David Bruce: Anecdotes About Poetry

As you may expect, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, winner of the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature, loved nature. As a boy, he and other boys engaged in fights in which they pelted each other with acorns. Sometimes, he would closely examine the color and shape of an acorn — an examination that was interrupted when the other boys pelted him with large numbers of acorns. People loved him and his poetry, which has been translated into many different languages. When Mr. Neruda was in political exile from Chili in 1949, he went to Europe and artist Pablo Picasso helped him get permission to stay in France. Mr. Neruda said, “He spoke to the authorities; he called up a good many people. I don’t know how many marvelous paintings he failed to paint on account of me.” On 11 April 1957, he was arrested in Argentina because of his Communist leanings and put in jail for one and a half days. When he was released, one of his jailors gave him a gift. Mr. Neruda said, “I was about to leave the prison when one of the uniformed guards came up to me and put a sheet of paper in my hands. It was a poem he had dedicated to me. … I imagine few poets have received a poetic homage from the men assigned to guard them.” Also, he was delighted in May 1967, when he attended the Congress of Soviet Writers in Moscow and a floor-polisher saw him and recited from memory one of Mr. Neruda’s poems. Of course, Mr. Neruda loved books and was influenced by such poets as Walt Whitman. As a recognized poet, he kept a photo of the bearded American poet on his desk at Isla Negra (Dark Island). A workman once looked at the photo and asked Mr. Neruda if the photo were of his grandfather. Mr. Neruda replied, “Yes.”

At age 23 Langston Hughes was both an undiscovered poet and an employed busboy. He worked in the restaurant of the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., and he knew that famous poet Vachel Lindsay would be reading his poetry at the hotel. As an African-American in those Jim Crow days, Mr. Hughes knew that he could not attend the whites-only poetry reading, but he hoped to see Mr. Lindsay. When Mr. Lindsay and his wife sat down in the hotel restaurant to eat, Mr. Hughes approached their table and left three poems there. He wrote later, “Quickly, I laid them beside his plate and went away, afraid to say anything to so famous a poet, except to tell him I liked his poems and that these were poems of mine.” Mr. Lindsay liked the poems, and at his poetry reading he announced that he had discovered a new and promising young poet, and he read all three of Mr. Hughes’ poems. The next morning, Mr. Hughes was interviewed and photographed by newspaper employees. Mr. Lindsay also gave the young poet a gift: a set of books by Amy Lowell, along with the recommendation to study her poems. Later, Mr. Hughes wrote about Mr. Lindsay, “He was a great, kind man. And he is one of the people I remember with pleasure and gratitude out of my bewildered days in Washington.”

After Norman Rockwell’s first wife, Mary, died in 1959, friends waited a suitable interval, and then they encouraged Norman to get out into the world. Norman was interested in poetry, so he took a class in poetry that was taught by Molly Punderson. In class, Norman was an original. The class studied some poetry by Robert Frost, who was then still alive, and when Norman was puzzled by some lines in one of Mr. Frost’s poems, he thought that instead of the class discussing the lines and trying to discover their meaning, that someone should telephone Mr. Frost and ask him what the lines meant. Molly must have enjoyed her unusual student: In 1961, Norman and Molly were married.

According to Patti Smith, Beat poet “Gregory Corso could enter a room and commit instant mayhem, but he was easy to forgive because he had the equal potential to commit great beauty.” Mr. Corso gave Ms. Smith some wisdom when she complained about never being able to finish a poem: “Poets don’t finish poems — they abandon them. Don’t worry. You’ll do OK, kid.” And he made his opinion known whenever he attended the readings of poets. When a poet recited something boring in a boring way, Mr. Corso would shout, “Sh*t! Sh*t! No blood! Get a transfusion!” And Ms. Smith made up her mind to not be boring when she recited poetry.

Dorothy Day was a friend of poet W.H. Auden. Once, she participated in a protest and was arrested and put in the women’s prison. Each Saturday, the women prisoners were allowed to take a shower. One Saturday, one of the prisoners — a prostitute — recited these lines by Mr. Auden that had recently appeared in “The New Yorker”: “Hundreds have lived without love, / But none without water.” Mr. Auden said, “When I heard this, I knew I hadn’t written in vain!”

When he was a kid, author Stanley Kunitz sometimes climbed a cliff with a sheer granite face, testing himself by seeing how high he could go. Once, he got almost to the top but could go no higher. He also found out that he was too scared to climb back down. After several hours, fire fighters and police officers rescued him with a ladder. Mr. Kunitz says, “I must say my mother didn’t appreciate that I was inventing a metaphor for poetry.”

© 2015, David Bruce, All Rights Reserved

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