Columnist Jim Cahillane: Celebrating a love for poetry 

Published: 4/25/2017 8:55:25 PM

Poetry occupies a special niche in my life, as it may in yours. When reading the biography of a famous writer I frequently find that they were taught poetry at home or school and then required to memorize and recite it. I view that as a large gap in my education, and see it as an advantage in many great lives.

My father praised politicians who were “good on their feet,” by which he meant speaking without notes. The best speakers are always those who succinctly make their points. I admire our new congressman, James McGovern. When he talks, you listen because he is factual and direct.

The most interesting people are those who sprinkle quotes or lines of poetry in support of and enriching their topic. JFK was famous for his facility in delivering punchy speeches invoking history and humor. Barack Obama first won me over with words and conviction in his talks. Those two examples alone make me dislike President Donald Trump for his inability to find words beyond “very, very” for emphasis. A Trump University graduate could do better.

In 1947 my grandfather, Stephen, was an Irish farmer who immigrated to America. A widower, and father of 10, he moved into our family home with mom, dad and their six kids. At 67, he became “Old Gramps” long before we grew to learn what old is. Gramps arrived with little luggage beyond his hand organ and a wealth of Irish folk songs. At first we teenage boys took little notice of him. We were busy with school, chores and sports. But in time, Old Gramps had a big impact in our appreciation of a shared Irish heritage.

At family parties he would sing songs steeped in poetry from the old country. “Sitting on the Bridge Below the Town” was both the title and sing-along last line. Multiple verses reprised village life. “Talking politics and horses and the weather and the crops,” then everyone: “Sitting on the bridge below the town.” Gramps would go on for an hour or more, verse after verse, and all from memory.

I barely listened to songs amid the craic (joyful buzz of the party) until I heard a lyric that provoked me to write over 100 newspaper columns and a half dozen books. I owe them all to the lilt found in “The Donovans.”

The wish of my heart is,

If ever I had anyone

That every luck that lightens life

May light upon the Donovans.

I looked it up on YouTube and found a wonderful movie clip of Bing Crosby singing its lyrics, which he claims to have written. However I don’t think that “Old Gramps” was waiting around in Ireland for a Hollywood tune. It may have been appropriation.

I once sold the poet Donald Junkins a car. It was in the 1960s when we sold a lot of Ramblers to the college crowd. Professor Junkins was young and engaging, we talked of many things, and at some point he gave me a copy of his new book, “And Sandpipers She Said.” I was suitably impressed as I did not buy or read poetry at the time. I had written a few for family events but never seriously.

Twenty years passed. I went to finally finish my degree at the University Without Walls program for working students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. On campus one day, I sat in on Donald Junkins’ class, and he brought poetry to life in a way that I had never experienced. I was hooked and have been a fan of poetry ever since.

Ten years onward I was blessed to find myself in the English Department hoping to join a workshop with the poet Agha Shahid Ali. He welcomed me even though I was not a master of fine arts student. Our class became his colleagues for that term. We also shared an Asian meal that he cooked, and went to his bookshop readings.

Shahid’s workshop required a new poem each week. We read them aloud to be critiqued by fellow students and Shahid. Any pretensions we had disappeared when Shahid read our offerings out loud, bottom to top, making them sound better than our own top-down reading. All that semester I took note of his lively bon mots and turned them in as my final poem: I boldly regurgitated Shahid’s favorite line about revising, “Murder your darlings,” and, at the last, “Hard-edged description and nothing more.”

That’s poetry!

Shahid died far too young, but his writings and his students live on. He loved teaching and identified with Emily Dickinson whose poetic mention of his Muslim country, Kashmir, mystically drew him to Amherst. Serendipity: In September 2001 at St. Mary’s, Covent Garden, the English poet Simon Armitage read a poem by Agha Shahid Ali. Later, Simon told me that Shahid was seriously ill. That December I was among the mourners at Shahid’s burial in Bridge Street Cemetery.

Of poetry: “It must break your heart.”

Jim Cahillane has his poems published in the Florence Poet Society’s publication, Silkworm, and the Naugatuck River Review. He lives in Williamsburg and writes a monthly column.

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