Poetry, happiness and memory emerged as the dominant themes at lunch on March 20th with Minnesota Poet Laureate Joyce Sutphen at the Humanities Center in St. Paul, part of the Lunch and Learn series. Sutphen’s talk was playfully labeled with alternative titles: “Got Poetry?,” Poetry in Your Pocket,” “Poetry Out Loud,” and “Poetry for Lunch.” In the end, these were really just chapters in a free-ranging discussion that touched on why it’s important to get poetry, to understand it and keep it close at hand, like a poem in your pocket, something you can remember and recite.
Sutphen pointed to a a phrase borrowed from John Adams, “You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.” The often quoted piece of parental wisdom, delivered in a letter from John Adams to his son in 1781, is an enduring truth that good poetry can connect you to humanity at moments of utter loneliness.
Poetry can lead to happiness, Sutphen said. It is the type of happiness that we pursue as it is mentioned in the United States Constitution and the type of happiness the Irish poet W.B. Yeats meant when he wrote, ”We are happy when for everything inside us there is a corresponding something outside us.”
Sutphen admitted to realizing rather late in life that happiness can be found in memorizing and sharing poetry. Reciting poetry used to be common in school and then went out of fashion. She is now inspired by the resurgence of poetry recitation with events like Poetry Out Loud, a national contest. She described her wonder and awe at witnessing Yemi Ajagbe of Woodbury High School nail Hymn to God the Father by John Donne
Memorizing is a way to make a poem your own, explained Sutphen. It’s a way to make it your possession that you can access any time you wish, without the requirement of a book or computer. Memorizing a poem can loosen your own next verse. She recited poetry she had memorized by British writer Edward Thomas and then read us her own Minnesota farm verse inspired by the image of the scythe in Thomas’s poem. She recited another poem by heart, Could Have by Wislawa Szymborska and the poem it inspired, My Luck, which describes surviving life’s random close calls, like a car spinning out on the ice of Highway 169.
The talk today stirred imagery for me too. My grandfather came to mind. A Midwestern farm boy who finished school in 1909 after completing eighth grade. His diploma states that he studied the familiar: reading, writing and arithmetic but also the unfamiliar: agriculture, constitutions of the United States and Wisconsin and orthoepy, the study of correct pronunciation.
Perhaps it was more for orthoepy than for happiness that students (especially those like my grandpa who spoke English as their second language) were asked to memorize poetry. However he never forgot the poems he memorized in grade school and it made him proud, if not happy, to be able to recite them years later to his grandchildren.
I feel happy to have made the acquaintence of our generous and eloquent state poet, happy that I ran into two friends Sushmita Hodges and Kathryn Anderson Campbell at lunch, happy to be reminded of my grandpa and inspired to pursue happiness by such a simple formula. I am paging through Sutphen’s Minnesota Book Award-winning book Naming the Stars and feel that I have found a poet to put in my pocket.
Here’s a poem by Joyce Sutphen titled Happiness, from a page of The Writer’s Almanac.
Lisa Steinmann contributed to the 2013 Saint Paul Almanac, has just began her second year as a Community Editor, and recently started serving on the Almanac board. A Saint Paul–based writer, teacher, and artist, Lisa’s work spans both sides of the Mississippi river and other divides as well.