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Voices Fall-Winter 2011:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Downstate column, “Poetry on the Porch” by Steve Zeitlin.
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Volume 37

Poetry on the Porch by Steve Zeitlin

Downstate My family and I love August in New York. Parking is easy, and we even get a seat on the subways. But the first week of August every summer, we, too, flee the sirens and horns, abandoning the cacophonous clatter of City Lore’s First Street and First Avenue offices for a week at the beach in Garden City, South Carolina. My wife and fellow folklorist Amanda Dargan’s parents rent the house, and all of her sisters and our nieces and nephews pile in, spending afternoons and evenings on the screened-in porch overlooking the sand dunes, the beach, and sea.

Among our traditions is an evening spent reading poems on the porch, a tradition Lucas Dargan, Amanda’s dad, eagerly anticipates, with his at-the-ready 101 Favorite Poems, published in 1929. But we all bring a few poems down to the beach to read, and Aidan Powers, now 10 years old, comes equipped with a full set of Shel Silverstein’s ingenious poems from books like Falling Up. (One of the Silverstein lines delivered on poetry night has even become a kind of family expression: “We can be friends forever,” I joke with Aidan. “There’s really nothing to it. I tell you what to do, and you do it!”)

Masterpieces and ditties are read side by side. Poems from the English Romantics like Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, and Byron are read side by side with cowboy poetry and nonsense verses. One family story reminded Lucas of an old limerick that he mostly recalled: “A wonderful bird is the pelican / His bill holds more than his belly can….” Then Lucas forgot a line, which we were able to recapture thanks to the internet, available even at the beach in recent years. “Ah, that’s it! ‘He can take in his beak / Food enough for a week / But I’m damned if I see how the helican.’”

But the poems that waft onto the sea air that evening carry with them not only the finely wrought words of their creators, but the family stories and personalities and ethos of the family gathering. Each year, for instance, Amanda’s sister Sarah reads “The Minuet” by Mary Mapes Dodge in honor of her mother: “Grandma told me all about it / Told me so I couldn’t doubt it / How she danced / my Grandma danced / Long ago.” She reads that poem every year, because it reminds us all of a story that Frances, now 94, loves to tell of how she once jumped up on a table at the Junior Senior ball and danced to Cab Calloway’s 1931 hit “Minnie the Moocher.”

We could have guessed what poem would come next. Lucas, a forester and environmentalist, never misses a chance to read Shelley’s “The Cloud”: “I am the daughter of Earth and Water, / And the nursling of the Sky; I pass through the pores, of the ocean and shores; / I change, but I cannot die. . .” Then he adds each year, “I just think it’s amazing that a poet could capture the hydrologic cycle so well.”

Then my nephew Patton Adams, who lived and worked in Beijing and speaks Chinese, recites a poem by Li Po, “Quiet Night Thoughts,” among the most quoted poems of the Tang dynasty.

Quiet Night Thoughts by Li Po
Before my bed
there is bright moonlight
So that it seems
Like frost on the ground:

Lifting my head
I watch the bright moon,
Lowering my head
I dream that I’m home.

“I thought it would be appropriate for poetry night at the beach,” Patton later explained in an e-mail, “because the moon was shining on the water; because of the extreme contrast between a frosty tundra and Garden City in August; and because being at the beach in the summer with my grandparents is one of my models for ‘home.’”

In The Second Life of Art, Italian poet Eugenio Montale writes about how the journey of art is an “obscure pilgrimage through the conscience and memory of men…” He suggests that music, painting, and poetry exercise their powers outside the moment of creation, when they free themselves from “that particular situation of life which made them possible.” It is in precisely those moments when the poem is appreciated in situations, and for reasons the poet could not even have imagined, that the “circle of understanding” closes and “art become[s] one with life….”

The poems on the porch were composed at different points in human history, but as part of their “obscure pilgrimage,” they sojourned for a few moments on a porch in Garden City. Here they became part of the way family members share what they love with one another, and, in the process, share something of themselves (since, in some sense, you are what you love).

The evening wouldn’t be complete without my daughter Eliza reciting John Masefield’s “Sea Fever” from memory: “And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover, / And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.”

“Oh my God—look at that beautiful sky,” Amanda says. We look up to see the moon casting its reflection on the water. Then Amanda’s sister tells us that supper is on the table, and the poetry is put to bed.


Photo of Steve Zeitlin
Photo: Martha Cooper
Steve Zeitlin is founding director of City Lore. Thanks to Amanda Dargan for her help with this essay.

But the poems that waft onto the sea air that evening carry with them not only the finely wrought words of their creators, but the family stories and personalities and ethos of the family gathering.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 37, Fall-Winter 2011. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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