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Monday, October 6, 2008

NC Poetry Society Poet Laureate Award--John York: Springboard # 2

I've been asked to judge many contests over the past few years, but at no time have I been as excited about an entry as about the poem titled "Naming the Constellations," which was among the group sent to me from the NC Poetry Society's Poet Laureate Award finalists. " Who is this poet?" I asked the contest co-ordinator. I didn't find out till weeks later that it was John York, an old friend and one of my favorite poets. Of course, all the entries were submitted anonymously. I had no idea who the author of this poem was. All the more reason to be thrilled when I found out! This poem was published in the NCPS anthology PINESONG this summer. I'm honored to be able to feature it here. John is an English teacher at Penn-Griffin School for the Arts in Greensboro.

Because I am always looking for ways to engage readers and writers, I'd like to suggest some "springboards" from this fabulous poem. For starters---what about naming the constellations? How many of us know them anymore? Go find out about them and stand out at night looking for them, if the light pollution doesn't foil your efforts. Write a poem from what your see or don't see, or a poem springing from the names themselves--and their stories.

Find a line you love from this poem and begin with it; or use it as an epigraph for your own poem. I may do this myself. I find this poem haunting, totally memorable. Let it play in your imagination and see what happens. Then send me your responses through the "comments" link.

(John York)

Naming the Constellations


Trace a line from the front
of the Big Dipper’s cup, over to Polaris,
the penny nail on which the Little Dipper swings.
The rest of the sky, even the visible
galaxies fleeing the big bang,
seem to turn on that near nothing of a star.

Then look for Bootes rising
among catalpa blossoms, Aquila hovering
above summer haze, Orion climbing
through unleafing trees, or the Gemini
watching over hoar-frosted mountaintops.
Even if we never venture over desert places

or through winter woods at night,
we need to learn the old names,
Ursa Major, the Great Wain, the Drinking Gourd:
a way to walk in our ancestors’ boots.
We watch the stars as we watch our steps,
looking to take the long way home.


When my grandmother read the paper,
there in the back yard, where she watched
the squirrels playing around the eaves
of the barn’s tin roof, she sat on a white chair,
until she eased forward to the crackling
sigh of relieved cane bottom.

It’s a low chair, made for a shorter generation;
either that or the tapering legs rested
once on rockers that wore out.
Little Roy Burgess wove a new seat,
a simple pattern that’s held for decades.
I fended off Uncle Gilbert at the auction

and claimed my inheritance: and sometimes
I ride the chair around the galaxy while I play
my guitar, the jigs and ballads
Great-grandfather fiddled, tonic, dominant,
sub-dominant chords, then back
to the keynote, opening a door to a cornfield at dusk.

And sometimes, walking out on a December night,
I find the Celestial Chair--Orion's rectangle--
his belt, a tin pan spilling,
his sword, corn dropped for the chickens,
Canis Major making a flock of white beaks,
the hens rushing to flashing seed, while Grandma
sits invisible, a dust cloud gathering into a star.


Walking down to the bike path, I see
Orion tilting, stretching over
the street from one group of trees to another,
and on the horizon, a white steeple,
shining in front of a trio of skyscrapers—
a Gothic tower, a space ship, a box—

so bright, I can’t find the Pleiades
or the Pole Star. The astronomers know
that the constellations are changing,
the patterns bending, the stars light years apart,
so that Orion may become “the Manacle,”
“the Butterfly,” or something nameless—

all stories lost: our fictions have lasted
for centuries, the narrative lines forming a map,
there for everyone to accept, revise, or reject,
but now we work at obliterating
the sky, smog, ozone, blather and baloney
our children’s final inheritance.

Walking home, I see a row of lights, a constellation
along a hilltop, but so much of what I do
is by dead reckoning, feeling my way
in the dark, until I find a familiar door,
a chair, a book, a place to snudge like a Hobbit,
listening for a tea kettle, snow fall, sleigh bells.


What is hardest is walking with a naked
mind into the night, like some earliest
man or woman, leaving behind
the communal fire, the flickering screen,
to go to mountaintop or empty field
and forget our yammering selves.

When I was a country boy, before I read
about Orion, I saw his limbs and belt
and called it all “The Great Box Kite,”
and I held its string as I stood in the alfalfa stubble,
and a strong breeze kept it aloft
long after I went to bed—and it flies

in me still, when I shine like a clear
sky far from city lights,
when I remember the smell of cows
and a chill wind shimmering,
the tug of the string, the letting go,
the silence where everything is born.


Nancy said...

I am glad to hear good news for John. Since he was selected as Outstanding English Teacher for North Carolina a few years ago, I have been so glad to get to know him better. He has always been "preaching the gospel" of North Carolina poetry, so I am glad to see him recognized for his writing as well. Thanks for sharing.

Teresa McLamb Blackmon said...

Kay, thanks for sharing this poem with us. I will read it over and over! John York, from a retired English teacher and "struggling poet," I send congratulations!

Teresa McLamb Blackmon

Liz said...

York's reminiscence of constellations makes me feel as if I was so deprived as a child, having never learned astronomical data! The allusion to the transition of constellations works well in culmination with the transition of the structure of the poem. York's manipulation of speaking of the changing constellations while simultaneously speaking of societal change is incredibly effective. Saying "bologna" is "our children's final inheritance" is harsh, albeit true. This portion of the poem calls for purposeful change in society unlike the rather haphazard realignment of constellations. Ultimately, the poem is a reflection of old beliefs and new ideas and how they intertwine coming together to create a unique masterpiece.

Lisa Harris Sterling said...

John York's voice is so clear in this poem that as I read it I hear him! The night sky surely will look different this and every evening I take a moment to gaze upward thanks to John's evocative words. A bit of advice to those wanting a view of the night sky without the glow of a city: take a boat and head east. The sky from the sea of NC is bursting with stars. Congratulations on a poem well done!

artist said...

I think this poem is truly wonderful. The imagery just seemed to wake me up by helping me remember perceptions from my past. Growing up in the country and spending a large amount of time around nature, the poem stirred my emotions by giving importance to rural lifestyle. As a whole, I suppose I saw myself in John because many of his innocent, country-like experiences mirrored events that I’ve transpired in myself. This connection seems to help me appreciate the poem even more and find meaning in it that reflects the emotions I hold within.
Perhaps the most important image that imbued my perception was of John as a little boy looking up at the night sky and making Orion his own possession by giving it a self-created name. The pure innocence and the simplistic use of the imagination make the act so profound. The act shows what childhood is really all about: letting one’s imagination lead, by hand, down life’s path. However, change unfortunately comes and the creativity looses all its magic. I think this poem shows the concept perfectly, for it really made me realize that innocence and beauty can truly be altered by progression, whether it is in technological advancement, scientific discovery, or growing up. This is made so clear when it is stated that man-made attributes, such as smog and other pollution, destroy the sky, but natural occurrences, such as the movement of stars, can change things too.
So maybe that means we are like the constellations ourselves. We can be controlled by the creativity in our minds as children, composing ourselves into something we may not truly be (such as Orion being considered a kite or a little boy thinking he is a superhero), but as we grow up natural changes and man-made attributes take away what kindles our imagination and illuminates our shine. In a way, the constellations represent our future, for even they go through change.
In my life right now, I suppose I am at a place where I’ve never been before, where I’m not able to feel my way in the dark like John did in poem. I’m at the intersection of childhood and adulthood, lingering in the ambiguity, sorting out the perks and downfalls of both sides. I long for the profound, free wisdom of adulthood, but still cling to the beautiful whimsicalness of my beginnings. However, this poem makes the intersection more bearable. I really, truly admire how John grew up and obtained wisdom based on fact, but still finds the truth in what he believed as a child. This poem, especially the last six lines, makes it clear that you can at moments go back to your past and gather the magic of creativity. We will always change, but our past, like the constellations, will always be our beginnings and fill our memories, waiting with an open door.

Marcia Long said...

I am a high school English teacher and a fan or yours. I thoroughly enjoyed John's poem, especially the line "a way to walk in our ancestors’ boots." The woods here in NC inspire me like the constellations inspire John. I love to walk my dogs and just sit and stare at the sky and the towering pines and imagine how our ancestors walked among these same trees so many years ago.

The following is a simple, meager poem, written in praise of my "spot":

"NC Woods"

These woods embrace me with the warm, sweet smell of simmering pines, whose branches have an old, old story to tell.


Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Hello and thank you to all of you for your comments. Nancy, I appreciate your ongoing efforts to encourage reading, through your own blog, and for recognizing John for the huge resource he is in our state. Teresa, you too are one of our poetic resources, and I encourage those who haven't read your poems in my recent post of your work, to take a look.
Liz, you have nailed one of the brilliant aspects of this poem, the changing of constellations and society, how they "intertwine" in the way only poetry can achieve, without becoming preachy or dogmatic but through the beauty of language and imagery. I remember the Christmas I found under the tree a planetarium with which I could project through the holes in the globe the various constellations. I was never much good with remembering all the names; I mostly just loved watching the makeshift stars and patterns move across the wall or the ceiling, and of course at night, we had wonderful views of the sky, there being not much light pollution those days out on the farm. I loved standing outside looking up and up and up! Thank you so much for your response.
I'm going to save the rest of my responses for another comment section. K.

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Ok, I'm back. Having just returned home from two weeks in Hungary, I've lots of things to do in the kitchen and with laundry. I'm running back and forth between kitchen and laptop!
Lisa, what terrific advice about viewing the night sky; I'd love to take a boat and head east, too, into what night ought to be. You are right about how a good poem changes the way we see the world. It wakes us up to what is amazing about what hitherto has been "ordinary." This is what "artist" says in the long, eloquent response to John's poem. I think I may feature this response as a post, it says so many good things about how poetry and art in general makes us more alive as inhabitants of the world, both inner and outer.
Marcia, thank you for your response and what you call your "meager" poem. It isn't meager at all--I love the simmering pines, the smell of them, which reminds me of my childhood in sw Ga., playing our ongoing children's games out in the piney woods beside our house. These trees do have stories to tell, and I hope you will let them whisper in your ear as the wind passes through, and when the smell of them fills your nostrils. I'd love to see more from you about this, and I'd like to feature this "simple" poem in a post, if that's ok.It's very much like a haiku. Have you thought about playing with lineation?
Again, thank you all so much for this conversation. I've enjoyed it. K.

Malaika said...

Gorgeous. Thanks for posting this poem, Kay.