be kissed.

These three Arkansas poets are very different yet grounded in unique verse and rhythms that express universal thoughts and feelings. Reading poetry has been a decided benefit of the isolation associated with the virus. We are fortunate to have such a fine array of poets who can come to life in times like these.


Robert L. Brown is a retired member of the Arkansas Supreme Court. He and his wife, Charlotte, live in the house built by John Gould Fletcher and Charlie May Simon Fletcher, named Johnswood.

Editorial on 05/23/2020

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